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Six tales of castaways who defied and defeated the ocean

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Daniel Martins
Digital Reporter

Monday, February 10, 2014, 10:55 AM -

Never mind last week's horrid storms in southern Ontario and the East Coast - worldwide, one of the biggest news stories was Jose Salvador Alvarenga, the Mexican castaway who got lost at sea and ended up halfway across the Pacific in the Marshall Islands, after an astonishing 13-month odyssey.

There were, of course, a few pointed questions about his slightly portly appearance after such a long time at sea subsisting on birds, fish and sea turtles, but the story captured the imaginations of our readers.

He wasn't the first to make the journey. In 2006, three Mexican fishermen drifted 8,000 km across the Pacific for nine months before being rescued by a Taiwanese trawler.

We've gathered six tales of castaways who took on the merciless sea, and came out ahead.

Uein Buranibwe, and Temaei Tontaake

Exhibit A on how often castaways end up in the Marshall Islands: Uein Buranibwe, 53, and Temaei Tontaake, 26, both residents of the nearby island nation of Kiribati (When you’re talking about the endless expanse of the Pacific Ocean, “nearby” does not mean what it would mean just about anywhere else).

These lads set out from their home island for what was supposed to be an 80 km gas run. They had a GPS, so plus-one to survival savvy, but it was low on batteries (so minus-eleven, then).

So when their most important navigational tool died, they were left to drift aimlessly for 33 days.

After surviving on fish, and reduced to drinking sea water after their freshwater stocks ran out (which actually dehydrates you faster), the men managed to wash up on Namdrik Atoll, one of the many, many small isles that make up the Marshall Islands.

The local residents who found them promptly took them to one of their number who spoke the newcomers’ language – and it turned out, she was a relative of the younger castaway, a descendent of an uncle who ALSO got lost and ended up washed up on the exact same atoll 50 years previous.

Seriously. The exact same atoll. They managed to survive a month-long ordeal – itself an accomplishment – to wind up on the exact same atoll of the guy’s long-lost uncle. 

Image: NASA

Image: NASA

Somewhere, the gods of gambling and fortune just threw away their dice in disgust.

It seems the uncle had passed away, but not before giving up trying to tell his family where he was, settling down and having a few kids.

As for his descendant and his pal, they hitched a ride back to Kiribati. No word on whether they’re planning a trip to Vegas any time soon, but given the ridiculous odds of ANY part of this story actually happening, we’d at least recommend some blackjack.

Maurice and Maralyn Bailey

Maurice and Maralyn Bailey were a British couple who wanted to emigrate to New Zealand in style. After four years of preparation, they set out aboard their 10-metre yacht Auralyn from the UK in 1973.

Apparently planning the long way around, they sent postcards back from every post, but after one last one from the Panama Canal, the flow stopped coming.

That’s because after changing course near the Galapagos islands to avoid a whaling boat, they were rudely woken by a whale smashing their yacht so hard, it was holed below the water line.

When they realized bailing was useless, they scrambled to gather as many supplies as they could into a life raft, then watched their dream disappear below the waves.

For awhile, it looked as though they were real pros at the game of survival against hopeless odds. They caught something like 40 fish a day, even the occasional shark, and storms regularly replenished their drinking supplies.

They played cards and dominoes to pass the time, and kept a calendar of their friends’ birthdays and the depressing number of times distant ships passed them by without rescue.

As the months passed, their health deteriorated, such that by the time they were picked up by the crew of a Korean trawler, they were so emaciated they could barely move.

It had been 117 days since they set out - and, incredibly, the ordeal didn't permanently turn them off ocean exploration.

They wrote a bestselling book about their adventure, then bought ANOTHER boat, and spent some time travelling the seas, living off the royalties and proceeds of travel articles

Steven Callahan

Unlike the Baileys, who spent years preparing for their journey, American Steven Callahan was an old hand at seafaring by the time he set out on a 6.4-metre sloop he’d built with his own hands.

Apparently hit by a whale one morning in 1981 near the Canary Islands (he said it was probably feeding blind and didn’t see him), he struggled to load supplies into his small life raft before he and the still-floating hulk of his boat were pulled apart by the waves.

He was prepared … sort of. Aside from an 18-day supply of freshwater, he took flares, an emergency beacon, a spear gun and solar-powered saltwater stills to extract drinking water from the sea.

The stills barely worked. The spear gun quickly became useless. No one saw his flares and no one heard his emergency beacon. He struggled day in and day out to keep the life raft afloat, and endured a crisis when a fish skewered by his gun drove the spear into the inflatable sides.

Still, a small ecosystem of fish and birds accompanied him on his aimless drift across the Atlantic, until finally, he was spotted by a trio of fishermen.

Mindful of their poverty, after they hauled him aboard, he insisted they finish the day’s catch before taking him ashore.

It’s no surprise that, when doing background research for the film version of “The Life of Pi,” director Ang Lee turned to the man the unforgiving ocean never had a hope of claiming.

NEXT: The longest anyone has ever survived at sea in a lifeboat

Poon Lim

Here’s another one the sea couldn’t have. Poon Lim, a Chinese-born sailor aboard a British Merchant Navy Vessel, which was torpedoed halfway to South America from South Africa in 1942.

