Shipwreck Survivors: Three men in a boat
They claim to have survived for 289 days at sea, but, four months on, the awe-inspiring tale of the Mexican fishermen looks less like a miracle and more like an elaborate hoax. Mike Guy reports
Sunday 07 January 2007
It's still night-time, but dawn will be coming soon. One of the most famous men in Mexico is lying awake in his boarding-house bed, listening to thunder pound the church on the town square. He hasn't slept in days. "When I close my eyes," he confesses, "I see nothing but the sun."
Last October, Salvador "Chava" Ordoñez and four other fishermen embarked from San Blas, a village on the west coast of Mexico, for what was supposed to be a three-day shark-fishing expedition. On the first night they ran out of petrol (or the engine broke down, or both, depending on which version you read) and their small boat was swept away by the same strong winds and currents that carried Portuguese spice traders to Micronesia in the 17th century.
Nine and a half months later, the 27-ft craft was spotted by the crew of a tuna-fishing boat in the waters off Baker Island, a tiny atoll some 5,500 miles west of San Blas. Two of the men had died of starvation, but 37-year-old Chava Ordoñez survived, along with Jesus Vidaña and Lucio Rendon, both 27. In English, their names translate to the Saviour, Jesus, and the Light.
Los Perdidos, as they're known in Mexico, claimed they survived by drinking rainwater from the filthy bilge and eating seagulls, raw fish, and sea turtles. They read aloud from Chava's tattered Bible, while Lucio, a musician, played air-guitar concertos to stave off boredom, as toxic on a small boat as the seawater around it.
The three pescadores (fishermen) had apparently endured the most remarkable odyssey of survival ever recorded: 289 days at sea, utterly exposed to the blazing sun, with nothing but two useless outboard engines and their own inner toughness. It was the kind of accidental epic journey that brought the Vikings to North America, the Maoris to New Zealand, Noah to Mount Ararat.
As news of their rescue flashed around the world, the fishermen's journey took on near-biblical significance. The Catholic Church's League of Bishops declared their survival a profound miracle, an "example of the power of faith". Before long, a mysterious Christian film producer from the US had signed Chava and his two fellow survivors to a reported $4m (£2m) movie deal. But when photographs surfaced showing Chava and his companions looking rested and well-fed after their ordeal, the media turned sceptical. Had they eaten their companions? Were they drug-runners gone astray? The accusations came to a head at an unruly news conference in Mexico City.
But the bishops had a point: the tale of Los Perdidos is sufficiently fantastic that it requires a certain degree of faith to believe it at all.
San Blas is a small, mud-spattered fishing village on Mexico's Pacific coast, about 60 miles north of Puerto Vallarta. Many of the 9,000 residents are shrimp, shark and dorado fishermen, while others operate eco-tours for bird-watchers. San Blas is best known for its jejenes, ravenous gnats that rise from the sand at dusk to feast on human flesh.
Three blocks down Calle Batallon from the town square, Chava is drinking Pacifico beer in the courtyard of Hotel Ranchero, the shabby, musty boarding house where he lives. People stop by the Ranchero every day in search of Chava, or "El Perdido" - city functionaries, union (omega) representatives, old friends, old "friends", book publishers, parishioners, journalists, incredulous fishermen, and eager women. Jesus and Lucio have already left town; he hasn't heard much from them.
Chava is a favourite in the local bars. Soon after he arrived in San Blas for the shrimp season 15 years ago, he earned the nickname "Ballena", after his preferred beer. On this rainy night, Chava's friend May, who owns the Ranchero, and his old buddy Carlos, from the off-licence, have stopped in (with a bottle) to hear Chava talk about his ordeal. "Ballena used to fall down a lot," Carlos says, smiling. "It seemed like every night, eh, Chavita?"
