Survivors at Sea: Adrift for Months, Alone in a Raft and 480 Meters Underwater

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Poon Lim

Japanese captain Oguri Jukichi holds the Guinness World Record for surviving the longest while being adrift at sea. He and one of his sailors survived for 484 days after their soybean-carrying cargo ship, with a crew of about a dozen men, was damaged in a storm off the Japanese coast in October 1813. The two men traveling from the central city of Toba to what is now Tokyo, a distance of about 300 kilometers, but ended up drifting into the Pacific. In March 1815, after more than a year at sea, Jukichi and the one remaining sailor were rescued by an American ship near California. Both men stayed alive on a diet of distilled seawater and soy beans. Other members of the crew that survived the initial storm but died one by one from scurvy. [Source: Sky News, 20 August 2018]

Chinese sailor Poon Lim was the sole survivor of the British merchant ship SS Ben Lomond, which sunk after it was torpedoed by a German submarine in November 1942. Poon managed to climb aboard a wooden raft with small supply of food and water, which he was able to augment with rain water and birds and fish he caught. He survived for 131 day and was ultimately rescued in March 1943 by of Brazilian fisherman at the mouth of the Amazon. Poon holds the record for staying alive the longest, at sea alone in a raft.

Mark Singer wrote in The New Yorker: In 1955, Gabriel García Márquez published a series of newspaper articles depicting the ordeal of Luis Alejandro Velasco, an enlisted man in the Colombian Navy, who, in February of that year, fell overboard in the Caribbean Sea and survived ten days on a life raft, without food or water. (The articles later became a book, “The Story of a Shipwrecked Sailor.”) Velasco washed ashore a week after having been officially declared dead — the preamble to becoming briefly celebrated as a national hero. The first night: “To make myself less lonely, I looked at the dial of my watch. It was ten minutes to seven. Much later — it seemed as if two or three hours had passed — it was five minutes to seven. When the minute hand reached twelve, it was exactly seven o’clock and the sky was packed with stars. But to me it seemed that so much time had passed, it should now be nearly dawn.” [Source: Mark Singer, The New Yorker, February 11, 2007]

In October 2009, three Japanese men were rescued at sea after spending three days in an upside down capsized boat in seas off Hachijojima island. The men huddled in a small air pocket in a compartment of the 19-ton boat after it was capsized by waves from a typhoon. One survivor told Kyodo, “I was wondering inside the boat how I’d die. And it felt horrible to think about when I might stop breathing.” The three men had little to eat and shared a small amount of water. They were very hungry and slightly dehydrated when they were rescued by the Japanese coast guard. Five other crew men on the boat died.

Websites and Resources: National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA); “Introduction to Physical Oceanography” by Robert Stewart , Texas A&M University, 2008 ; Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute ; Cousteau Society ; Monterey Bay Aquarium

Robinson Crusoe and Alexander Selkirk

Robinson Crusoe illustration from 1894 Czech edition

Daniel Defoe's “Robinson Crusoe” was based on the real-life experience of Scotsman Alexander Selkirk. In 1704 Selkirk was shipwrecked on an island in the Pacific 650 kilometers (400 miles) west of Chile. After he was rescued in 1709 he became a big celebrity. “Robinson Crusoe” is considered one of the first English novels. It third edition went into publication within two months.

Alexander Selkirk (1676-1720), a hot-headed Scotsman and son of shoemaker, ran away to sea and joined a band of buccaneers in 1703. After complaining that the ship he was sailing on was unseaworthy he was put ashore on an cold windswept island west of the coast of Chile in September 1704. During the first eight months of his 4½ year exile he subsisted on gathered roots and berries, water and turtles and fish. Later he decided to adjust the best he could to his environment and fashioned a cup from a coconut shell and hide from an iron hoop. He moved into cave and hunted wild goats, which he sometimes chased down on foot, and sewed their skins for clothing.

Selkirk was better provisioned than Robinson Crusoe. He went to the island on his free will and the island was lush and had plenty of water and food. In January 1709 Selkirk was discovered by a British ship that had been blown off course. When he arrived in England three years later, Selkirk became an instant celebrity and many newspapers published interviews with him. Writer Daniel Defoe used him as the model for his novel "Robinson Crusoe.

Selkirk returned to Scotland but ha trouble readjusting to society. At first Selkirk seemed to adjust to civilization alright but later he became "moody and withdrawn" and eventually moved into a cave near his home town where taught "alley cats to do strange dances." He returned to sea and died of a fever off the African coast.

Account of the Real-Life Robinson Crusoe

The captain of the ship that discovered Selkirk, Woodes Roger, wrote: "Our pinnace return'd from the shore, and brought an abundance of craw-fish with a man cloth'd in goat skins, who look'd wilder that the first owners of them" and speaking "his words by halfs."

"During his stay he saw several ships pass by but only two came in to anchor. As he went to view them he found them to be Spanish and retired from 'em, upon which they shot at him. Had they been French, he would have submitted, but chose to risque dying alone on the Island rather fall into the hands of the Spaniards in these parts, because he apprehended they would murder him, or make a slave of him."

"He had with him his clothes and bedding , with a firelock, some powder, bullets, and tobacco, a hatchet, a knife, a kettle, a Bible, some practical pieces, and his mathematical instrument and books."

"He diverted and provided for himself as well as he could; but for the first eight months had much ado to bear up against melancholy and the terror of being left alone in such a desolate place. He built two huts with pimento trees, cover;d them with long grass, and lin'd them with the skins of goats which he killed with his gun...He got fire by rubbing two sticks of pimento together on his knee...and employed himself in reading, singing Psalms, and praying, so that he said he was a better Christian in solitude than he ever was before."

