Fishermen rescued after nine months at sea

In an amazing feat of survival, three Mexican fishermen were rescued in good health and good spirits after drifting for nine months and nine days in an open 29-foot boat across more than 5,000 miles of the Pacific Ocean. Their story is remarkable, but as details emerge, questions arise.

Salvador Ordonez, 37, Jesus Vidana Lopez, 27, and Lucio Rendon, 27, set out with two other men on October 28 on a three-day shark fishing trip. But according to Ordonez, their fishing gear became fouled, their engines broke down and they ran out of fuel about 100 miles offshore from their homes in San Blas, Mexico, a coastal village about 60 miles north of Puerto Vallarta.

Strong winds and westerly-setting currents pushed them farther away from Mexico into a wide and empty ocean. Nearly 300 days later, on August 9, they were finally rescued by a 240-foot Taiwanese purse seiner in Kiribati waters. They eventually set foot on dry land in the Marshall Islands on August 22.

“We spent most of the time fishing and praying,” Lopez told reporters. They survived on small fish, seaweed and barnacles scraped off the hull, and seabirds. Ordonez was nicknamed “el gato,” the cat, because of his skill at pouncing on birds. Once, they caught nothing for 12 days.

Rainwater was mopped up and wrung out of rags into their rinsed-out, empty fuel tank. A covered section in the bow provided shelter from the sun and seas.

They had a compass to track direction, a flashlight and a Bible. Rendon counted the minutes, hours and days on his Casio watch.

They said the worst times were in storms during December and January, but they read the Bible and had what Ordonez described as “moments with God.”

Their story becomes confused when they describe the two men who died. One was the owner of the boat, whom they call Juan and the other was a deck hand, whose name they don’t know. “He never talked,” said Ordonez. After two months of drifting, he said the two men couldn’t digest the raw food any more and began vomiting blood. After they died, they were thrown overboard.

In Mexico City, government spokesman Ruben Aguilar said the deaths would be investigated to determine “how the fishermen on the boat disappeared.”

The survivors, who also reject drug smuggling allegations, have aggressively denied speculations about murder and cannibalism. But authorities have questioned why none of the five men were ever officially reported missing.

In the Marshall Islands, Police Commissioner George Lanwi confiscated the Mexican fishing boat. The Mexican government paid to ship the boat back for further investigation. Lanwi also told reporters that the survivors “looked much healthier than we would expect.” They were taken in ambulances to the Majuro Hospital where they all passed physical and psychological exams, apparently only suffering from swollen legs and hands.

Crewmembers from the Taiwan fishing boat said they looked much worse when they were rescued. “They were just skin and bones and we threw their ripped clothes away,” said Lanbe Lajjiur. “On the first day they must have been in shock. They didn’t sleep.”

From the ship, the Mexicans made brief phone calls to their families, and amongst the talk of miracles, Lopez got a special message of his own. He was now the father of a six-month-old baby girl. Ordonez, Lopez and Rendon flew back to Mexico on August 24, retracing their nine-month voyage in a matter of hours.

Allyson Madsen

By Ocean Navigator