Real Life Castaway Returns Home

Foreign Minister of El Salvador Jaime Miranda (L) talks with Jose Salvador Alvarenga as the latter arrives at Comalapa airport in San Luis Talpa on the outskirts of San Salvador February 11, 2014. REUTERS/Jorge Cabrera
Foreign Minister of El Salvador Jaime Miranda (L) talks with Jose Salvador Alvarenga as the latter arrives at Comalapa airport in San Luis Talpa on the outskirts of San Salvador February 11, 2014. REUTERS/Jorge CabreraRea

The real life castaway that miraculously washed up recently on a Marshall Islands atoll after more than a year adrift in his small fishing boat has returned to his native El Salvador.

The castaway, who has since been identified as Jose Salvador Alvarenga, arrived Monday night at El Salvador’s capital of San Salvador after a flight from Los Angeles. Alvarenga, who first appeared to the public with a thick beard and long hair, was greeted by a swarm of reporters looking weak but clean-shaven and, more importantly, alive.

Jose Salvador Alvarenga pictured upon his arrival in the Marshall Islands.
Jose Salvador Alvarenga pictured upon his arrival in the Marshall Islands.

As the story goes, Alvarenga was on a one day fishing trip from the Mexican city of Tapachula when sudden strong winds swept his 24-foot fiberglass fishing boat out to sea. He then spent about 13 months adrift in the Pacific Ocean, surviving by eating fish and birds he caught with his bare hands and drinking turtle blood when rain water ran out. Tragically his fishing partner, a teenage boy, died sometime into the journey after refusing to eat.

It’s an amazing story, so amazing in fact that is has led many to question its authenticity.

The first photos of Alvarenga showed a heavily bearded, relatively healthy-looking man with a plump, well-fed face. Not exactly your typically guy (sans beard) who has been stuck on a small boat with no food or shade for the past year.

But experts maintain that his story adds up, with doctors claiming that his puffy appearance was not atypical of a man whose vital organs were slowly but surely failing.

Curious about his story ourselves, we reached out to Bouyweather.com Chief Meteorologist, Mark Willis, who explained that an infamous and fairly common wind phenomenon known as the “Tehuantepecer” may very well have did him in.

Topography of the Isthmus of Tehuantepec showing the Chivela Pass, Sierra Madre Mountains, and the Gulf of Tehuantepec. Image courtesy of John Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory
Topography of the Isthmus of Tehuantepec showing the Chivela Pass, Sierra Madre Mountains, and the Gulf of Tehuantepec. Image courtesy of John Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory

“Simply put, a “Tehuantepecer” is one of the most amazing displays of wind in the world,” Willis explained. “The term is used to describe a phenomenon that brings a narrow area of strong northerly winds to the Gulf of Tehuantepec [where Alvarenga set off from].

“The “gap flow” associated with a Tehuantepecer typically produces around 12 gale force (greater than or equal to 34kts) wind events in the Gulf of Tehuantepec each cold season, most of which occur between November and March. In addition, there are typically around 6 storm force (greater than or equal to 50kts) events each year.”

SEE: Castaway Jose Salvador: Blame the Tehuantepecer?

Looking into Alvarenga’s story, Willis dug into the weather archives for the date the pair claims to have set off, December 21, 2012:

“Archived weather charts during [December 21] revealed an even stronger “Tehuantepecer” event associated with a strong area of high pressure (~1033mb) that built over South Texas behind a cold front that pushed through the Gulf of Mexico. While satellite observations were not readily available in this region on the 21st, Bouyweather chart archives suggested that an area of strong gale to low end storm force winds (40-50kt) were blowing through the Gulf of Tehuantepec during this time. In addition, the National Hurricane Center’s Tropical Analysis and Forecast Branch had a Storm Warning in effect on the 21st.”

Buoyweather.com historical wind speed and streamline chart from December 21, 2012 showing an area of 35-50kt N winds through the Gulf of Tehuantepec.
Buoyweather.com historical wind speed and streamline chart from December 21, 2012 showing an area of 35-50kt N winds through the Gulf of Tehuantepec.

So did a “Tehuantepecer” lead to Jose Salvador’s Mayday? Willis explains:

“Well, we don’t know for sure and we may never know the answer to that question. However, we are fairly confident that there were potentially very dangerous “Tehuantepecer” North wind events that occurred on both November 17-19, 2012 and December 21, 2012. These events are enough to impact any mariner, especially the storm force event on the 21st.”

Alvarenga has now been repatriated to El Salvador, where he grew up but has not been in more than eight years.