Selkirk’s Life on the Island

According to Woodes Rogers, Selkirk ate "Crawfish, which are there as large as lobsters and very good. These he sometimes boiled, and at other times broiled as he did his goats flesh, of which he made very good broth, for they are not so rank as ours; he kept account of 500 that he'd killed while there...When his powder fail' he took them by speed of foot." He once accidentally chased a goat over a cliff and nearly died from the fall. He lied on the ground stunned for 24 hours before crawling a mile or so back to his hut."

"He soon wore out all of his shoes and clothes by running through the woods; and at last being forced to shift without them, his feet became so hard that he ran everywhere without annoyance...After he conquered his melancholy he diverted himself sometimes by cutting his name on trees."

"He was at first pestered with cats and rats, that had beret in great numbers from some of each species which had gone ashore on ships...The rats gnawed's his feet and clothes while asleep, which obliged him to cherish the which many of them became so tame that they would lie about him hundreds, and soon delivered him from the rats...He likewise tame'd some kids, and to divert himself would now sing and dance with them and his cats.

"When his clothes wore out he made himself a coat and cap of goatskins, which he stitched together with little Thongs of the same he cut with his knife. He had no other needle but a nail, and when his knife was wore to the back, he made others as well as he could of some iron hoops that were left ashore."

76 Days Adrift in a Raft in the Atlantic

Steven Callahan, who was adrift in the Atlantic Ocean for 76 days in 1982, served as a consultant for Ang Lee’s film “Life of Pi” — about a man and tiger adrift in the sea. “Meredith Blake wrote in the Los Angeles Times: Famously-meticulous Ang Lee originally had planned to hire a survival consultant to infuse the allegorical tale of a boy's oceangoing raft journey with a tiger with a dose of realism. Then he read Steven Callahan's riveting 1986 memoir, "Adrift," detailing his own perilous life-raft adventure in the Atlantic. In Callahan, Ang and screenwriter David Magee saw a guide who understood and could articulate the metaphysical themes they were hoping to explore in the film. "We very quickly realized we were dealing with someone who had more than just passing knowledge in the kind of story we were trying to tell," Magee says. [Source: Meredith Blake, Los Angeles Times, December 31, 2012]

“In January 1982, Callahan — "30 and full of beans" — set sail from Finisterre, Spain, on a solo trek across the Atlantic. Little more than a week into the journey, his 21-foot sloop Napoleon Solo sank in a lonely stretch of the Atlantic some 450 miles west of the Canary Islands. Callahan spent the ensuing 76 days living as an "aquatic caveman" aboard a 6-foot raft he named Rubber Ducky. Food was scarce initially, but as Rubber Ducky drifted along the North Equatorial Current toward the Caribbean, barnacles began to collect on the bottom, attracting small fish and, eventually, an entire school of dorado (mahi mahi). "At first the ocean is crystal clear and empty, and it's like, how am I going to possibly live out here? But after a few days, anything that floats in the ocean develops an island ecology," Callahan said in a phone interview from his home in Maine, where he is battling leukemia. "Life is profound in that way."

“Like Pi and his tiger, Callahan grew unexpectedly attached to his "little doggies," able to recognize an individual fish nudging against the raft "the way you recognize different neighbors' knocks on the back door," he wrote in "Adrift." Nevertheless, he killed one every few days for sustenance, and the fish sometimes fought back. The darkest moment of his journey arrived on Day 43, when a flailing dorado punctured a 4-inch hole in the raft. It took Callahan 10 days of desperate trial and error to finally jury-rig a patch using a fork and some fishing line.

““The constant struggle for survival was like "life on steroids," says Callahan. "If some little thing comes along and works, it's like elation. And if something presses you down, it is just the most painful thing." When Callahan was finally rescued, just off the coast of the small Caribbean island of Marie-Galante, it was again thanks to the dorado. A group of local fishermen spotted birds on the horizon, circling the school of fish, and came to investigate. What they found — in addition to a jackpot of prized dorado — was a bearded, emaciated man who hadn't laid eyes on another human in nearly three months. "The dorado fed me, they nourished me, they almost killed me, and in the end they brought my salvation," Callahan says. Despite feeling like "a Judas," Callahan happily waited while the fishermen hauled in the dorado. "This is the greatest gift I could possibly give to these guys. We're all brothers of the sea."

“After some recuperation, Callahan eventually returned a changed man. "I had convinced myself I was kind of a sea creature. And I learned from the experience I was definitely not a sea creature and they were all very much superior to me in that domain, and that I very much needed people."

A brief but intense period of media attention followed, including an appearance on "The Tonight Show" and a profile in People magazine. Callahan returned to the seafaring life, sailing all over the world, lecturing and designing boats — including an improved life raft called "The Clam."

“There are small habits left over from his days aboard Rubber Ducky that he's never quite been able to shake. For a long time he made sure to have food — a small jar of peanut butter or the like — with him everywhere he went; to this day, he still has to remind himself to stay hydrated. "My natural tendency is to conserve water," he says.“Otherwise, according to Lee and Magee, there are few outward indications that Callahan endured such a harrowing ordeal. "I didn't see a trace of the traumatic; all I see is the courage," Lee says. "He can make even the most painful experience sound interesting and serene." Callahan ended up working with nearly every department on the film during months of production in Taiwan. He coached Suraj Sharma, the young actor playing Pi, about the psychological distress of being adrift, and crafted numerous props, including a shade canopy using only materials Pi would have had on the lifeboat. He also spent countless hours experimenting with the 1.86-million gallon wave tank built especially for the film.