Short and stocky, with dark skin and a kindly face, Chava smiles and nods. A football match plays silently on the TV; Chava's eyes fix on it as he recounts his long voyage. "We left from Boca de Camichin at dawn with hooks ready to catch the tuna," he begins. Boca de Camichin is San Blas's sister village, about 12 miles away. "Then we used the tuna and skipjack to fish for shark, because the dark meat gives off a lot of blood."
Commercial shark fishing is a brutal, controversial industry. Fishermen slice the fins from the sharks and toss the bodies, sometimes still alive, overboard. Asian buyers pay around £25 a pound for the fins, which are used to make shark-fin soup, which costs upward of £50 a bowl.
Chava and his companions were not rich men. Lucio Rendon lived with his grandmother, aunt, and uncle in a nearby pueblo called La Limon; Jesus "Juanchito" Vidaña grew up in a fishing village in Sinaloa, to the north. Both men are tall and slightly paunchy, with thin moustaches and long, curly, mullet haircuts. The owner of the boat, known around the docks as Señor Juan, lived in Mazatlan, six hours north. The fifth man was older and didn't talk much. His boatmates called him "El Farsero".
Before heading out, they stopped in San Blas harbour to pick up supplies. "We started down where the shrimp boats are," Chava says. "We had sandwiches wrapped in paper for later, and there were also plantanos [bananas]. And of course there were jugs of water, but they were empty very soon."
No one took note of Señor Juan's launch leaving San Blas on 28 October, 2005. Thus the fishermen were never officially declared missing, and the government never searched for them.
Señor Juan's boat was a 27-ft fibre-glass sled with an open cockpit and plenty of workspace, but no VHF radio, radar, fish-finder, GPS, or any other electronics. None of the fishermen had a mobile phone. Nor was there a canopy to provide shelter from the sun, and Chava regretted that he hadn't brought a baseball cap. This type of boat, called a bugy or lancha by the locals, is common on the coast, and dozens are tied along the docks and rock-lined shore of San Blas's small harbour. Although most lancha engines are held together with duct tape and baling wire, Señor Juan's boat sported two 250-horsepower outboard motors, each of which cost upward of £8,000 new.
Señor Juan steered for the Islas Marias, a small archipelago 60 miles off the coast that is home to a massive prison complex, the Alcatraz of Mexico. "It was very sunny," Chava says. "There were waves, but they weren't very big. It is four hours to the islands. We set our lines in the water for the tuna and ate sandwiches for lunch. There were also beans on the boat."
According to Chava, Señor Juan pulled into the harbour of the largest island and topped off the fuel tanks. Then they headed back out to sea. They set their longline tackle on the first morning. In longline fishing, 80 to 100 baited hooks are spaced three- to six-feet apart on a long rope that spans two buoys. The gear is left to drift for as long as a day before it is hauled in, one hook at a time.
After they set the equipment, the sky darkened and a storm rolled in. The wind picked up strength and the waves began to gather and crest. Night fell, and the fishermen lost sight of their equipment. Señor Juan panicked. That equipment is expensive. So he started a frantic search for the gear, his twin outboards burning precious fuel.
It was a long and frightening night, and Chava, the most experienced of the five, tried to convince Señor Juan to give up the search and head back to the Islas Marias to refuel. But Juan's concern for his lost gear clouded his judgement. He zigzagged around in the dark for hours before the engines sputtered and ran out of gas. In the ensuing silence the five of them realised they had much bigger problems than missing fishing gear. "At that point we got really serious," Chava says quietly. "We started drifting out to sea."
After the storm passed, the sun returned, and thirst overwhelmed them almost immediately. They were at the mercy of the wind and the currents, well out of sight of land, without a cloud in the sky.
"After four days I got a plastic container and then I relieved myself," Chava says. It was an empty fuel tank that he washed out with seawater. "I said I was going to drink my own urine, but the rest of them refused. I said I wanted to live."
