First Contact With Castaway José Salvador Alvarenga

Giff Johnson / AFP / Getty Images

On January 31, a man stumbled ashore at Ebon, the southernmost of the Marshall Islands, a remote cluster of coral atolls in the western Pacific. He was dressed in rags and deeply sunburnt, with long hair and a wild beard. The man spoke only Spanish, so the local police brought him to one of the few people in the Marshalls who spoke the language, a 30-year-old American named Matt Riding. Originally from Troutdale, Oregon, Riding works as a cultural anthropologist documenting the oral traditions of the Marshallese. Riding’s Spanish was a little rusty at first, but he soon drew out the man’s story. He said his name was José Salvador Alvarenga and that he had been adrift since December 2012 in an open 24-foot fishing skiff, crossing 6,000 miles of ocean from the coast of Mexico, subsisting only on seabirds, turtles, and fish. If Alvarenga’s story is true, it is one of the greatest feats of survival ever recorded, and Riding was the first to hear his account.

How did you get involved?
I was at a meeting with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and they mentioned that they caught wind that at Ebon Atoll, which is the farthest atoll south in the Marshall Islands, a drifter had washed ashore and they couldn’t communicate with him because he only spoke Spanish. So I said ‘I speak Spanish and I can help,’ and it just happened that I was in the right place at the right time. So I rushed over to the hospital with some police detectives and we did our thing.

Describe the scene at the hospital.
They had him in a little private room with a nurse, and they’d already done the checkup and found out he was fine. He was just in some pain, his joints and feet were swollen. He had some finger pain, and he had some trouble standing on his own. But he was sitting in this room, slumped on the couch, and I don’t know, his hair is long, it’s bleached by the sun and he had this long, bushy beard. He had this really calm demeanor. He wasn’t talkative at all. We had to ask him really specific questions to be able to get it out of him.

Did he swim to shore?
The first thing he showed us, actually, was his feet. He said he woke up, dove in, cut his feet up on the rocks of the coral, and swam to shore. Someone else said the boat landed. I don’t know what the truth is.

Was he giving a clear narrative?
Yeah. He said he was a fisherman, specifically a shark fisherman. He’s from El Salvador but had been living and working in Mexico for 15 years now. He said he and another young fisherman, a boy that was only 15 years old, set out for a fishing trip, the engine died, a storm rolled in, and it blew them completely off course and they just drifted.

News reports were saying the person he went to sea with was his age. But you definitely heard him say 15?
Yeah. He said a 15-year-old boy and he was the son of his boss.

Did you get the sense that he’d lost it while he was at sea all those months?
I don’t think he lost it out at sea, but I think he’ll take a while to recover. When we talked to him he was confused. He contradicted himself a few times and he knew that he was coming off as a little bit crazy. He just made sure to point out that he had been out at sea for over a year. That he only had himself and God to talk to and that had jumbled his mind.

If he had missed this southern atoll, is it just open ocean?
Yeah it would have been. He didn’t land on the main island of that atoll actually – it’s a really small population and he happened to land close to where a hut, a local traditional house was. The people saw him and ran over to help him. The main island sent a boat over and the mayor happened to be there. Storms, cyclones, they come through. The Marshall Islands are a calm zone. People who sail around the Pacific year-round, they come here for the winter months because it’s a safe haven.

Was he emotional?
No. In that first moment, he wasn’t emotional really. It was a lot of “thank god,” “I can’t believe I’m alive.” I’ve been reading these stories about his family. He’s got a daughter and his two parents and they all live in El Salvador. I think his daughter is 12 or 14 years old. It hasn’t been confirmed yet. But they all live in El Salvador and all his brothers live in the States.

He hadn’t spoken to his family in years, even before this happened. Did he talk about that at all?
No, he didn’t. Every time he brought up his mother he’d get emotional and his daughter also. He didn’t talk about how he hadn’t been in contact with them for a long time, but he did talk about how much he missed them and how he looked forward to seeing them.