“Some of the impressions he shared with Lee made it into the film, such as a jumping phosphorescent whale and the sense that, on a clear, mirror-calm night, being at sea can feel like being in space. "I'm not very good at sitting around. I get my fingers into everybody else's pie," Callahan says.

Two Men Survive Five Months Adrift in the Pacific

In 2001, two Samoan fishermen survived almost five months adrift on the Pacific Ocean in a small metal boat by catching fish and birds and drinking rainwater, one of the survivors said after being rescued. Associated Press reported: Two other men died during the torrid journey, which saw them drift nearly 2,480 miles west from Western Samoa to Papua New Guinea. Lafaili Tofi, 36, and Telea Pa'a, 27, were extremely lucky to be alive, said Dr. Barry Kirby from Alotau Hospital in eastern Papua New Guinea. "Basically they survived on the rainwater they got while they were drifting, some small fish which they caught and also some birds which landed on the . . . vessel," Kirby said in a telephone interview. [Source: Associated Press, November 14, 2001]

The men were fishing off their native Western Samoa on June 20, 2001 when a huge load of fish dragged their 20-foot aluminum boat under water. The men righted the well-built boat by cutting away the fishing lines and two outboard motors but were left powerless as currents pushed them out into open ocean, missing many islands on the journey, Kirby said. Several ships passed by, but none came to their rescue.

The survivors were finally rescued in November by a villager on Normanby Island in Milne Bay, Papua New Guinea, who paddled out to them after they fired off their last flare. "They suffered from exposure and were basically on a starvation diet," he said. "One man is unable to walk, he's a stretcher case. He's very, very wasted and he was probably about a week away from death. The other man was quite strong considering his ordeal." Kirby said both men were stable and recovering well.

Two Others Rescued after Floating in Pacific Ocean for Five Months

In 2014 two Papua New Guinea men drifted in an open boat in the Pacific Ocean for five months before they were rescued in Micronesia in December, over 1,600 kilometers (1000 miles) from where they set after setting out in early July. Both men were badly sunburned and suffering from hunger. A third man in the boat died just two weeks before the rescue. [Source: Richard Shears, Daily Mail, December 5, 2014]

The Daily Mail reported: The Papua New Guinea fishermen told officials in the town of Pohnpei in the Caroline Islands that they had survived by eating raw fish and drinking rainwater. Their ordeal finally ended when they were picked up by a fishing boat called Yap Seagull, about 120 miles south of remote Kapingamarangi Island. Badly sunburned and suffering from hunger, they were described by hospital officials as being in 'reasonable' condition considering the many weeks they had spent drifting across the ocean.

“Officials named the rescued men as Michael Bolong, 54, and Ambros Wavut, 28. A third man who had been on the tiny open boat had died, said the men. They claim that the man, Francis Dimansol, 48, died from 'severe health conditions' while they were adrift in the Pacific. No details have emerged about what happened to his body, but it is known that in similar dramas on the high seas survivors have lowered those who have succumbed to the elements over the side of the boat as their bodies started to decompose.

“It was also emerged that Mr Bolong is the uncle of Mr Wavut — and their survival story was made even more remarkable because they were not fishermen but construction workers who were sailing from one small island to another. But somehow they managed to catch fish and eat them raw, while scooping up rainwater that had gathered in the bottom of their boat. ‘We were convinced that everyone had given up looking for us,’ Mr Bolong told the crew of the Yap Seagull fishing boat which picked them up. ‘We know from other instances of boats being lost that after a while searchers give up, convinced that no-one can survive after many weeks in an open boat,’ he said in broken English. ‘We managed to sit out storms without being overturned, but that might also have led to people thinking we had no chance of surviving. There is no doubt that after weeks, which turned into months, we were forgotten, except by our families.’

Mr Bill Janes, editor of the Kaselehlie Press in Pohnpei said that when he saw the men step ashore from the Yap Seagull he noticed how thin they were, but thought that they were otherwise in 'great shape'. What might have helped their recovery, he noted, was the fact that they had been on the Yap fishing boat for four days after being picked up and brought into port.

While the rescued men have still to tell their story in detail, it is believed they drifted helplessly for at least 1000 miles after setting out on a fishing trip in early July from their village in the province of New Ireland, which comes under Papua New Guinea administration. All was going well until the engine on their boat broke down and they became victims of the ocean currents. 'They saw passing ships but could not get the message across that they were in trouble,' said an official on Pohnpei.

According to a report from the Federated States of Micronesia government information service on the island of Yap, the men's boat had been carried out to sea by a strong current. The report said they had managed to survive a number of severe storms.

José Salvador Alvarenga — Lost at Sea for 14 Months

In 2012-2014, 36-37-year-old El Salvadorian fisherman Jose Alvarenga drifted across the Pacific for 14 months before his boat was washed ashore in the Marshall Islands, He disappeared on November 17, 2012 off the coast of Costa Azul, Pijijiapan, Chiapas, Mexico, and was found on January 30, 2014, on the Ebon Atoll on the Marshall Islands. He was accompanied by another man, Ezequiel Córdoba, who died during the voyage, [Source: Wikipedia]

Alvarenga's story was widely reported in the international media. There was a lot of criticism from skeptics but his story held up and now he is recognized as the first person in recorded history to have survived in a small boat lost at sea for more than a year. Alvarenga survived mainly on a diet of raw fish, turtles, small birds, sharks and rainwater. He swam to shore at Tile Islet, a small island that is part of Ebon Atoll, on January 30. Two locals, Emi Libo kilometerseto and Russel Laikidrik, found him naked, clutching a knife and shouting in Spanish. He was treated in a hospital in Majuro before flying to his family home in El Salvador on February 10.

