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21 February 2024

Man survives year at sea; lands 12,500km away


A Mexican castaway who says he survived more than a year drifting at sea pleaded on Sunday to be taken home as he was picked up from the remote Pacific island where he had washed ashore.

"I want to get back to Mexico," the castaway, who identified himself as Jose Ivan, told interpreter Magui Vaca as he was about to board a Marshall Islands patrol vessel to be taken from Ebon Atoll to the capital Majuro for a medical examination.

"I feel bad," he told Vaca of his physical and mental state. "I am so far away. I don't know where I am or what happened."

An emaciated Jose Ivan was found last Thursday clad only in ragged underpants, when his 24-foot fibreglass boat with propeller-less engines floated on to the reef at Ebon Atoll, the southernmost cluster of coral islands in the Marshalls.

He managed to communicate to his rescuers that he had drifted across a 12,500km expanse of Pacific Ocean north of the equator between southern Mexico and the Marshall Islands.

Jose Ivan told Vaca he left his home in Mexico to go shark fishing on December 24, 2012, putting his time at sea at 13 months, not the 16 months his rescuers initially believed.

"It's been difficult trying to communicate with him," said Ebon Mayor Ione deBrum who had only been able to communicate with the Mexican by drawing pictures.

"I've gotten to know him through pictures he's drawing. He said he was on his way to El Salvador by boat when it started drifting."

No details have yet emerged as to why he began drifting, or what happened to a companion he said had died a few months ago.

Vaca said Ivan was disorientated and did not know what had happened during his many months at sea.

"He feels a little desperate and he wants to get back to Mexico, but he doesn't know how," she said.

When Ebon islanders discovered Ivan on their remote atoll he was sporting a long beard and was unable to walk without assistance.

He indicated that he survived by eating turtles, birds and fish and drinking turtle blood when there was no rain.

There was no fishing gear on the boat and Jose Ivan suggested he caught turtles and birds with his bare hands. There was a turtle on the boat when it landed at Ebon.

"We've been feeding him nutritious island food and he's getting better," deBrum said. "He has pain in both knees so he cannot stand up by himself. Otherwise, he's OK."

Vaca was on a yacht in Majuro Atoll -- around 320 kilometres north of Ebon -- when she was briefly able to speak to Jose Ivan via radio before he was ushered on to the patrol vessel for the estimated 18-hour trip to Majuro.

He is expected to arrive in Majuro late Monday morning, at the earliest.

His talk with Vaca is believed to be the first time in many months the Mexican has had a conversation he could understand.

However, Sunday's brief interview organised by the Marshall Islands National Telecommunications Authority (NTA) working with Mieco Beach Yacht Club officials, proved difficult as the radio transmission was marred by static.

The single phone line to Ebon -- population 700 -- went out of service Saturday, leaving radio the only option for communication.

There is no Internet service on the remote atoll. Had the drifter not washed onto the reef at Ebon, there is another 1,000 or so miles of open ocean before he might have landed in Papua New Guinea or the Solomon Islands.

Stories of survival in the vast Pacific are not uncommon.

In 2006, three Mexicans made international headlines when they were discovered drifting, also in a small fibreglass boat near the Marshall Islands, nine months after setting out on a shark-fishing expedition.

They survived on a diet of rainwater, raw fish and seabirds.

Castaways from Kiribati, to the south, frequently find land in the Marshall Islands after ordeals of weeks or months at sea in small boats.

The Marshall Islands, in the northern Pacific, are home to about 60,000 people spread over 24 low-lying atolls.