438 Days: An Extraordinary True Story of Survival at Sea

“As a family, we assumed he was dead, [his brother-in-law] Jorge Bonilla said. “We learned he was alive on the news. It was unbelievable.”

An advance reader copy was provided free of charge
by Atria Books through NetGalley
in exchange for my honest opinion.


438 Days:
An Extraordinary True Story of Survival at Sea

View CNN Interview with Alvarenga


Author:  Jonathan Franklin
Atrial Books, 2015
ARC e-reader (978-1-5011-1631-5)
Hardcover: (978-1-5011-1629-2)
Genre: Memoir    222 pages


Unbelievable courage, creativity and skill!

This story of marine survival opens with a lengthy introduction to Salvador Alvarenga before the storm drove his disabled boat deep in the open Pacific.  Franklin’s careful and detailed research is obvious from the start.  His revelations at times, however, seemed tedious and overdone as he droned on and on about the fishing village and the fishing culture.  His purpose, of course, was to provide Alvarenga’s personal background, show his ability to overcome adversity, highlight his love and seeming fearlessness of the sea and his strange dietary proclivities.  Eating raw fish didn’t start with the need to stave off starvation.  His friends describe a time when Alvarenga thought a take-out meal order was too long in arriving.  He reached into the bait pail, pulled out a hand-sized half-frozen sardine, rolled it up in a tortilla and munched away on the raw fish.

The fateful day began with his usual fishing partner unable to go out on the boat. An inexperienced young man, Ezequiel Cordoba was signed up for the quick trip out to the deep waters. Warned of an impending storm, Alvarenda quipped, “I am going with this new guy, but I will be back in time for the party.”

He loaded his boat with ample supplies in the event a return trip was delayed.  In a scene reminiscent of Sebastian Junger’s, “The Perfect Storm” all the best laid plans of man are nothing against the power of Mother Nature.

You feel the sea roil and the winds howl.  You feel Cordoba’s seasickness and fear.  As the storm builds with rapid intensity, they cut loose the 2-mile long fishing line and head toward shore, nearly making it to safety. Incredible bad luck and perhaps the lack of advance equipment safety checks leave the two men stranded with a disabled motor, knife, machete and a small open-topped fish box drifting out to sea at the mercy of the ocean currents.

There is no question by the end of the book Alvarenda has proved he was the right man with the right credentials to survive this long voyage.  His life struggles in the past help him hone his survival strengths.  It is unimaginable how anyone can stay psychologically and physically capable of enduring over 14 months alone at sea in a 25 foot boat.

Choosing to narrate this story in the third person was somewhat distracting but overall the story is so amazing it didn’t matter in the end.  You feel so sad for the young sailor who felt lost when they left the shore and feared for his life long before the ship faced true danger. Despite Alvarenga’s best efforts to inspire and keep the young man alive,  Cordoba was unable to overcome the odds.

My pre-conceived perceptions of open ocean marine life were toppled.  It was shocking to learn that despite its size, the Pacific has become a garbage dump.

It was hard to rate this book.  The story, overwhelming in its reality, seemed to drag in places.  I finally decided on 3.5 stars.  A worthy read.

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January 27, 2016 · 7:53 am

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