Alvarenga was born in Garita Palmera, Ahuachapán, El Salvador. He left El Salvador in 2002 for Mexico, where he worked as a fisherman for four years. At the time of his rescue, he had not been in touch with his family in eight years. On November 17, 2012, Alvarenga set out from the coast of Chiapas, Mexico. An experienced sailor and fisherman, he planned to deep-sea fish for sharks, marlins, and sailfish for 30 hours. His usual fishing mate was unable to join him, so he was accompanied by the relatively inexperienced 23-year-old Ezequiel Córdoba, with whom he hadn't previously spoken, and whose surname he didn't know.

Shortly after embarking, their boat, a seven-meter (23-foot) topless fiberglass skiff equipped with a single outboard motor and a refrigerator-sized icebox for storing fish, was blown off course by a storm that lasted five days, during which the motor and most of the portable electronics were damaged. Though they had caught nearly 500 kilograms (1,100 lb) of fresh fish, the pair were forced to dump it overboard to make the boat maneuverable in the bad weather. Alvarenga managed to call his boss on a two-way radio and request help before the radio's battery died. Having neither sails nor oars, no anchor, no running lights, and no other way to contact shore, the boat began to drift across the open ocean. Much of the fishing gear was also lost or damaged in the storm, leaving them with only a handful of basic supplies and little food.

The search party organized by Alvarenga's employer failed to find any trace of the missing men and gave up after two days because visibility was poor. As days turned to weeks, they learned to scavenge their food from whatever sources presented themselves. Alvarenga managed to catch fish, turtles, jellyfish, and seabirds with his bare hands, and the pair occasionally salvaged bits of food and plastic refuse floating in the water. They collected drinking water from rainfall when possible, but more frequently were forced to drink turtle blood or their own urine. Alvarenga frequently dreamed about his favorite foods, as well as his parents.

According to Alvarenga, Córdoba lost all hope around four months into the voyage after becoming sick from the raw food, and eventually died from starvation by refusing to eat. Alvarenga has said that he contemplated suicide for four days after Córdoba died, but his Christian faith prevented him from doing so. He related that Córdoba made him promise not to eat his corpse after he died, so he kept it on the boat. He sometimes spoke to the corpse, and after six days, feared he was becoming insane, so he threw it overboard.

Alvarenga reported that he saw numerous transoceanic container ships but was unable to solicit help. He kept track of time by counting the phases of the moon. After counting his 15th lunar cycle, he spotted land: a tiny, desolate islet, which turned out to be a remote corner of the Marshall Islands. On January 30, 2014, he abandoned his boat and swam to shore, where he stumbled upon a beach house owned by a local couple. Alvarenga's journey had lasted 438 days.

The length of his voyage has been variously calculated as 5,500 to 6,700 miles (8,900 to 10,800 kilometers). According to Gee Bing, Marshall Islands' acting secretary of foreign affairs, Alvarenga's vital signs were all "good", with the exception of blood pressure, which was unusually low. Bing also said that Alvarenga had swollen ankles and struggled with walking. On February 6 the doctor treating him reported that his health had "gone downhill" since the day before and that he was on an IV drip to treat his dehydration.

After 11 days in a hospital, Alvarenga was deemed healthy enough to return to El Salvador. However, he was diagnosed with anemia, had trouble sleeping and developed a fear of water. Alvarenga's parents, who had not been in contact with him for years, had feared he was dead long before he went missing, and they were overjoyed to discover he was still alive. His father said that he had prayed for his son while he was missing. His daughter, upon hearing that her father had been found, said that after he returned home, the "first thing I'll do is hug him and kiss him." In 2015, Alvarenga gave a series of interviews about his ordeal to the journalist Jonathan Franklin, who published his story as the book “438 Days: An Extraordinary True Story of Survival at Sea”. Shortly after the release of Alvarenga's book, the family of Ezequiel Córdoba sued Alvarenga for $1,000,000, accusing him of cannibalizing their relative in order to survive, despite their pact that Córdoba would not be eaten after death. Alvarenga's lawyer has denied this accusation.

Corroborating José Salvador Alvarenga’s Story

The implausibility of someone surviving so long at sea on a small craft led a number of commentators to doubt Alvarenga's story, though investigators were able to confirm some of the basic details. The owner of the boat he used, César Castillo, said that "it's incredible to survive that long. It's hard to think how anybody could go more than six or seven months without getting scurvy at least." However, in an interview, Claude Piantadosi of Duke University said that fresh meat from birds and turtles contains vitamin C and that eating a lot of it, as Alvarenga claims to have done, "would provide sufficient vitamin C to prevent scurvy." [Source: Wikipedia]

The Guardian found the Chiapas rescue services official, Jaime Marroquín, who was informed that a fishing boat had gone missing in the area on November 17, 2012. The official report identified the two fishermen as Cirilo Vargas and Ezequiel Córdova, and stated that both were in their 30s. Marroquín also indicated that according to the boat's owner, Vargas was born in El Salvador. The local authorities originally searched for Vargas and Córdova, but called off the search after two days, citing heavy fog and bad weather. In regard to the discrepancy between the names of the fishermen in the 2012 report and those of Alvarenga and Córdoba, CBS News reported that "records in Mexico are often filed with such mistakes". Another explanation was provided by Alvarenga's parents, as reported by National Post, when they confirmed that in Mexico their son was known as "Cirilo".