More than nine months later, on 9 August, 2006, the Koo's 102, a 240ft purse-seine fishing boat, was plying the waters off Baker and Howland Islands, in the same lonely, atoll-specked region where the American aviator Amelia Earhart is said to have disappeared in the 1930s. At around three in the afternoon a mate on the bridge noticed the drifting lancha, which hadn't appeared on the radar.
"I was awake when the boat rescued us," Chava says. The three usually tried to sleep during the sun-scorched days and fished for food at night. There was a small enclosure in the bow, and they took turns sleeping in its meagre shade. Jesus had a compass, and he had been assuring the others that they would soon land in China; Lucio wore a watch, but hid it, he says, "because each little while they asked me what time it was".
"I was usually awake," Chava says, "because it was very hard to sleep on the boat with the sun. We saw many boats pass by us. When that happened, it was devastating, and we didn't talk for many hours. But I never imagined we would die. I knew that God was protecting us. When Lucio said, 'This boat sees us, he is coming over to us,' I was very happy. Very happy."
The Taiwanese crew gave them water and basic first aid for their sunburns. Then the cook emerged from the galley with the pescadores' first real meal in more than nine months: a large platter of sushi. "Are you going to fry that fish?" Jesus asked incredulously. The cook didn't understand him.
As the vessel steamed toward the Marshall Islands, 1,200 miles northwest, the rescued men rested and ate rice and noodles, and the captain faxed their identities to port authorities in Majuro, the capital, who forwarded the information to the Mexican consul. The lancha was hoisted up and stowed on the deck of the big boat, its twin engines long since dismantled to make fishing tackle and snares.
When the Koo's 102 arrived on the Marshall Islands, Eugene Muller, the manager of Koo's Fishing Company, greeted the castaways. "They were a little skinny and exhausted," he says. "And understandably so. By the time I saw them on the docks they were in pretty good condition, but that was two weeks later."
Meanwhile, news of the remarkable rescue reached Mexico. Families in fishing communities often lose men to the sea; the pescadores' loved ones had held memorial services for them, and moved on with their lives. Vidaña's wife had given birth to a baby, and his house was on the verge of foreclosure. The media reported that Rendon was on probation for stealing shrimp from a San Blas fishing company. Chava's live-in girlfriend was with another man.
The three men, who had never been on an aeroplane before, flew to Hawaii on 21 August, where photographs were taken of them wearing leis, looking as though they'd just vacationed on the North Shore. The press had also learned of the two other fishermen who had died. When the three survivors landed in Mexico City on 25 August, they found more than 100 reporters waiting at the airport, shoving and shouting hostile questions.
"Can you explain why you are alive?"
"Why aren't your fingernails longer?"
"Why do you look so healthy?"
"Did you eat your companions?"
"Are you cocaine traffickers?
"Well, none of that is true," Rendon said at the press conference. "We were out shark fishing."
"This is a miracle from God," Chava added meekly.
"Those who don't believe us," said Vidaña, "I hope they never have to go through what we went through."
In San Blas many locals have opinions about Los Perdidos, but few have as much authority as Antonio Aguayo. He was a mate on a San Blas shark boat as a teen and has been a captain, guide, and outboard mechanic for 35 years. These days he mostly runs sport-fishing day trips for dorado and marlin aboard his lancha, which has an immaculate late-model 75-horsepower Mercury outboard. Everyone knows Tony, and Tony knows everyone. He even rescued Chava once in 2005.
"I got a radio call from a boat that was out for two days and a belt broke on the engine," Aguayo says. "They were 60 miles out. The owner and six other guys in a boat. Chava was one of them. They had a big boat with a wide canopy, and when I came up to the boat there was Chava, standing on the front. He saw me and he called out, 'Maestro!' From then on, every time he sees me he calls me Maestro."
When he's not out fishing, Aguayo sits in his Ford pickup in the shade of a large tree, in case a potential client happens past. His tidy boat is moored nearby. "Chava is not a close friend of mine, but I know that he is a sensitive young man, a nice boy," Aguayo says. "But this story is very difficult to believe. I think maybe they were on land for much of the time, in Costa Rica or Colombia, or even Panama."
