438 Days Adrift at Sea

The best survival book in a decade tells the unbelievable tale of a man who spent more than a year lost on a boat

Nov 3, 2015
Outside Magazine

Reunited: Salvador Alvarenga with his daughter Fatima.    Photo: Juan Carlos/Corbis

In 2014, Salvador Alvarenga was washed ashore in the Marshall Islands, claiming to have drifted from Chiapas, Mexico—more than 6,000 miles—for nearly 15 months. Jonathan Franklin’s book about his time at sea, 438 Days ($26, Atria Books), reads like a mezcal hallucination that starts in mythic gear and escalates into sheer madness.

We meet Alvarenga as he stumbles over the rugged Mexican coastline, barefoot and bleeding on the sharp rocks, having fled escalating violence in El Salvador. He holes up in the fishing hamlet of Costa Azul and wins the trust of the village’s knife-fighting outlaw fishermen, with names like the Wolfman, by voluntarily sweeping the streets with a cast-off broom. Once he is admitted to their circle, his reputation becomes legendary—he can eat practically anything, and he can catch more fish than anyone.

Alvarenga and his fellow fishermen party away their scant pay after risking their lives in brutal pursuit of tuna and hammerheads. They eat and fight and drink and whore. And they smoke pot. Lots of pot. Big, cigar-size bombers, especially when they take their open pirogues out into the Straits of Tehuantepec. And then a storm hurling ten-foot waves and 60-mile-an-hour winds blows Alvarenga’s 25-foot craft far out to sea. 

438 days
  Photo: Courtesy of Atria Books

Jonathan Franklin is an old hand at Latin American reportage—he wrote 33 Men, about the trapped Chilean miners—but with Alvarenga’s epic tale he outdoes himself.

Alvarenga and Cordoba, his inexperienced partner, face death from the first gusts of the storm. They deploy a sea anchor made of plastic bottles to give them stability and drag. After the storm, they face the empty Pacific with only a knife and a machete. 

Cordoba does not survive long, though Alvarenga briefly leaves the rotting dead man at the bow for company. Once alone, he has near misses with ships that pass him blindly. He rides out storms and hallucinates. “Former girlfriends visited him for nights of passion in his hammock back at the Costa Azul lagoon,” writes Franklin. “He scored goals in soccer matches at his favorite beachside pickup field. He scripted the reunion with his long-estranged daughter Fatima.” 

But he survives by snaring fish by hand, drinking turtle blood and rainwater, and catching birds—breaking their wings to keep them like chickens to be eaten later.

After a lifetime of reporting in Mexico, I thought I’d seen it all, that the place could no longer surprise me. Alvarenga has proven me wrong. 

Other Lost-at-Sea Trials, Tallied

286 days: Mexican fishermen Salvador Ordóñez, Lucio Rendón, and Jesús Vidaña were set adrift by a 2005 storm.

133 days: Chinese sailor Poon Lim’s ship was sunk in the Atlantic Ocean in 1942 by a German U-boat.

76 days: In 1982, Rhode Island sailor Steven Callahan’s sailboat sank, and he spent more than two months on a life raft.

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