Tom Armbruster, the United States ambassador to the Marshall Islands, acknowledged that it seems implausible for someone to survive at sea for 13 months, but that "it's also hard to imagine how someone might arrive on Ebon out of the blue. Certainly this guy has had an ordeal, and has been at sea for some time." Norman Barth, also of the American Embassy in the Marshall Islands, did the initial questioning of Alvarenga upon his arrival in Majuro and found him to be truthful. The Guardian's Jo Tuckman argued that the fact that a fishing boat had been reported missing on November 17, 2012 "lin[es] up" with Alvarenga's claim that he went to sea the following month and that this supports the view that "at least some of his story holds up". In addition, Erik van Sebille, an oceanographer at the University of New South Wales, said that it was entirely possible that sea currents could carry a boat from Mexico to the Marshall Islands. He also estimated that such a trip would take about 18 months, but said that 13 months was still plausible. Further support for his account came from a study by researchers from the University of Hawaii that modeled the path a boat might have taken after departing from the Pacific Coast in Mexico based on wind and current conditions, and concluded that it would end up "within 120 miles of Ebon", where Alvarenga actually landed. In April 2014, Alvarenga's lawyer told a press conference that he had passed a polygraph test while being asked about his voyage.

Three Mexican Fishermen Lost at Sea for Nine Months

In 2005-2006, three Mexican fishermen — Lucio Rendón, Jesús Vidaña, and Salvador Ordóñez — survived nine months adrift in the Pacific Ocean in a 27-foot skiff that set sail from the Mexican port of San October 2005 and drifted 8,000 (5,000 miles) across the central Pacific halfway between North America and Australia before being rescued by a tuna vessel north of Baker Island, an atoll just north of the Equator in the about 3,090 kilometers southwest of Honolulu. [Source: Hector Tobar, Los Angeles Times, August 26, 2006]

Hector Tobar wrote in the Los Angeles Times: Family members say the three are typical fishermen from a stretch of coast dotted with hardscrabble fishing hamlets. When they left San Blas with two other men on Oct. 28, they didn’t notify port authorities, or even many members of their family — not an unusual practice in an area where many fish illegally. Local authorities say the federal government has declined to issue licenses to most of the small-time fishermen in the San Blas area, citing the threat of overfishing. “That’s why no one tells the port authorities when they set out, because they could be prevented from leaving, or they could even go to jail for being pirate fishermen,” David Lara Plasencia, a municipal official in San Blas, told the newspaper El Universal this week.

“The survivors have said in interviews that they set off in search of shark, but have not said whether they were licensed. Their first night out, they lost a fishing line. While they tried to find it the next morning, their onboard engines ran out of gas. They began to drift. One of the men, known to the others only by the nickname “El Farsero,” died in January. Fifteen days later, a second man, known to the others as “Juan,” died. The men either wouldn’t eat or couldn’t hold down the raw fish the others were eating to survive.

“In a television interview Ordonez, 37, said that after months adrift the men had no idea where they were. “One day I saw a plane pass and I said, ‘Where is that plane coming from?’ ” Ordonez recalled. “ ‘I think it’s coming from China. And that’s where we’re headed.’ ” The men read a Bible they had on board. When a storm ripped out the Apocalypse chapters, they said, they took it as a good sign. They collected rainwater to drink. Ordonez remembered advice from a government-sponsored survival course: Eat as little as possible and drink fish blood to stay hydrated. (Officials in San Blas confirmed that Ordonez completed the course in 2004.)

Back ashore, some relatives had already recited a series of Catholic prayers for the dead. Upon hearing of his presumed death, Ordonez’s 15-year-old daughter, Gladiola, gave up her dream of being a teacher, dropped out of school and set out for the United States, the newspaper La Cronica de Hoy reported. “My father is dead,” Gladiola told her brother Angel. “What will I do here? I don’t even have money for a notebook.” Gladiola crossed the border illegally and reportedly is working in a Los Angeles factory, the newspaper reported.

The three drifters were asleep when they were spotted August 9. The Taiwanese crew of the Koo’s 102, based in the Marshall Islands, found the men. For 12 days, until the boat pulled into port, the skinny and sunburned survivors recuperated, sharing meals of rice and noodles with the crew. On the Marshall Islands, a doctor found the men were suffering from various minor ailments, including swollen limbs and ear infections. But otherwise, they were healthy.

For a long article on this read “The Castaways: A Pacific Odyssey” by Mark Singer in The New Yorker, February 11, 2007

How the Three Mexican Fishermen Survived

Mark Singer wrote in The New Yorker:Lucio wore a Casio digital watch with a calendar, and it preserved some demarcation of time’s otherwise blurred contours. Occasionally, planes passed overhead, prompting discussions about whether anyone in San Blas had realized that they were lost and instigated a search. (In fact, family members of Lucio’s had started looking for him and the others, and fishermen in the community undertook an eight-day search after the Port Authority of San Blas failed to act. The search was called off when they could no longer afford the fuel.) For ten days, Lucio heard Salvador and Jesús repeat that they would soon be rescued. As he no longer believed this himself, their hollow reassurances irritated him, and he told them so. Yet he never accused Señor Juan of being the agent of their distress; even if they were lost at sea, Señor Juan was still the ship’s captain. [Source: Mark Singer, The New Yorker, February 11, 2007]

When they had consumed no food, only water, for thirteen days, a sea turtle weighing about thirty pounds showed up, swimming just off the bow. Salvador jumped on its back and gripped its shell, which he’d learned to do in Oaxaca in his teens. The turtle suddenly dove deep, and he went along for the ride, wrestling until he had turned it toward the surface. Lucio and Jesús helped him hoist the turtle into the panga. They severed a flipper; Salvador sucked its blood and passed it around. Lucio took the knife, cut off the head, and drained a dense stream of blood into a bucket for drinking. After he had removed the meat from the shell, Jesús rinsed it, and Salvador filleted it.