He thinks it likely that the three were involved in some sort of smuggling operation. The west coast of Mexico is a favourite destination for shipments of cocaine from Central and South America, according to DEA agent Sarah Pullen. From there the contraband is taken overland to the US.
"There is a system that [the smugglers] have," Aguayo says. "They travel 100 or 120 miles offshore to meet up with other boats that are bigger and give them gasoline, so that they go (omega) farther." With a full load of fuel and no navigational equipment, the men could have zoomed hundreds of miles off course. "Then the current takes them," Aguayo theorises.
Aguayo has seen tough times at sea. He has seen boats filled with fishermen swallowed whole in storms, en route from Islas Marias. He has seen men return from disastrous voyages deprived of water and food under the harsh Pacific sun. "I think these Perdidos spent some time out there, a month maybe," he says, pointing down the river toward the sea. "But the most I've seen anyone survive is three or four days. After that you have a desperation. Your body gets disorders - your eyes, your skin. Here, if you go out for three days without having food and water, you would probably die."
Late one afternoon Aguayo and I board his lancha and steam a mile downriver, toward a fenced-in naval station that guards the mouth of the estuary. We slow to an idle by the base, and Aguayo points out four lanchas, beached side by side and partially covered by blue tarpaulins. The police confiscated them in the estuary as they were making drug pick ups. Each has two giant outboard motors, like the ones on Señor Juan's boat.
"Only those three men have the truth," Aguayo says, echoing the words of several fishermen I spoke with. "I don't know what they were doing on that boat. But I think I know that they were not fishing for shark."
In the rich recorded history of sailors lost at sea, none has lasted a fraction of the time or fared nearly as well as the three Perdidos. In 1982, American sailor Steven Callahan drifted for 76 days in a covered life raft, staying alive by eating barnacles and fish and distilling seawater with a basic desalinator; he was emaciated and near death when he made land in the Caribbean, having travelled 2,000 miles. "It took me six weeks to recover to the point of being physically functional," he wrote in his book Adrift. "It took another six weeks for... my weight to return to normal."
Gabriel Garcia Marquez's first book, The Story of a Shipwrecked Sailor (which began as a series of newspaper articles in 1955) tells the story of a Colombian navy seaman who fell overboard and drifted for 10 days on a life raft. He killed a seagull, tried to eat it, but couldn't. "It's easy to say after five days of hunger you can eat anything... But you still feel nauseated by a mess of warm, bloody feathers with a strong odour of raw fish and of mange."
Medically speaking, a human body living in a boat on the open sea would be vulnerable to a long list of potential maladies, almost all of which would be visibly evident. "This is not going to be subtle stuff," says Dr Jay Lemery, who is an expert on wilderness medicine. "You're going to see muscle breakdown at the highest levels, retinal burns, cataracts, poor dental hygiene to say the least, and severe, if not fatal, scurvy."
Scurvy, which results from vitamin C deficiency, sets in after one to three months; its symptoms include spongy gums, liver spots, and bleeding from the mucous membranes, among other things. "After 289 days of the occasional raw bird, the toll on the human body would be extraordinary," Lemery continues. "You are going to see Skeletor."
When I first met Chava, a little more than a month after his rescue, he was quite robust; his hair was a rich black, his skin was clear, his eyes bright, and his teeth, when he smiled, were a flashy white. Under his crisp new football shirt I detected a slight, beery paunch.
"I had no trouble eating the birds," Chava tells me. On the boat, Lucio and Jesus called him "El Gato", because he would lie still for hours and wait for the seabirds to walk near his hand. "When I caught them, I split them down the middle like this" - he motions as if breaking a loaf of peasant bread in half - "and then we take turns eating it."
"Sometimes our stomachs hurt, because we would go 15 days without eating," Vidaña told Mexican television. "There were times when we had only one bird to share among the three of us."