He had enough time to grab a life-jacket and jump clear of the sinking ship. Although 11 of the 55-man crew were rescued, they somehow missed him, and he fought the water for two hours before happening upon a wooden life raft, well-stocked with water and survival rations.

Image: US Navy/Wikimedia Commons

Image: US Navy/Wikimedia Commons

The image up above is a reproduction from a U.S. Navy survival training manual. Lim was so awesome at surviving, his methods are taught by national navies.

The rations he had wouldn’t last forever, so he adapted everything he had on the raft to make it easier for him to replenish his dwindling supplies. The lid of a biscuit tin was carved into a makeshift knife, fish hooks were made from nails and the nylon from his life raft was used to catch rainwater. He even managed to snag seagulls for extra meat.

At one point, he noticed the bloodied bird remains he’d tossed overboard attracted sharks that scared the fish away. No matter. Lim snagged one with a braided fishing line, hauled it aboard, bludgeoned it with a water bottle full of seawater, and dried and cured the remains.

It was still a hell of an ordeal, with the occasional storm washing over him. At one point, his painstakingly built-up stock of dried fish was washed overboard by waves. 

Boat after boat passed him by without noticing him. A U.S. Navy plane dropped a locator beacon near him, but a storm blew him off course away from it before rescue could arrive.

Three Brazilian sailors finally found him and took him ashore. Despite having lost around 9 kg of body mass, he walked ashore unaided, after 133 days at sea, the longest anyone has ever spent cast away in a life boat or life raft.

Image: US Navy/Wikimedia Commons

Image: US Navy/Wikimedia Commons

He died in 1991, at the good age of 72. After defying the sea for 133 days and living to tell of it, he certainly wasn’t going to go before his time.

Louis Zamperini

Some people would consider qualifying for the Olympic games as the highlight of their lives. Not Louis Zamperini.

After coming 8th in the 5,000 m race  at the 1936 Olympics (you know, the one with Hitler), he joined the U.S. Air Force and found himself serving as a bombardier aboard B-24 Liberator bombers in the Pacific theatre of the Second World War.

Image: USAF/Wikimedia Commons

Image: USAF/Wikimedia Commons

Mechanical problems forced his plane from the skies and into the ocean while on a search-and-rescue mission in 1942. Of its 11 crew, only Zamperini and two others survived, and faced the ocean aboard a life raft.

Like others on this list, they survived on rainwater, birds and fish. Unlike others on this list, they had to put up with the occasional strafing run by the occasional Japanese plane (incredibly, they were never hit).

One of the trio died after a month at sea. Zamperini and the other survivor made it to day 47, when they reached the Marshall Islands. Only instead of helpful residents, they found the Japanese army, which immediately took them prisoner.

Former Olympian Zamperini was kept alive, but went through various internment camps and was singled out for torture by Japanese army officer Mutsuhiro Watanabe.

After two years of this, he was released at the end of the war, and went on to become a social worker and speaker. As for his captors, it seems Zamperini, who became quite religious in the years following his ordeal, forgave his captors, and even met with some of his former prison guards.

His chief tormentor Watanabe, who was never prosecuted for his crimes, never met with him, and even turned down a meeting at the 1998 Olympic Games in Nagano. He died in 2003. Zamperini, meanwhile, is not only still going, he regularly gives motivational speeches and his story will soon make its way to the big screen.

Captain Bligh

This one isn't famous so much as infamous, thanks to several VERY harsh portrayals of the man in the various film adaptations that have been made over the years of the famous Mutiny on the Bounty (watch below for all of Anthony Hopkins' best blow-ups as Bligh in the 1984 film "The Bounty"):

In reality, he probably wasn't much harsher than other captains at the time. The famous 1789 mutiny aboard the Bounty, on a science mission to the Pacific, was almost certainly motivated as much by the mutineers desire to remain in warm and sunny Tahiti with the local wives.

And regardless of what kind of taskmaster he was, he soon proved himself one of the best sailors of all time after the mutineers finally took over.

They crammed him and 18 loyalists into an open 7 m launch, gave him a sextant, some supplies and some cutlasses, and sent him on his merry way. We have no way of knowing whether the mutineers actually expected him to survive.

Image: National Maritime Museum/Wikimedia Commons

Image: National Maritime Museum/Wikimedia Commons

As it happens, the story of Bligh's voyage is way more interesting than the mutineers', in our opinion. With such meagre equipment, the captain somehow managed to get most of his men to safety in the town of Kupang, in what is now the western part of Timor in Indonesia. 

It took him 47 days, during which he travelled 6,700 km. Casualty rate? Exactly one man, who was bludgeoned to death by residents of one of the islands the group stopped on for supplies.

Bligh had a pretty tempestuous career all told (he must have had some serious deja vu when he was deposed as governor of the Australian colony of New South Wales in 1808). 

But whatever kind of person he was, it can certainly be said that there's no way he'd let a little thing like a mutiny AND being cast adrift thousands of miles from rescue get him down.

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