Lucio: “I remember we said, ‘How are we going to eat that meat?’ It’s not like a normal meal. All you can see is the meat. Pure red. I was thinking, How is it possible that I’m going to eat that? In November, we ate only two times. I’d never been hungry like that, with a desperateness that can’t be expressed. I don’t know how to explain that this is something that one feels. It’s desperateness, hunger, thirst, cold.” Did he want to die? “No, that was not a thought that passed through my head. Even though I knew I was headed that way.”

Their other November meal presented itself a few days later, when a white seabird — most likely a tern, which can fly for long distances over the ocean — alighted on a corner of the boat. Salvador slowly removed his shirt, crept toward the rear, netted the bird, grabbed its feet, and dashed it against the inside of the boat. He decapitated it, drank some blood (“because I felt it gave me energy”), offered it to his companions, then plucked and quartered it: seabird sashimi. Lucio and Jesús ate their portions, but Señor Juan and El Farsero could only gag. The same thing had happened when they’d tried the raw turtle.

Schools of small fish often surrounded the boat, attracted by the barnacles that studded its hull. The flesh inside a barnacle shell was potential bait, but most of the hooks and hand lines had either been lost or damaged. With the cowlings removed, the men scrutinized the innards of the outboard engines. The carburetors had thin rods that could be sharpened and bent into hooks. There were screws with wires wrapped around the threads, and those wires could also become hooks. Each motor had six in-sulated cables about three feet long which, spliced together, made lines. A hook baited with a barnacle could catch a small fish, and that fish, cut up, could become bait for bigger fish. With this approach, they caught dogfish, sharks, sawfish, and dorado. Though the men didn’t realize it, this diet probably protected them from developing scurvy — uncooked seafood has a small amount of Vitamin C.

How Two Mexican Fishermen Died

Mark Singer wrote in The New Yorker: Most fishermen routinely eat raw seafood without giving it a thought. Señor Juan simply couldn’t. Starting in mid-December, he vomited blood and bile several times. (These symptoms are common with severe digestive disturbances.) Meanwhile, Lucio had developed an ear infection that left him weak and unable to keep his balance. Bleeding from both ears, he stuffed them with cotton ticking from the lining of a jacket. Wrapped in blankets, both men huddled under the bow, turning it into a sick bay. After eight days, Lucio began to get better, but Señor Juan did not. [Source: Mark Singer, The New Yorker, February 11, 2007]

Once the unforeseen odyssey began, El Farsero spent much of every day crouched in a corner, weeping. “We wanted to talk to him, and he wouldn’t talk,” Jesús said. “We wanted him to move, and he wouldn’t move.” Salvador and Lucio never cried, but Jesús often did, usually at night. Thinking of his family back in Las Arenitas — Jumey, his wife, and Juan José, their son — invariably induced longing and remorse.

One December day when Salvador, Lucio, and Jesús were urging the captain to eat, Señor Juan stood in the front of the boat, flexed his biceps, and declared, “I’m strong!” At that point he’d gone six weeks without food. “He was very fat, and he thought he was full of life,” Lucio recalled. Within days, Señor Juan began bleeding internally. By mid-January, he had lapsed into a semi-consciousness punctuated by bursts of delirium. The others did what they could — rinsed his mouth, brushed his teeth, washed his face and hands — but knew that they weren’t much help. He’d become incontinent. One night, when Salvador was fishing and the others were sleeping, Señor Juan started groaning and called Sal-vador’s name. Salvador went to his side and said, “What’s wrong, Juanito, brother?” But Señor Juan was already dead, his eyes still open. It was January 20th, almost three months since he’d left Mazatlán for San Blas. The fishermen cleaned Señor Juan’s body and kept it in the boat for three days, in case they were rescued and could arrange a proper burial. Before finally placing the body in the sea, Salvador, who read from his Bible and prayed every morning and evening, gave a final benediction.

With Señor Juan gone, El Farsero confronted an awkward social dilemma. “At the beginning, because El Farsero was friends with the captain, he thought he was better than the rest of us,” Lucio observed. “It was like, if you’ll ignore me, I’ll ignore you. But after the captain died who else was he going to talk to?” When the fishermen shared their visions of what they would do if they ever made it back to the inhabited world, El Farsero spoke of helping his sister establish a bakery. He also began helping the others catch fish.

On the coldest nights, they all slept in the bow side by side, in the fetal position, an intimate arrangement that would have made them self-conscious on land. It was crowded, but they succeeded in staying warm. Then it became less crowded: one morning in February, El Farsero didn’t wake up.

Lucio: “He died at my side, asleep. We all lay down, and when the sun rose he had already died. That’s the prettiest death, I think. To go to bed and die in your dream.”

Fishermen Lost at Sea Badgered by the Mexican Media

Reporting from Mexico City, Hector Tobar wrote in the Los Angeles Times: When three fishermen returned home after a miraculous ordeal at sea, the questions from this city’s boisterous press corps didn’t focus on the Hemingway-like details of their nine months adrift...Instead the 100 or so journalists who greeted the survivors at Mexico City’s international airport, who are more used to reporting crime and scandal than heroism, grilled the three men at an often chaotic news conference that ended in a melee between producers and cameramen from rival television networks. [Source: Hector Tobar, Los Angeles Times, August 26, 2006]

“Is it true that you guys are really drug dealers on a failed smuggling mission, the reporters asked. What happened to the two other men who you say were on board with you? Did you eat them? If you were at sea for nine months, why aren’t your fingernails longer? “To those who don’t believe us, all I can say is that I hope that what happened to us never happens to you,” Lucio Rendon, 27, said after denying that he and his comrades were either “narcos” or cannibals. “I just thank God for being here.”

