Around 800 B.C., Homer wrote “The Odyssey,” the epic tale of a man named Ulysses cast adrift on an impossible, storm-tossed adventure. “By hook or by crook, this peril too shall be something that we remember,” Homer wrote. And there is no doubt we shall remember the perilous tale almost 3,000 years later of the Pacific Survivor, 37-year old Jose Alvarenga.
He is home now, and like Homer’s hero Ulysses, Jose’s odyssey sounds mythical. In a world filled with grifters and charlatans, we are asked to believe a modest Salvadoran fisherman did something never before achieved, beaten the biggest, baddest ocean, almost bare-handed.
Strange thing is, unlike Homer’s epic hero, Jose Alvarenga’s tale is apparently true.
Now, the Miracle Survivor of the Pacific is back in El Salvador, the Central American nation he fled years before, apparently following a brutal bar fight. We are told, he settled in nearby Mexico and a subsistence existence as an itinerant fisherman a decade and a half ago.
On around Nov. 18, 2012, Jose goes missing from a Mexican village when he and a buddy lost power in their boat while shark-fishing in a storm. They get caught by the current, the underwater river that flows relentlessly away from shore. Before they know it, they are, again in Homer’s words, “out of sight, if not out of mind.”
Fourteen long months later, alone, Jose washes ashore on a remote Pacific Island 6,500 miles from where he started. Before we go any further, review those mind-boggling numbers; 14 months adrift at sea; on an unguided journey of 6,500 miles. That is the equivalent of drifting west from New York City to Los Angeles, then back east to New York, then west again to Chicago.
The "Super Superviviente" (Super Survivor) is home now, to an epic, overwhelming Salvadoran welcome, but how exactly did he survive without even a fishing rod or cooking gear to harvest the fruits of the sea or canned food or a bottle of fresh water? And as he drifted across the world’s largest ocean, what happened to his partner, 22-year old Ezequiel Cordoba? The surviving castaway says Ezequiel died because he refused to eat the raw flesh and blood of the birds and fish Jose somehow wrangled.
But Jose had a knife, and I confess my first question was whether Jose ate Ezequiel to survive? After all, Homer wrote, “The blade itself incites to deeds of violence.”
Over time we will undoubtedly hear all about Jose’s warts and failings, and answers to other questions like why didn’t he contact his family during his long stay in Mexico? And what exactly was he running from? But for now, what seems undeniable is his incredible feat. The dude really did something that deserves an Olympic medal for unimaginable endurance. He lived when every other person we have ever known who was placed in the same impossible situation, has died.
The Pacific Ocean is vast beyond imagining. Take a map and trace Jose’s apparent course as he drifted from the fishing village of Costa Azul on the west coast of Mexico near the Guatemalan border, 6,500 miles across the widest, watery part of the planet’s bleakest space, ending on a remote atoll on the southernmost tip of the Marshall Islands, not far from Indonesia.
That’s a track twice the width of North America, clinging to life in an empty boat propelled only by the invisible current that flows west from our continent toward the widely scattered islands of Oceana, and Southeast Asia impossibly far away. There are no landmarks, no friendly ships, nothing, just undrinkable water, occasional fish and squalls and lonely space.
When my crew and I journeyed around the world back in 2000, it took our powerful sailing vessel Voyager 35 days to travel purposefully across just half the distance Jose drifted in his 21 foot long, powerless, fiberglass boat. On that leg of Voyager’s journey, our crew worried about conserving fuel and fresh water for fear that exhausting either would be disastrous in a place on earth where no one can come galloping to your rescue because everyone and everyplace is impossibly far away.
But armed with the incredible true grit characteristic of his people, he made it. Looking at him reminds me of the undocumented Central American bicycle messengers in New York. They’re tough enough to brave desert, mountains and U.S. BorderPatrol to make it all the way to the snow and ice of El Norte. So, unless this is the biggest con job of the 21st Century, Jose’s has to rank among the greatest survival stories of all times. He made it across the Pacific. Now, let’s see if he can successfully navigate the world media crush that has descended on the biggest star El Salvador has ever seen.
Hopefully, it will all work out for the survivor in the end. Giving Homer the final word, “A man who has been through bitter experiences and travelled far enjoys even his sufferings after a time.”