Jose Ivan, from Mexico, claims to have been drifting in the Pacific for the past 16 months, before washing up 8,000 miles from home on a remote atoll reef in the Marshall Islands. The Marshall islands lie east of Papua New Guinea, in Micronesia.
Apart from the fact he has not said he had a football called Wilson, this story is remarkably like the plot of the movie Castaway, starring Tom Hanks; one those cases, perhaps, where life imitates art. Neither did he share his boat with a tiger, metaphorical or otherwise, which would have made it more like Life of Pi.
Ola Fjeldstad is a Norwegian student of anthropology and is currently living on the atoll to conduct a research project. He said that Ivan had very long hair and a straggly beard and that the boat was very scratched up. Both craft and sailor looked like they had been at sea for a very long time indeed. Ivan was wearing only the remnants of a pair of underpants. Fjeldstad said that the castaway was weak and emaciated but not in signs of dire health. Those living on the island gave him lots of water and he was able to walk with assistance.
There was a turtle in the bottom of the boat, and by all accounts, Ivan survived on these, catching them with his bare hands and drinking their blood when he could not catch enough rain water. He also managed to catch some birds and some fish. He had no equipment, however. He had left Mexico for El Salvador in September 2012, with a companion who reportedly died on board some time ago. Ivan can only speak in Spanish so details remain sketchy. His boat was just a basic fiberglass shell, 24 feet long. It had engines but they had lost the propellers, so he was effectively powerless against the elements.
The islanders on Ebon Atoll have taken the survivor to meet the local mayor. Plans are now being made to try to get him to the capital town of Majuro. This won’t be easy as there is only one government plane that can land on Ebon and it is out of action. They will most likely send a boat for him instead. Meanwhile he is being looked after, housed, and fed, by a local family and said to be regaining some strength.
Sixteen months at sea is a tremendously long time to survive, especially in the mighty Pacific, known for its gargantuan swells. It also has marine life that could easily upturn a flimsy boat like this in seconds. This real-life Defoe, if his story is true, is a remarkable castaway with capabilities that are mental and resilient as well as physical and ingenious.
Stories like Jose Ivan’s always capture the imagination. The tale of this real-life castaway, who washed ashore after being lost at sea for 16 months, has only just started to be told. More details have yet to unfold.
By Kate Henderson