“Like many of the tragedies that befall the poor in Mexico, the full story of the three lost fishermen has turned out to be a complicated and hazy affair. The saga of Rendon, Salvador Ordonez and Jesus Vidana involves illegal immigration, suspicions of unlicensed fishing, petty theft and two “ghosts.” Mexico’s attorney general said this week there was no evidence that the men were drug smugglers — though smuggling is common along the stretch of coastline where they set out.

As the men began the long journey home via Honolulu and Los Angeles, the news media went to work investigating their past. Rendon, it turned out, was on probation on charges of stealing shrimp from a fishing company. A mortgage company was about to foreclose on the family home of Vidana, 27. Vidana’s wife had given birth to their baby, a girl — Juliana is now 4 months old. And while talking with Ordonez in a phone call broadcast live by the Televisa network, his family in Oaxaca learned that he had moved in with a woman in San Blas. But little has emerged about the two men said to have died at sea. “Up to now they are only ghosts,” the newspaper El Universal wrote Tuesday. “No one knows their full names or where they’re from. It’s as if they never existed.”

At the airport news conference, a radio reporter asked the three men whether they would take lie detector tests to prove that their story was true. Yes, the fishermen answered. After the news conference, producers from the rival Televisa and Azteca television networks engaged in a shoving match over who would get the first “exclusive” interview with the three men: Televisa ended up with two of the survivors, Azteca with one.

Pisces III: the Dramatic Rescue of Men Trapped 480 Meters Underwater

In August 1973 former Royal Navy submariner Roger Chapman, then 28, and engineer Roger Mallinson, then 35, plunged to the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean in an accident and were rescued after a 76-hour international rescue operation. The two British sailors plunged almost 485 meters (1,575 feet) to the ocean floor 245 kilometers (150 miles) off Ireland, in a deep-sea submersible. They were trapped in a two-meter-(six-foot)- in-diameter steel ball for three days and had only 12 minutes of oxygen left when they were finally rescued. [Source: Vanessa Barford, BBC, August 30, 2013]

Timeline of the Event according to the BBC: 01:15 — Dive begins: Chapman and Mallinson commenced a routine dive in Pisces III. The Canadian commercial submersible — working on a charter for the Post Office — was laying transatlantic telephone cable on the seabed 150 miles south west of Cork. "It took about 40 minutes to sink down to not far off 1,600ft (500m) and a bit faster to get back up," says Chapman. "We'd do eight-hour shifts, going along the surface of the seabed at half a mile an hour, setting up pumps and jets which liquefied the mud, laying cable and making sure it was all covered. It was very slow, murky work."

09:18 — The accident: "We were waiting for the towline to be attached to lift us and take us back to the mother ship. There was lots of banging of ropes and shackles — as normal during the last phase of the operation — when suddenly we were hurtled backwards and sank rapidly. We were dangling upside down, then heaved up like a big dipper," says Chapman. The pair shut the electrical systems and switched everything off so it was pitch black, dropping a 400lb (181 kilograms) lead weight to make it lighter as they descended. "It was about 30 seconds until we hit. We turned the depth gauge off at 500ft (152m) as it could have burst and got cushions and curled ourselves up to try and prevent injuries. We managed to find some white cloth to put in our mouths so we didn't bite our tongues off too," says Mallinson. The sub hit the bottom — 1575ft (480m) — at 09:30. Mallinson says his first thought was relief they were alive. He later learned it crashed at 40 mph (65 kilometers per)."We weren't injured but there was kit everywhere and we were hanging on to the pipe work. We just sat there with a torch. Unbeknown to us we had hit a gully, so we'd half disappeared below the seabed," says Chapman.

09:45 — Making contact: Pisces III made telephone contact, sending a message that they were both fine, morale was good and they were getting organised. Early indications suggested oxygen supplies would last until early Saturday morning. The sub carried 72 hours of oxygen in case of an accident, but they'd already used eight hours on the dive. They had 66 hours left.

10:00-16:30 — Scrambling ships: The pilots spent the first few hours "getting sorted", according to Chapman. "The submersible was almost upside down, we had to rearrange it, mend the kit and make sure nothing was leaking," he says. They decided if the oxygen was going to last, they needed to do very little. "If you switch off, you use one quarter of the oxygen. You don't talk or move," he says. Support ship Vickers Venturer, then in the North Sea, was contacted just after 10:30 and ordered to return its sister submersible Pisces II to the nearest port. The Royal Navy's HMS Hecate was sent to the scene with special ropes at 12:09 and RAF Nimrod aircraft flew overhead. A US Navy submersible, CURV III — designed to pick up bombs from the sea — was sent from California and Canadian Coast Guard ship John Cabot departed from Swansea.

Day Two: Mother ship Vickers Voyager arrived in Cork at 08:00 to load Pisces II and Pisces V, which had arrived overnight by aircraft. The ship sailed from Cork at 10:30. Meanwhile, Chapman and Mallinson watched supplies begin to dwindle. The pair only had one cheese and chutney sandwich and one can of lemonade, but they didn't want to eat or drink them, according to Chapman. "We allowed the CO2 to build up a bit to conserve oxygen — we had egg timers to keep track of every 40 minutes, but we'd wait a bit longer. It made us a bit lethargic and drowsy.

Day Three: First Pisces II waslaunched — with a special polypropylene rope attached to a "toggle" or collapsible snap hook — at 02:00, but the lifting rope tore from the manipulator because of its buoyancy, so it had to return to the mother ship for repairs. Then Pisces V — launched again with a polypropylene line attached to a toggle — managed to make it to the seabed but couldn't find the stricken Pisces III before it ran out of power. It returned to the surface and later tried again. "It was nearly 1pm before Pisces V found us. It was amazingly encouraging to know someone knew where we were. But when Pisces V tried to attach a snap hook the attempt failed because of the buoyancy of the rope," says Chapman. Pisces V was ordered to stay with Pisces III, despite the fact it couldn't lift it. Pisces II descended again, but had to resurface after it got water in its own sphere. Then CURV III — which had arrived with the John Cabot at about 17:30 — had an electrical fault so was unable to launch. "By midnight on Friday we only had Pisces V out of almost everything, and two broken submersibles," says Chapman.

