When Jose Salvador Alvarenga, a 36-year-old fisherman from El Salvador, touched land for the first time after more than a year lost at sea, his hair was wild and matted, his ankles were swollen, his wrists were tiny, he could barely walk, and he constantly hid his face. He had, as he later put it, "suffered hunger, thirst, and an extreme loneliness," and yet he didn't take his life. "You only get one chance to live, so appreciate it." His younger and inexperienced crewmate Ezequiel Cordoba didn't last much past the first month, refusing to eat after getting sick from raw seabirds, reports the Guardian. Now journalist Jonathan Franklin has conducted more than 40 interviews to tell the survivor's story in the book 438 Days: An Extraordinary True Story of Survival at Sea.
When Cordoba died, Alvarenga teetered on the edge of sanity, conversing with the corpse for almost a week before he realized what he was doing. When he finally slipped the body overboard, after removing the useful clothing, he fainted. The loneliness was the hardest part, and with neither GPS nor radio nor even an anchor, the fisherman drifted from Costa Azul in southwestern Mexico 6,700 miles and 13 months to Tile Islet, a small island in the Ebon Atoll, which is on the southern tip of the 1,156 islands that comprise the Marshall Islands. "I held a handful of sand like it was a treasure," he says of the moment he washed ashore. He has since sat with Cordoba’s mother, Ana Rosa, for two hours, answering all her questions, just as he had promised he would. (Alvarenga says multiple boats passed him by, refusing to help.)