Some stories are too astonishing to be true, and that’s the case with “438 Days: An Extraordinary True Story of Survival At Sea” by Jonathan Franklin.
How do you get so many spoilers in one title? But that’s OK, because you might be familiar with the story. Not too long ago, Salvador Alvarenga was an international sensation, and his face and story, if not his name, were known around the world.
Alvarenga is the shark fisherman who survived 14 months on his fishing boat, drifting from the coast of Mexico to the Marshall Islands north and east of Australia. That’s more than 5,500 miles, and he did it mostly alone. That he survived at all is amazing, but that he survived with a brain that hadn’t turned to mush is a miracle. That’s why his story was doubted by so many people when he found land. Franklin, a journalist for the Guardian newspaper, spent months researching the story and came away convinced of its veracity. That’s why he wrote this book.
Let’s back up. Alvarenga, 34, was looking for one more day of a huge haul, when he went out on the ocean with a novice fisherman. Another big haul meant lots of cash to buy lots of weed and gallons of tequila for days-long party his fishing community planned to wait out the huge storm coming their way. The storm blew in a little early and hit before they could get back to land. They lost the use of their outboard motor, their GPS and, after a frantic call to land, their radio. Rescuers were sent, but the seas were dangerous and they didn’t know where to begin looking and after a few days (and a delay by another major storm) the search was abandoned.
But the two fishermen were alive and floating, with nothing to help them survive. All the fishing equipment was swept overboard, and the only “luxury” they had was a large cooler they kept their fish in. Of course, it was empty because they tossed the hundreds of pounds of fish they had caught back to the sea to keep the boat afloat. Turned upside down, though, the cooler provided the only respite from the harsh sun.
Alvarenga, was only semi-literate, but knew the oceans and knew how to survive, or so he thought. He caught sea turtles and drank their blood to keep hydrated, fished with his hands, even taught himself how to catch the many seabirds that landed on his boat for food. His ingenuity, as Franklin presents it, is incredible. He “cooked” his food on the hot metal case of his motor, but also ate lots of things raw. Once, in a particularly long stretch of foodless drifting, he chopped off a piece of his long, matted, unwashed beard and ate it. Yeah, I know.
Of course, he’s being constantly bumped by sharks so even on the open water he was trapped. His 14 months adrift meant 14 months of steady stress, but he found ways to keep himself emotionally stable, even after his fellow castaway died. He also found inspiration to live in his daughter, who he hadn’t seen since she was an infant nearly 13 years earlier. He promised to change his ways if he lived.
One of the most interesting — and, in a way, saddest — aspects of his survival story is that he was able to last as long as he did by making tools and clothes from the tons and tons of garbage he found floating on the ocean. Plastic bottles, nets, Hefty bags full of trash (and pieces of sandwich, it turns out) all helped keep him alive. You’d also be surprised to find so many uses for urine. (Sounds like a Buzzfeed article: “10 ways he used his pee to survive: No. 8? My jaw dropped!”)
Anyway, Alvarenga’s story is still being told. After a period of adjusting, he is finding a new life on land and building a relationship with his daughter, and giving up his hard-partying lifestyle.
I couldn’t stop thinking about this book, and the grosser details made for good dinner conversation with the kids who seemed to find death preferable to, say, eating raw shark liver. A story like this can help puts so many things in perspective, and that’s why people write them and read them.
It’s a quick read and a fascinating one. Check it out and be inspired by the spirit of one human being.