"Then Pisces V was ordered to the surface just after midnight, which was a bit of a blow. It was like we were back to square one with no-one around. Our 72 hours of oxygen was up, we were running out of lithium hydroxide to scrub the CO2, it was very manky and cold and we were almost resigned to thinking it wasn't going to happen." Mallinson agrees that hope was fading. He says one thing that helped him was the presence of dolphins. "We'd seen them on the 28th, and even though we couldn't see them, I could hear them on the underwater telephone for the entire three days. That gave me a lot of pleasure," he says.

Day Four: 04:02: Pisces II was launched again with a specially designed toggle and another polypropylene line. "Just after 5am it had a line on us, on the aft sphere — they knew we were still alive," says Chapman. Chapman says it was at this point — when the pilots knew the line was attached — that they had the can of lemonade and sandwich. But Mallinson says he didn't feel confident the lift would work. "The aft sphere wasn't the strong point — we were in the fore sphere, and I was very annoyed we weren't being lifted by that. I thought it was the wrong decision. "I think at that point if they'd asked either of us if we wanted to be left or lifted we'd both have said 'leave us alone' — the recovery was so terrifying and the chances of getting up next to none," he says.

10:50: Lifting of Pisces III started. "As soon as we got off the sea bed it was very rough, very disorientating," says Chapman. The lift was stopped twice during ascent. Once at 350ft, for CURV to be disentangled, and a second time at 100ft, so that divers could attach heavier lift lines. "We were thrashing and rocking about so they needed to get more ropes, so they could all be heaved together," says Mallinson.

13:17 — Pisces III was dragged clear of the water. "Apparently they thought we'd died when they looked at us, it had been so violent," says Chapman. "When they opened the hatch and fresh air and sunlight rushed in it gave us blinding headaches, but we were sorted, we were euphoric. But we were also a bit pathetic. It was quite difficult to climb out of the sub, we'd been so cramped up, we could hardly move." In fact Mallinson says it took a good 30 minutes to open the hatch. "It had been jammed shut and wouldn't open upside down. When it did open, it went off like a gun, we could just smell salty sea air," he says. The pilots had been in Pisces III for 84 hours and 30 minutes when they were finally rescued."We had 72 hours of life support when we started the dive so we managed to eke out a further 12.5 hours. When we looked in the cylinder, we had 12 minutes of oxygen left," says Chapman.

Man Survives 2½ Days Underwater in an Air Pocket

In May 2013, a Nigerian man survived for two-and-a-half days trapped 30 meters (98 feet) under the sea. The BBC reported: Harrison Okene, 29, was on board the tug boat Jascon-4 when it capsized in heavy swells. It sank to the seabed, upside down, but Mr Harrison was trapped in an air pocket and able to breathe. Of the other 12 people on board, Harrison was the only survivor. He told Reuters journalist Joe Brock that he could hear fish eating the dead bodies of his fellow crew members. [Source: BBC, June 13, 2013]

The Jascon-4 capsized about 32 kilometers (20 miles) off the coast of Nigeria, while it was stabilising an oil tanker at a Chevron platform. Mr Harrison was working there as a cook, according to the ship's owners, West African Ventures. Mr Harrison told Reuters he was in the toilet when he realised that the boat was beginning to turn over, and as the vessel sank, he managed to find his way to an area with an air pocket.

Mr Harrison survived in an air pocket, 30m underwater in pitch darkness "I was there in the water in total darkness just thinking it's the end. I kept thinking the water was going to fill up the room but it did not," he said. "I was so hungry but mostly so, so thirsty. The salt water took the skin off my tongue." "I could perceive the dead bodies of my crew were nearby. I could smell them. The fish came in and began eating the bodies. I could hear the sound."

But after 60 hours, Mr Harrison heard the sound of knocking. A team from the DCN global diving company had come to investigate — sent by Chevron and West African Ventures. "We expected it to be a body recovery job," DCN spokesperson Jed Chamberlain told the BBC's Impact programme. Mr Harrison "actually grabbed the second diver who went past him," Mr Chamberlain said, adding that the diver concerned got quite a fright. "This changed the whole nature of the operation to a rescue operation."

But even after Mr Harrison had been found, he still faced a complex process to bring him out safely. Having been at such depth for so many hours, he needed time in a decompression chamber to normalise his body pressure.

Christine Cridge, a medical director at the Diving Diseases Research Centre (DDRC), advised the rescue team during this process. "It's a situation I've not come across before," she told the BBC's Newsday programme. "After a certain amount of time at pressure, nitrogen will dissolve into the tissues. If he'd ascended directly from 30m to the sea surface..... it's likely he'd have had a cardiac arrest, or at best, serious neurological issues. Mr Harrison describes his story as a "miracle", but he also told Reuters: "When I am at home sometimes it feels like the bed I am sleeping in is sinking. I think I'm still in the sea again. I jump up and I scream."

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons; YouTube, NOAA

Text Sources: National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA); “Introduction to Physical Oceanography” by Robert Stewart , Texas A&M University, 2008 ; Wikipedia, National Geographic, Live Science, BBC, Smithsonian, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, The New Yorker, Reuters, Associated Press, Lonely Planet Guides and various books and other publications.

Last Updated March 2023

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