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438 Days is the astounding story of a Mexican fisherman who drifted over 9,000 miles across the Pacific Ocean, spending over a year at sea – lost, alone and fighting for survival.
Swept away from his home village during a ferocious storm, Salvador Alvarenga was cast out into the vast, empty and treacherous Pacific Ocean during an ill-advised fishing trip on 17 November 2012. The storm hit, the motor in the boat broke 20 miles off shore, the radio ran out of batteries and died, and the GPS monitor was not waterproof and was quickly waterlogged by the waves crashing over the boat.
Alvarenga managed one SOS call to shore before the radio died, and rescuers quickly mounted a search, but the weather was rough, and by the time a search began, Avarenga’s boat had drifted westward out of reach.
Lost, but with an indomitable spirit and a refusal to give in, Alvarenga learned how to feed himself by catching seabirds resting on his boat, hauling in turtles, and scooping the small but feisty triggerfish in his bare arms. With sharks bumping into his boat to remind him that one small swim outside his boat would mean certain death, Alvarenga was bound in his silent, lonely and desperate new home. Sheltering in the small icebox used to store a fisherman’s catch, he avoided the scorching sun, and by night, he lay on the floor of his boat and watched a sky filled with stars, satellites and wistfully watched the occasional plane flying over.
The description of Alvarenga’s life as a dirt-poor fisherman is fascinating. He lives in tiny beach village where drug-runners in boats share the same waterways as the fishermen, where a man can have his throat cut from a simple disagreement in a bar, or where people can disappear into prison for no known reason and never be seen again. But the fishermen create their own relaxation, days-long binges on tequila & Coronas with tortillas, chicken and cerviche on standby. Reggae, marijuana and non-stop banter fills the dirt huts with iguanas bumping noisily across the roof, the men emerge only to go fishing again, then spend the money on more parties on their return.
Lost at sea, Alvarenga had nothing but his 25-foot fibreglass fishing boat. He gives the reader an intriguing insight into what it’s like out there in the open ocean. Rubbish floats by constantly. In the middle of nowhere, Alvarenga rescued a barrel and small bottles to catch rainwater in to drink, shoes floated by, and bags of garbage floated 4000 miles from any landfall.
But the ocean could be mesmerizingly beautiful too – still, calm, the days tracked by the rising of the sun and watching the moon ebb, grow and flow cycle after cycle. Alvarenga describes the area as “the quietest place on earth” with a silence both eerie and bizarre. At times, Alvarenga felt a deep happiness living “without sin, without evil, just myself with no problems, no one to accuse me of anything. I was tranquil, and adapting to the ocean. This was my new life.”
Then there was terrifying action, packs of sharks circling around his boats, and the sounds of untold monsters under the sea, making massive noises and splashes through the night and sometimes emitting piercing shrieks. Alvarenga’s boat was visited by a whale shark – the world’s largest animal – floating beside him for an entire week, brushing the bottom of his boat, staring at him with a curious eye.
One method of Alvarenga’s to stay sane was to talk to the animals he saw, inventing whole stories and characters and talking for hours to keep a grip on his rapidly declining sanity. These stories became a part of his thread of hope; keeping fresh the memories of the things he wanted to live to experience again.
When you read of survival stories like this, you can’t help but put yourself into their place and wonder – could I survive this? This is a story of a man brought to the brink of death and emerging out the other side – completely traumatised and with an unimaginable tale to tell.
This book is utterly mesmerising, and I could not put it down. 438 Days is hands-down the best adventure book I’ve read all year, and I can’t recommend it highly enough.
Reviewed by Amie Lightbourne
438 Days- An Extraordinary True Story of Survival at Sea
by Jonathan Franklin
Published by Macmillan