When someone is taking a voyage across a body of water, there’s always a chance that something could go horribly wrong. For some people, it can go so badly that they find themselves out at sea and no one knows where to find them. These are 10 remarkable stories about people who found themselves in such dangerous predicaments.
10. Temaei Tontaake and Uein Buranibwe
In October of 2011, two men living in the South Pacific, Temaei Tontaake and Uein Buranibwe, were heading from their island, Marakei, to a nearby island called Abaiang. The trip was only 80 miles and wasn’t supposed to take long, but their GPS ran out of batteries and they got lost. Luckily, they had their fishing gear and were able to catch some sharks; they then used the shark meat as bait and caught some tuna. Their big problem was water. It didn’t rain much and at times they were forced to drink seawater.
They were at sea for 33 days before they ended up on a coral atoll called Namdrik. On the atoll they met some locals and Tontaake learned that the locals were the offspring of his long lost uncle who everyone thought had died while out at sea 50 years ago. It turns out that his uncle ended up as a castaway on the very same atoll. When he couldn’t get off, he ended up settling down, had a family and died years later on the atoll.
Tontaake and Buranibwe were able to get off the atoll from a passing cargo ship a few days after arriving and then they were flown home.
9. Manjiro Nakahama
In 1841, 14-year-old Manjiro Nakahama and his shipmates set out on a fishing trip from their Japanese village, which is now known as Tosashimizu. After a terrible storm they were left shipwrecked on an island far from the coast of Japan. They were found by Captain William Whitfield, an American from Fairhaven, Massachusetts. He took them aboard and dropped off most of the castaways in Hawaii. But during their time on the ship, Nakahama and Whitfield had become close friends and Nakahama returned to Fairhaven with Whitfield, making him the first Japanese person to live in the United States.
Nakahama learned to speak English and when it came time to develop relations with Japan, Nakahama was used as an interpreter. Today Tosashimizu and Fairhaven are sister cities and there is a Whitfield-Manjiro Friendship Society that hosts an annual festival in their honor.
8. Philip Ashton
In 1722, Philip Ashton, a fisherman from New England was kidnapped by a crew of pirates led by the notorious British pirate Edward Low. Ashton had been their captive for nine months when they landed on Roatán, which is in the Honduras’ Bay Islands, in 1723. They were looking for fresh water. When the pirates went on land, Ashton saw this chance to escape and without any supplies, including shoes, he hid in the thick brush and the pirates eventually left without him.
The problem was that the island was deserted and Ashton didn’t have a plan beyond getting off the pirate ship. He searched for food and was lucky to find fruit. A big problem was giant bugs, and he spent most of his time trying to avoid them. In total, Ashton spent 16 months alone on that island before he was found by a group of Baymen from the mainland. He was taken to their camp, where they fed and clothed him. The camp was attacked by pirates, which happened to be Low and his crew. Luckily, Ashton was able to escape. In March of 1725 a merchant vessel landed on the island, looking for water. The ship was heading to New England and Ashton was finally able to return home.
7. Narcisse Pelletier
Narcisse Pelletier was 13 when he set off with a crew from Marseilles, France in August of 1857. Their trip had a stop in Bombay before heading to Hong Kong to pick up laborers, and then they were on their way to Australia. Along the trip, they encountered a number of problems, like running out of food, being shipwrecked, and angry natives. While what exactly happened is disputed, the end result was that sometime between late September and early October, 1858, Pelletier was left alone on the Cape York Peninsula in Australia.
Pelletier was found on the beach by a group of Aboriginal people. After his journey, he was incredibly weak, he had been injured by natives and his feet were cut up after some contact with coral. Amazingly, after a short time with the Aboriginals he was adopted by one of the men and was given the name Amglo.
On April 11, 1875, English sailors were exploring the area and saw a group of Aboriginals with a white man. They tried to communicate with Pelletier, who had been with his aboriginal family for 18 years, but Pelletier didn’t understand them because he didn’t speak English. Despite not being able to communicate he said he felt compelled to go with the men. He said that he wasn’t rescued or kidnapped, but he thought if he ran away from the men, they might shoot him. Once he was back at the ship, two men spoke French to him, but Pelletier’s French was rough and it took him a while before he could speak it again.
In December of 1875, at the age of 32, Pelletier returned to Paris and was reunited with his family. He was of immense interest for not only his story, but also because he had marks and holes in his body from Aboriginal traditions, such as the holes in his ear lobes from where wooden plugs had once been. After returning to Paris, he worked in a lighthouse and died at the age of 50 in 1894.
6. Yamamoto Otokichi
Up until the 19th century, Japan was a very secretive, private country. People who snuck in country could be executed. On the other hand, people weren’t allowed to leave the country, but sometimes did accidentally. One such person was 14-year-old Yamamoto Otokichi.