For water, the men collected rain in the fish-well of the lancha and in empty fuel cans, which they washed out with seawater. Barnacles eventually formed on the bottom of the boat, attracting a steady supply of sea life. Chava says that they drank the blood of the fish and birds they caught, a practice he learned in a survival course offered by the local government just weeks before the fateful voyage. "We also ate the intestines of the turtles," Jesus said in a videotaped interview. They discovered that the turtles' heads were filled with blood, so they cut them off and drank from them like upturned goblets.
Señor Juan, the boat owner, and the other man, El Farsero, tried to eat the raw meat, but they couldn't keep it down. Chava says the two of them vomited blood. Señor Juan was the first to die, in January, after three months at sea. "The other men on the boat were sleeping and I was awake with the fishing equipment, trying to catch a fish," Chava says. "Don Juan was in the bow of the boat, and he called to me. I went there and he wasn't moving. I said to him, 'What's wrong, hermano?' He didn't respond."
Jesus awoke and asked, "Is he alive?"
"No, Juanchito," Chava replied. "He is already dead." He put a crucifix around the dead man's neck and pushed his body over the side. El Farsero died 15 days later. "He cried and cried for many days," Chava says. "He was very ill, and he cried. Then he just stopped."
The three survivors read prayers from Chava's Bible before they heaved El Farsero's body, too, into the sea. They would not have been the first shipwrecked crew to resort to eating human flesh under dire circumstances. But Chava insists that they never even considered it. "Never," he says, his face impassive. "We never talked about it."
Back in the United States, Joe Kissack's wheels began turning as soon as he heard about the Perdidos. Tall and friendly, with long, swept-back hair, the 49-year-old Kissack was once an executive vice president at Columbia TriStar Television, where he negotiated the syndication sale of Seinfeld and Walker: Texas Ranger. Two and a half years ago he checked into a psychiatric hospital while battling severe depression. "I was just at the end of my rope," he says. "I don't really remember much, but my chart says I was suicidal."
Kissack says he recovered with the help of prayer. He formed Ezekiel 22 Productions in July, while Chava, Lucio, and Jesus were still lost in the South Pacific. At a dinner party in August, he heard the story and was on a plane to Mexico the next day. He views his journey to find the Perdidos as one of faith; in much the same way he views their journey across the Pacific. (omega)
"Every time I had doubt, God gave me a sign," he says. In Mexico City, TV news reports about the rumours of cannibalism and drug trafficking almost scared him off. Then, as he was about to abandon his journey to San Blas and go back to Atlanta, God spoke to him again, this time through a pop star. "I opened the cab door and I heard George Michael singing 'Ya gotta have faith,'" he exclaims. "Then I said, 'God, you gotta be kidding me!' A sign? Maybe? Ya think?"
It was not difficult to find the three fishermen and in a meeting at a hotel restaurant in Mazatlan, Kissack delivered a PowerPoint presentation that predicted that they would earn millions of dollars from a film based on their ordeal. "Of course this is going to make a lot of money," he says. "There are 350 million Spanish speakers in the world. And what are they talking about right now? The election? The revolution in Oaxaca? Uh-uh. They're talking about los pescadores. This is the biggest story in Latin America, like, ever."
While news reports have valued the deal at $3.85m, Kissack says that figure isn't accurate, and that the officials who floated it weren't even part of the negotiation. "It's more like a book publishing deal," says the man who sold Seinfeld. "The survivors get to benefit from anything my company benefits from. They are getting a salary and percentages, guaranteed through 2014." For now, he says, he's paying them out of his own pocket.
Kissack thinks of himself as a "fourth pescador" and says repeatedly that he wants to protect them. "Chavita is carrying some pain with him," Kissack muses. "I don't know what it is, and it may not be from the voyage. After all, these are very tough men who have led hard lives. But he's got something in there, a darkness, some sort of dark secret.
