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José Salvador Alvarenga's 13 months at sea backed by fishermen and officials


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While castaway José Salvador Alvarenga's claim to have survived more than a year adrift in the Pacific in 22-foot fibreglass boat before washing up on Ebon in the Marshall Islands last week still fails to convince many, accounts from Mexico suggest that at least some of his story adds up.


The Pacific castaway José Salvador Alvarenga was known by fisherman in a Mexican port and his boat was reported missing in late 2012, it has emerged. Photograph: Hilary Hosia/AFP/Getty

Alvarenga has told diplomats and reporters from his hospital bed on the islands that he set out from the fishing village of Costa Azul on the coast of the Mexican state of Chiapas in December 2012 with a fellow fisherman called Ezequiel but they were blown into the ocean by bad weather.

He has said that Ezequiel died about a month into the odyssey while he survived on a diet of fish, birds and turtles, and by drinking turtle blood and rainwater.

Chiapas rescue services official Jaime Marroquín confirmed to the Guardian that a boat manned by two fisherman was reported missing from Costa Azul two days after it set out on 17 November 2012. The report was lodged by the boat's owner, a member of the Camaroneros de la Costa co-operative, which Alvarenga has mentioned in an interview.

Marroquín, who oversaw the search operation, said the weather had been very bad and it was perfectly possible the boat was blown out into the ocean. He said fishermen in the area commonly set off in similarly small vessels on one or two-day trips in search of shark or shrimp with no navigational equipment.

“The winds were high,” he said. “We carried out an intense search but we had to stop the search flights after two days because of poor visibility.”

The official report of the event names the two missing fishermen as Cirilo Vargas and Ezequiel Córdova. Both are said to be aged 38, which jars with Alvarenga's description of his companion as a teenager, although Mexican official reports commonly contain mistakes. While Alvarenga's name is not mentioned in the report he has given his age as 37.

Marroquín said the boat's owner indicated that Vargas was from El Salvador and there were no family members following the progress of the search effort, while Ezequiel's father had always been at the airstrip during the operation.

Alvarenga has now been shorn of his long, sun-bleached hair and beard, courtesy of a haircut in the hotel room in Majuro, the capital of the Marshall Islands, where he has been based since leaving hospital. The haircut was paid for by the US embassy.

Local fishermen from Costa Azul have told Associated Press that Alvarenga lived and worked in the area for years and was lost at sea in mid-November. They said they only knew him as La Chancha, a nickname presumably derived from a slang word for pig, suggesting he was habitually corpulent.

From the Marshall Islands, Alvarenga has said that while he had been based in Mexico for some 15 years, he was originally from a coastal town in El Salvador called Garita Palmera, near the border with Guatemala.

The Salvadoran newspaper El Mundo tracked down his parents in the town. They said their son had moved to Chiapas because he wanted to work on shark fishing boats based there but the family had lost contact with him eight years ago when he stopped visiting his hometown.

“We thought that he must be dead,” María Julia Alvarenga said. “I cannot find the words to describe how I feel, as his mother, to know that he has been found.”

She added: “I dreamed about him, I saw him alive in my dreams. But then he vanished. I kept dreaming like that for several days.”

His daughter told the paper she was looking forward to seeing her father again. She reportedly said: “The first thing I’ll do is hug him and kiss him.”

Alvarenga told the Telemundo TV network that he wept when he spoke to his family on the phone, and that at one point in the voyage he considered suicide: “I was going to kill myself. I wanted to kill myself but no, I asked God to save me.”

El Salvador's foreign ministry released a statement saying it was co-ordinating with the Mexican authorities and that the castaway would return first to Mexico and then go on to El Salvador. From the Marshall Islands a spokesman from the foreign affairs ministry confirmed that Alvarenga was likely to be discharged from hospital today or tomorrow. “Other than some swollen ankles his overall condition is OK,” Anjane Kattil said. “According to the doctors his immune system is weak, but not as weak as we expected.”

The idea that anybody could survive so long at sea in such a small boat with no cover from the elements, while living on such a restricted diet, let alone end the ordeal with little more than swollen ankles, has fishermen scratching their heads in Mexico as well. “It's incredible to survive that long,” boat owner Cesar Castillo said. “There was a case from around here of fishermen who survived 27 days before they were rescued by a Japanese ship but it's hard to think how anybody could go more than six or seven months without getting scurvy at least.”

But if Alvarenga's survival surprises many, few are positing theories to explain how else he might have crossed 6,200 miles of open ocean to arrive on the Marshall Islands in a boat that is, at least, very similar to the one it appears he set out in back in 2012.

“It's hard for me to imagine someone surviving 13 months at sea,” the US Ambassador in Majuro, Tom Armbruster, told the Associated Press. “But it is also hard to imagine how someone might arrive on Ebon out of the blue.”


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