In 1832, Otokichi and 13 shipmates were delivering rice and porcelain to Edo (which is now Tokyo). On the way, there was a storm and they were blown off course. They ended up floating in the North Pacific without a mast or a rudder. Over the course of 14 months, all but three of the men on the ship died and the remaining three, including Otokichi, were dying from scurvy. They were saved when they landed on a shore and met Native Americans from the Makah tribe. They had ended up in what is known today as Washington state.
After meeting the Makah, the men were fed, but were ultimately enslaved. Then the news started spreading that men of unknown origin had been captured. A British doctor at Fort Vancouver (which is now Vancouver, Washington) named John McLoughlin heard about the men and thought they were Chinese. He bargained with the Makah and was able to bring all three of them to Fort Vancouver. Once at the fort, the three men were taught English and that is when McLoughlin learned that they were from Japan.
Knowing they were from Japan, McLoughlin thought that the British government would be interested in the men because it might lead to trade. So they were sent on a seven month boat trip to England, only to find out the British weren’t interested. They were then shipped off to the Portuguese-owned port of Macau on the Chinese mainland, where they stayed for two years.
In 1837, while in Macau, the three men met an American tradesman who wanted to trade with Japan. He also had found four other Japanese castaways in the Philippines. So in July, Otokichi and his two fellow castaways joined the tradesman and the other four Japanese castaways and set off for Japan. They approached the port at Edo and since Japan was so against foreigners, cannonballs were fired at the ship. After a few more attempts, they sent two castaways to shore, but ultimately they were forced to turn back.
Eventually Otokichi settled in Shanghai, adopted the name John Matthew Ottoson and became a respected translator. He tried to return to Japan by sneaking back for a bit in 1849, but returned Shanghai. In 1854, Otokichi travelled with a British crew to sign the Anglo-Japanese Friendship Treaty and was allowed back in Japan, 22 years after he went fishing. Otokichi learned that everyone thought the people on the ship were dead and visited the memorial stone dedicated to them. Instead of staying in Japan, he returned to Shanghai and was apparently paid a handsome sum by the British for his role in opening up relations between Britain and Japan. He died at the age of 49 in 1867.
5. Maurice and Maralyn Bailey
In June of 1972, Maurice and Maralyn Bailey set off from Southampton, England on their 31 foot yacht, Auralyn, and headed to New Zealand. On March 4, 1973, the couple had just passed through the Panama Canal when they were hit by a giant whale that left a hole in their boat. Knowing the yacht was sinking, they inflated a rubber dinghy and filled it with some supplies, like glue and patches for the dinghy, tins of food, a small oil burner, a map, a compass, water containers, knives, plastic mugs, and their passports.
Once on the dinghy, their hope was that either they would be rescued soon or they would just drift to the Galapagos Islands. While they waited to be rescued, they made cards from the pages a notebook and played games. When the food ran out, they fished both with their bare hands and using string and safety pins for hooks. They drank rain water, and luckily for them, it rained often. As the weeks and then months went on, they eventually began to wither away. They had sores from the sun and the saltwater and were sunburned so badly that they could hardly move. Their raft also wasn’t doing well; it needed to be constantly pumped with air.
On June 30, 1973, a Korean fishing boat saw a weird blob in the distance and decided to investigate. They realized it was a life raft and when they got to the Baileys, they were still alive but barely conscious. They brought them onboard and tried to feed them, but their stomachs had shrunk so much that they could only take in liquid. The crew also massaged their muscles to help them rebuild their strength.
After spending 117 days on the ocean in a rubber dinghy, the couple wrote a book about their experience and the year after their rescue, they set out to sail again on the Auralyn II to study whales in the seas off Patagonia in South America.
4. Ada Blackjack
Ada Blackjack was an Iñupiat Inuit and lived most of her early life in Nome, Alaska. In 1921, at the age of 23, she was hired on to be a seamstress and a cook on an expedition to Wrangel Island, which is north of Siberia in the Arctic Ocean. Her husband left her to care for her young son, who was stricken with tuberculosis. She saw the expedition as a good way to make money and possibly find a husband. They hired her on because she was the only one who showed up; everyone else thought it was too dangerous.
On September 16, 1921, four men and Blackjack set off on the expedition and two weeks later they were dropped off on the island, but it quickly became obvious that they were ill prepared. For example, none of them had ever fired a gun. Blackjack had been raised in town and never learned traditional Inuit skills, like hunting, fishing, or how to build an igloo. Shortly after their arrival, the weather got worse.
