Four men who ventured 300 miles off Colombia’s west coast in a 23-foot skiff to fish were set adrift when their boat’s engine failed. When a ship spotted the boat in the central Pacific two months later, only one of the fishermen remained.
The crew of the 618-foot bulk carrier Nikkei Verde found 29-year-old Colombian Javier Eduardo Olaya on April 26 in a lightly traveled expanse of the Pacific 2,150 miles southeast of Hilo, Hawaii. “The Pacific is vast and inherently dangerous,” says Lt. Cmdr. John MacKinnon, of the Coast Guard’s 14th District in Honolulu, in a statement. “This mariner had great fortitude and is very fortunate the crew of the Nikkei Verde happened upon him, as the area he was in is not heavily trafficked.”
The Coast Guard says Olaya was in “good condition.” The Colombian had drifted more than 3,000 miles, subsisting on fish and seagulls he caught along the way.
Olaya said his fishing companions — three Ecuadorians — had not survived. Their bodies were not on the boat, but Olaya produced their passports as proof they had been with him on the fishing trip. “It feels very bad what happened to my friends,” Olaya told Petty Officer 2nd Class Simey Luevano, who translated for him during a short filmed interview.
The fishermen had set out to fish near rugged Malpelo, a nature park and mile-long volcanic island rising 980 feet above the ocean to three craggy peaks. Described as the “Mount Everest” or “El Dorado” of shark diving, Malpelo’s waters draw huge silky and hammerhead schools to feed on moray eels, jacks, tuna and angelfish. The waters are whipsawed by eight major currents, and the equatorial currents and trade winds there run east to west, which would have carried the skiff deeper and deeper into the Pacific after its engine failed.
The Panamanian-flagged Nikkei Verde was China-bound when it came upon Olaya. The crew brought him aboard, notified the Coast Guard in Honolulu, and requested medical advice and assistance in returning him to Colombia. A Coast Guard flight surgeon provided medical advice to the crew. Meanwhile, the Coast Guard arranged Olaya’s transfer to one of its boats near Honolulu and coordinated with the Colombian consul in San Francisco to arrange Customs clearance, lodging, hospital care and return to his family in Colombia.
“I thank the people who picked me up and rescued me,” Olaya said in his interview with the translator. “I thank God I have life.”
The Colombian navy’s press office told the Associated Press that the skiff was never reported lost and that it was not registered at any Colombian port, as is required.
The Coast Guard didn’t plan to investigate the case because Olaya is not a U.S. citizen and the boat is not U.S.-flagged or registered. Except for rescuing Olaya and getting him to safety, the Coast Guard says, the case falls outside its jurisdiction. Its 14th District in Honolulu is responsible for search and rescue across 12.2 million square miles of Pacific, including the Hawaiian Islands, Guam and Saipan.
On Jan. 30, 2014, a Salvadoran fisherman working out of Chiapas, Mexico, washed up in the Marshall Islands in a 24-foot open boat. José Salvador Alvarenga said he and his mate had been fishing off Costa Azul, Mexico, in November 2012 when a storm blew them out to sea. Without enough fuel to motor back to land, he drifted 6,600 miles to the Marshalls, surviving on a diet of fish, birds and turtles, and by drinking turtle blood and rainwater. Alvarenga said his mate died after four months.
In April 2015 the mate’s family began demanding money from Alvarenga as compensation for the loss of their son. The family filed a $1 million lawsuit, alleging that Alvarenga had cannibalized his dead companion to stay alive. Alvarenga’s lawyer, Ricardo Cucalon, denied the allegation and said the family was trying to get a cut of the proceeds from the sale of the book 438 Days, which tells the story of Alvarenga’s ordeal. The book was written by Jonathan Franklin and published in 2015.
This article originally appeared in the July 2016 issue.