"These guys are tough," he continues. "They are survivors. And really, if they were making this up, these simple fishermen from this tiny place in Mexico, do you think the three of them could keep their stories straight under all this scrutiny? I mean, I couldn't even do that."
Like Kissack, we want to believe the tale of Los Perdidos. We want to believe that human grit can conquer 5,500 miles of pitiless ocean and scorching sun. We want to believe that three simple men passed through the centre of hell for nine months and came out smiling, even a little pudgy. We are drawn to their story, as we are to all survival stories, because we need to know that no matter how bad it gets, how seemingly hopeless, salvation waits on the other side.
Start asking hard questions, though, and it becomes extremely difficult to accept that three men in a 27ft lancha could have drifted 5,500 miles across the Pacific in nine months and lived. For one thing, the prevailing wind and current patterns make their journey highly unlikely, according Joseph L Reid, professor emeritus of physical oceanography at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in San Diego and an expert in Pacific currents. There are actually two westward-flowing currents: a relatively weak one at about the latitude of San Blas (22 degrees north), and a much stronger one, just below the equator. In between, however, runs an easterly countercurrent that the fishermen would have had to cross en route to their rescue spot.
"The fact that they crossed the countercurrent makes it very strange," Reid says. Then there are the doldrums, which are a little north of the equator. There would have been days on end when there was no wind at all."
Reid estimates that if they had really started near San Blas, the pescadores would have averaged between 12 and 15 miles a day (instead of 20 miles per day), which means that their journey should have taken closer to a year. Far to the south of San Blas, however, the winds and currents are more consistent. If the fishermen had started drifting at the latitude of, say, Panama or Colombia, they would have zipped along at close to 28 miles a day, says Reid. Their journey would have taken more like 200 days instead of 289.
But that's still a very long time for three men to survive in an open boat near the equator. "It takes just 60 days for the human body to die from protein deficiency," Dr Jay Lemery points out. "These fishermen's bodies would exhibit a severe catabolic state, which means they would be very emaciated." Yet in photos taken on the fishing boat, just days after their rescue, the fishermen display chubby cheeks and brilliant, toothy smiles.
In short, common sense and human physiology dictate that their amazing journey could never have happened the way they say it did. The truth is, if they were really shark fishing, they were likely the only shark boat in Mexico capable of keeping up with the narco-traffickers on open water. They probably at least tried to eat their dead comrades. And they could never have survived for nine months.
Yet there they were, drifting in their lancha at 175 degrees west and two degrees north, thousands of miles from home, smiling and waving as the Koo's 102 drew near.
When Chava, Lucio and Jesus returned to San Blas, Padre Pedro Franquez, the town priest, hosted a fiesta on the square. When the crowd applauded the speeches extolling his heroism, Chava smiled politely, but the public had already split between believers and doubters, so the whole thing seemed oddly forced. "It was very strange," says the bartender at a local bar and restaurant called McDonalds. "We were all celebrating their miraculous return. There were speeches, a roast of meats, music. The mayor and the priest were there. But if what they are saying is the truth, then miracles exist. And I've never been in a church."
One afternoon I stop by Padre Pedro's office in a shaded courtyard adjacent to the towering nave of his parish church, La Virgen de Fatima. A stout man with thick forearms, the padre takes time to meet me in the midst of a busy procession of engaged couples, concerned citizens, and municipal officials.
"I hope you are enjoying your time here in San Blas," Padre Pedro says with a kindly smile. A fan whirs in the corner and paperwork rustles on his desk. "Are the jejenes too much for you?"
After we exchange pleasantries I blurt out that I've just seen the confiscated drug boats at the navy base, and wonder if the padre knows anything about smuggling in the region.
"I would like to invite you not to attend my services tonight," he says sternly, and waves toward the door. A secretary approaches and guides me outside.
"Have a good day," she says, and closes the door to keep out the jejenes
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