By January of 1923, they were running low on food, and they had expected to be picked up six months earlier in June or July. They knew that they had to do something, so on January 28, three of the men decided to walk across the frozen Chukchi Sea to Siberia, a distance of 700 miles, to get help. They left Ada with Lorne Knight, who was incredibly sick with scurvy. Ada cared for him the best she could, but he died in April of 1923.
Finally, by August of 1923, a rescue mission was sent to Wrangel Island and on August 20, they found Ada, who was the lone survivor. The three men who tried to cross the Chukchi Sea were never seen again.
3. Ernest Shackleton and the Crew of the Endurance
In 1914, famed Irish explorer of the Antarctic, Ernest Shackleton, planned on crossing the Antarctic via the South Pole. His plan was to start below South America and make his way to the Ross Ice Shelf, which is below Australia. However, in order to make the trek, he had to have supplies on the second leg of the trip. He hired a group of 10 men who would start off from the Ross Ice Shelf and place supplies every 60 miles.
The crew of the Endurance started their mission in January 1915, but they quickly ran into problems, a major one was that their boat was lost when it was blown out to sea. Yet, the men continued their trek and left supply depots every 60 miles. Unfortunately, they lost three men along the way. But the other seven men were amazingly able to survive in the harsh conditions for two years.
In January of 1917, a group of men approached their camp and amongst the group was Ernest Shackleton. That’s when they learned that all their work was for nothing. Shackleton’s ship had to be abandoned early in the trek because it became frozen. In April of 1916, he and the 17 men in his crew set off in small boats and made it to Elephant Island. After that, Shackleton and five men crossed the Atlantic to South Georgia, covering 1,000 miles in 16 days. They found a whaling station and were able to get the other men rescued. Everyone in Shackleton’s crew survived.
2. Poon Lim
On November 10, 1942, the SS Benlomond was travelling from Cape Town, South Africa and heading to Paramaribo, Suriname in South America before heading to New York. On November 23, about 750 miles away from the coast of Brazil, the ship was hit by two torpedoes from a Nazi U-boat and the sank in under three minutes. In all, 56 men died, but 24-year-old Poon Lim was able to get a life jacket. The U-boat spotted the lone survivor, but left him to die in the frigid waters of the Atlantic Ocean. For two hours, Lim floated in the ocean until he found an eight square foot raft that had a canvas roof. On board, he found some water, cans of crackers and pemmican (which is similar to beef jerky), sugar, chocolate, a flashlight, wire, and two flares.
Lim continued to float around, thinking that any day he would be rescued. In order to survive, he made a receptacle to catch water. He also tied a wire to the flashlight and used pieces of the cans as hooks, even using some of his own food as bait. He would also use the bait to catch a seagull. He matted seaweed on the floor of the raft and left rotting fish near it. This made it look like a seagull nest, and when a seagull landed on it, he broke its neck, drank its blood, and used the salt water to make jerky out of the rest of the body. Also, to keep up his strength he would swim every day, even though he wasn’t a good swimmer and thought he might drown.
Along his voyage he came close to being rescued three times. He spotted at least three vessels: a passing freighter, an American plane, and a Nazi submarine, but they either would not or could not help him. Then, miraculously, on April, 1943, a Brazilian fisherman about 10 miles away from the Brazilian coast saw him waving his shirt, so he picked him up. They didn’t speak the same language, but Lin ate anything he was given and danced with joy.
Lim amazingly survived 133 days at sea. During his time he lost 20 pounds, but was otherwise relatively healthy. He was given the British Empire Medal by King George VI and was granted permission to immigrate to the United States. He died in 1991 at the age of 72.
His survival skills were so impressive that the Royal Navy implemented some of his tactics into their manuals. At the time, Lim held the record for surviving the longest at sea, though he said, “I hope no one will ever have to break that record.”
1. Jose Salvador Alvarenga
On November 17, 2012, 37-year-old Jose Salvador Alvarenga set off to go fishing with a shipmate in his teens named Ezequiel Cordoba. Shortly after setting out, there was a bad storm and they were blown out to sea. They floated for 16 weeks when Cordoba died. According to Alvargenga, Cordoba apparently couldn’t survive on their diet: raw fish, turtle meat, and turtle blood. Alvarenga claims he kept Cordoba’s dead body on board for five days before throwing it overboard.
Alvarenga continued to drift until January 30, 2014 when he came ashore on the Marshall Islands. He was shaggy haired, dehydrated, and confused when he found himself on dry land. Since being back, there have been some who have doubted his stories, but experts in water currents said it is possible. Also, Cordoba’s family does not believe that he died the way Alvarenga says he did. Alvarenga has also denied allegations that he ate Cordoba.
According to Alvarenga’s lawyer, he passed a polygraph test about the events. If his tale is true, it means that Alvarenga has spent the longest amount of time as a castaway at sea.