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Insider Insights: Articles

Six tales of castaways who defied and defeated the ocean

By 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

10 major monuments damaged by weather and natural disasters
Seven weird things we found under the sea
Eight winter weather myths

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