Alvarenga was a 37-year-old Salvadoran fisherman, living and working in Mexico. A heavy drinker quick to pick up the tab, he had no family tying him down—his 13-year-old daughter lived with her mother in El Salvador. On this day, November 18, 2012, Alvarenga planned to head out into the Pacific at 10 a.m. and work straight through until 4 p.m. the next day. His crewman was Ezequiel Córdoba, a 22-year-old rookie. Loading the boat involved over a thousand pounds of equipment, including a five-foot-long and four-foot-high icebox that would soon be filled with tuna, shark, and mahimahi.
Alvarenga had been warned that a storm was coming, but there was little that would keep him from embarking. In one day, he’d make enough money to survive for a full week.
High waves raised and dropped the boat, sending the men crashing into the sides. “Willie, Willie!” Alvarenga yelled into the radio. “If you are coming to get me, come now!”
“We’re coming!” Willie shouted back. Shortly after that, the radio died. The wind continued to rip straight offshore, driving the men farther out to sea.
This was the last communication made…
In 12 months at sea, Alvarenga had drifted 5,000 miles at an average speed of less than one mile an hour. His clothes were shredded. Only a sweatshirt that had belonged to Córdoba protected him from the sun. From the waist down, he was naked except for a pair of ratty underwear and the random floating sneaker snatched from the sea. Atop his head, a burled mane of copper- colored hair rose in coils. From his face, a thick beard exploded outward.
On January 30, 2014, coconuts bobbed in the water, and the sky was filled with shorebirds. A cold rain limited visibility. Alvarenga stood on the deck, staring out. A tiny tropical island was emerging from the rainy mist. It looked wild, without roads, cars, or homes.His first urge was to dive overboard and swim to shore. But leery of sharks, he waited. It took him half a day to reach land. When he was ten yards from shore, he dived off the deck and let a wave carry him in. As the wave pulled away, Alvarenga was left facedown on the beach. “I held a handful of sand in my hand like it was a treasure,” he said.
Alvarenga was discovered by the lone couple who inhabited the island. He had washed ashore on the Ebon Atoll, the southern tip of the Marshall Islands, one of the most remote spots on Earth. Had Alvarenga missed Ebon, the next likely stop was the Philippines, 3,000 miles away.