Did he say anything about the other person on the boat other than that he died and was buried at sea?
Yeah. That’s all the details we have on that. After four months, he passed away, and he had to put him out to sea. And he said the reason he died was he couldn’t stomach the food. So I don’t know – it sounds like he was dehydrated. He said he would get the food down by plugging his nose, and so I don’t know if the boy didn’t want to eat, couldn’t eat, or if his body was rejecting the food. I’m not sure.

Did he get rainwater?
Yeah. He would catch rainwater, and when it didn’t rain he would resort to drinking his urine.

Do you have any sense of whether this is legitimate?
I guess I was in the same boat as everyone else. There was a big group at the dock when he arrived the other day, and he stepped off the boat and he didn’t look like the emaciated castaway that we all expected. He had a little meat left on his bones and he was walking, of course with help, but we were expecting someone super fragile, really frail, super emaciated. From that, everyone thought, ‘This can’t be a true story.’ But after talking to him, this is what i’m telling everyone. There’s no reason to doubt his story. It may not have been 16 months, but there’s no doubt in my mind that he was out to sea for a very long time and he’s one of the greatest survivors that have ever lived.

It’s amazing he stayed so healthy all that time. Through all this, it really does seem there aren’t many explanations for how he could end up there. Did you have any doubts?
After talking to him, I totally believe the story. I think that exactly what he said happened. The engine broke and they just drifted.

When you spent time with him, you said he was getting his bearings. Did he still seem out of it?
I feel like he’s getting better. He’s walking on his own, slowly and carefully. But he’s up and a little more independent. He’s more open to talk, and he’s bringing things up on his own now. The reason I was with him yesterday is because the Ministry of Foreign Affairs needed someone to assist in telling him about the medications that the hospital has prescribed to him. So I went to the hospital and back to the hotel with him and just kind of hung out for a few hours. Asked more questions.

And he was starting to open up a bit more?
Yeah. A little. And while we were there, he got his hair cut. That was the first request he had. I need a haircut, and when can I shave my face? During his haircut in the hotel room, he got a phone call from some family members. It was the most incredible and intimate moment that we should have let him take in private, but stayed put for some reason. He was completely overcome with emotion from the get-go, overwhelmed and excited to hear their voices. It felt like I was witnessing a miracle.

Did he talk about how he was coping mentally?
He mentioned having suicidal thoughts, but that he couldn’t actually follow through with them. He attributed the strength to keep going to God. He said he thought about his family a lot, too. I’m sure thoughts of them helped him persevere. He hasn’t seen his daughter since she was a toddler, so I can imagine that the will to see her kept him going.

What are his future plans? I was just kind of curious if he’d go back to fishing, and he shot that down real quick. He said ‘No I’m not going to be a fisherman anymore. I’m going to go work in a bakery probably.’ His parents own or owned or worked in a bakery. He said he’d like to work with them. 

Is he still there now?
Yeah, he’s still here. And the Marshallese authorities have received a lot of instruction after dealing with the Mexican embassy in the Philippines. They’re the ones that are calling the shots right now, because that’s where he departed from. That’s where he got lost. So what they’re saying is to keep him out of the media, protect him, keep him safe, and they’re going to come up with the itinerary. But it looks like he won’t leave for a couple days. 

And now you’re involved in the story?
I’m not the one to call the shots. I just happen to speak Spanish. When these news crews ask if I can request 15 minutes on their behalf, you know, I wasn’t willing to do that. One of the crews really wanted to watch him getting his hair cut and his face shaven. That’s not something I was even comfortable asking José. He pointed out that he’s willing to talk to the media but the one thing he requested was that he get his hair cut first and his face shaven. I thought that was funny.

They’re just trying to keep the media circus at bay right now because he’s in a fragile state?
Yeah, he is. They want to maintain his dignity and protect him from all that. And I think, as a whole, the Marshall Islands have treated it very well. The community has reached out and they’re providing him with meals, they’re providing him with clean clothes, and that’s just kind of the way the culture is here. They have a huge emphasis on helping people out and sharing and caring for one another.