José Salvador Alvarenga has captured imaginations and raised a few skeptical eyebrows. Alvarenga landed a tiny, beat-up boat in the Marshall Islands on Thursday and claimed to have drifted across 6,700 miles (10,800 kilometers) of Pacific Ocean, eating fish and turtles while drinking rainwater during an astounding 13-month ordeal.
He said he left Costa Azul, Mexico, and was blown out to sea with a companion who later died. Eventually, his boat drifted to landfall near the midpoint between Australia and Hawaii.
Some have suggested that Alvarenga appears a bit too healthy to have survived such an ordeal. "It's hard to buy," George Lanwi, commissioner of the Marshall Islands police force, told NBC News. A CNN weather producer studied currents and found that the timing, at least, appears plausible.
If his incredible tale is proved true, Alvarenga will join the list of history's famous castaways.
Alexander Selkirk, marooned from 1704 to 1709, likely inspired the story of Robinson Crusoe. But unlike the fictional Crusoe, Selkirk wasn't shipwrecked but stranded by his captain in the remote Juan Fernandez Islands, 400 miles (644 kilometers) from Chile, possibly because of the sailor's fiery temper.
Selkirk was given basic provisions and tools, and his island, today known as Robinson Crusoe Island, featured plenty of water and foodstuffs like berries, spiny lobsters, and even feral goats. Archaeologists, partially funded by the National Geographic Society, have found what appears to be Selkirk's camp.
After rescue by British privateers, Selkirk enjoyed fame for his castaway exploits and may have even met author Daniel Defoe. But he returned to the sea and died of fever in West Africa, just a year after Defoe's book secured his enduring fame, though under a different name.
In 1982 Steven Callahan's sloop sank in the Atlantic, a week out from the Canary Islands. The solo sailor survived 76 days in a 6-foot (1.8-meter) life raft by snagging fish and distilling water. He later wrote about his experience in the best-selling book Adrift. Callahan was eventually picked up by a fishing boat in the Caribbean near Guadeloupe.
Callahan consulted for the Ang Lee castaway movie Life of Pi, and described the experience in an article for Boat U.S. "Ang called me and said, 'I want to make the ocean a real character in this movie,' not just a setting, as is typical in ocean-related films. He invited me to join the project, to help bring alive the beauty, diversity, wonder, travails, and illumination of the offshore world."
The story of World War II veteran Louis Zamperini, told in the book Unbroken, has enough adventure for several lifetimes. As a teenage distance runner, he made the U.S. Summer Olympic team and competed in the 1936 Berlin Games. During the war, he endured brutal torture as a prisoner of the Japanese. But the castaway epic of Zamperini and mates is a first-rate adventure story all its own.
Zamperini's B-24 crashed into the Pacific some 850 miles (1,370 kilometers) west of Oahu. He and two other crewmembers endured weeks of near-starvation, shark attacks, and machine gun strafing.
Only Russell Phillips, one of the pilots, and Zamperini lived to reach the Marshall Islands 47 days later. But instead of an island paradise, they landed in a Japanese POW camp and suffered greatly until the war's closing days. His experiences led the U.S. Navy to redesign its ocean survival kit. (Hear Zamperini describe his own incredible ordeal on National Geographic Radio.)
In 1789 the most famous of all mutinies erupted aboard he HMS Bounty during a voyage in the South Pacific, giving rise to an extraordinary feat of castaway seamanship by the infamous Captain Bligh.
Bligh later wrote of how chief mutineer Fletcher Christian and his cohorts seized him in his sleep, tied his hands, and unceremoniously placed him and 18 crewmen who refused to join the mutiny into a launch (as illustrated above). "A few pieces of pork were now thrown to us, and some cloaths, also... cutlasses... We were at length cast adrift in the open ocean."
Bligh and his companions sailed a 23-foot (7-meter) open launch some 4,160 miles (6,700 kilometers), from near Tonga to the shores of West Timor. The incredible journey took seven weeks, and Bligh survived to enjoy a long career in the Royal Navy. (Related: "I Found the Bones of the Bounty.")
In 2005 Mexican fishermen Lucio Rendon, Salvador Ordonez, and Jesus Vidana (pictured left to right), were so anonymous few noticed when they went missing. By 2006 the trio was known internationally as los náufragos or "the castaways."
After they set out on a shark fishing trip (a practice since severely restricted in Mexico) from the central Pacific Coast, their 27-foot (8-meter) boat became disabled. With no modern communications or navigation equipment, they were left to the mercy of the ocean currents.
For 286 days the trio drifted 5,000 miles (8,000 kilometers) across the Pacific, eventually raising a makeshift sail to help them move westward—a direction in which they noted overhead planes flew. The men survived by eating raw fish and birds and drinking rainwater and their own urine. They lost two companions before meeting a Taiwanese fishing boat near the Marshall Islands.