Many sailors have been lost at sea and some live to tell the tale. I was one of them.
When I was about ten, I lived in Hermosa Beach, the city that fronts L.A. My parents were there to provide dinner and occasional laundry but beyond that they left us kids alone to do pretty much as we wanted. Like Richard Henry Dana and Ishmael before him, I felt the call of the sea. So I devised a plan to set sail right off the beach near our house.
I knew it was unlikely that I would be putting my X down on the crew list of a legitimate ship and in any case I intended to skipper the vessel myself. Bt scrounging through the abundant alleys in the neighborhood I found an old door leaning against the neighbor’s garage. It was practically begging for an an enterprising shipwright to convert it into a boat. Now I was no fool and I knew that one door would be insufficiently buoyant so with the judicious application of a screwdriver I procured an additional door. I figured that topping one door with another another and nailing them together in shipshape fashion I would have a vessel worthy of my ambition.
Of course I’d need a mast and sail. So I liberated a commercial grade push broom handle from the local Safeway and purloined a bed sheet from the obvious over-supply at home. I discovered I could secure the foot of the mast in one of the door’s deadbolt holes with wedges. From there I intended to guy the masthead, copying the rigging of ships of old, with clothesline which was conveniently strung throughout the neighborhood. I also nailed a radio to the deck. I knew the radio didn’t work but I felt it gave the craft a more professional aspect.
There was no telling how long this voyage of discovery might last so I made a white bread sandwich with not one but three slices of baloney and wrapped it against the sea in wax paper. In the 50s bottled water wasn’t a thing yet so I took a Pepsi.
Immediately I was vexed by the problem of dragging the doors to the water. It was a long block and then a vast stretch of sand. I knew I couldn’t handle both doors at once so I dragged the first door down the alley and after a Herculean effort arrived at the water’s edge. I had to go back for the other one and suffered no little trepidation that someone might be planning a similar excursion or was building a house and that my unguarded door might be stolen. So I ran home and hauled the second door. It was much heavier and I was tired so I ate the sandwich. I then retrieved a hammer and nails and nailed them into one.
One more trip brought the radio, mast and sail. Finally everything was in place and I struggled to raise one end and somehow managed to inch the craft into shallow water. By wading and shoving I was free of the shallows but was confronted by wave after wave. Fortunately the waves were small that day. I had anticipated the ocean waves would be antagonistic to my plan so I had brought a board and by furiously paddling I managed to get clear of the waves. I was at sea!
I was exhilarated by my sense of freedom. My efforts resulted in a powerful thirst and I looked longingly back to the beach where my Pepsi sat upright watching the whole thing. I did have a can opener though.
In a few minutes I realized I was drifting out to sea. Then it dawned on me…and this for the first time. I was an idiot. I had no life vest and no plan. I hadn’t exactly registered my voyage with the authorities and it could be days before I was reported missing. At this point I was at least 200 feet from shore. I had no sandwich and no expectation one would be materializing any time soon. I tried sailing but the craft would not answer the helm because, well, there was no helm and for that matter no keel nor rudder. I had read that the first Hawaiians drifted to their islands and it looked like I was headed there myself.
Radioing for help was out of the question and wishing it was a real radio didn’t change that. So I had a choice to make. I could stick it out and join the adventurers who had set out in flimsy craft before me, to discover new lands and thus become a rich and titled nobleman or I could swallow my pride (now my only source of sustenance), jump overboard and swim for shore. I was not then nor am I now a good swimmer but when faced with 7,000 miles of open ocean or an 80 yard dog paddle to shore I abandoned ship and eventually (in fact I was at sea for about 20 minutes) landed exhausted, like Gulliver, on the sand. The Pepsi was still there.
I went home and told no one. Later I realized that a pair of doors floating nearly invisible among the small sailboats might create a serious hazard to navigation but I reasoned that, in fact, they really weren’t mine to begin with. That evening my stepfather came in ranting that someone had stolen the door to the garage and yelling something about, “Damn kids!” I was lucky I hadn’t filed a float plan.
My journey lasted less than half an hour. Others have been adrift for a bit longer.
Rebekah Witter told me about a teenage fisherman who was indentured to a company and forced to live for months on a raft with a tiny hut off Indonesia. Every so often the raft’s owner would deliver a Pepsi and a white bread sandwich or something, and the kid was expected to stay aboard for months. Like my plans, his didn’t work out as a storm parted his anchor line and he went adrift for 49 days. He said he lived on fish and drinking seawater that he filtered through his tee shirt. It is not possible to filter salt out of seawater through a tee shirt so I question the whole story.
In any case that trip was comparatively short compared to the current record holder, José Salvador Alvarenga from El Salvador. He and a helper, who he only met for the first time that morning, set out from somewhere in Mexico on November 17th 2012 in a 23-foot open fiberglass skiff in what was to be a one day cruise. It turned out to be a bit longer, lasting 438 days as the craft drifted with the wind and current about a quarter of the way around the world (roughly the distance I would have traveled if I hadn’t swam to shore). Some seriously doubted his story because he was not at all sunburned and he looked pretty fat when he turned up in the Marshall Islands where he came ashore and knocked on the door of the first house he encountered. Adding to the mystery is the fact that the boat had disappeared. Maybe not your typical castaway but there is no doubt that the pair were reported missing in Mexico and a search did take place. If an invented story, why?
After he returned to Mexico the family of the other fisherman (who Alvarenga said died in the first month) sued him for one million dollars for eating their son despite Alvarenga’s vehement denial that this happened. He said he lived on fish, turtles, seabirds, rainwater and prayer. The lawsuit story is also a bit wonky because it isn’t illegal to snack on a dead body in international waters. Plus the family hadn’t a morsel of proof and the claim being made in U.S. dollars is suspect.
In any case there is probably a lesson in all of this. I have no idea what it is but I’m sure there is one.