It’s a dark December night, and a fierce Caribbean storm forces the Empress of the Seas cruise ship to reroute from Cuba to Jamaica. Then, out of the blackness, the crew spot a light shimmering in the middle of the ocean. And when the ship’s employees investigate the unexpected beacon, what they discover leaves them in amazement.
It’s fair to say that Earth’s oceans are pretty expansive. These watery environments cover over 65 percent of our planet’s surface, in fact, and contain millions of different species. In addition, they provide vital sustenance for people in every corner of the Earth. But despite their life-giving qualities, the oceans can certainly be extremely scary places in which to end up.
Of course, at one stage the big blue was completely uncharted. And in the early days of ocean exploration, becoming lost was almost guaranteed. Thanks to unreliable methods of navigation and inexact maps, you see, sailors could easily drift from their intended paths. Hurricanes and storms often blew old ships off course, too, or caused vessels to become stranded in some instances.
And when ships and their crews got stuck in remote locations, finding supplies was a priority; survival was all but impossible, after all, without fresh food and water. Many voyages were doomed to fail, however. Indeed, there are several stories of entire ships becoming lost at sea along with their passengers and crew – and these vessels have apparently never been found, either.
Thankfully, though, as the centuries have passed, advances in technology have meant that safety at sea has improved. Many modern ships now boast highly sophisticated electronic navigational apparatus, for instance. And such systems typically use a combination of GPS and radar to not only locate a particular craft, but also to track the other boats and obstacles that are within range of the given vessel.
Alongside these improvements in navigation technology, modern ships are also more ably equipped to deal with emergencies. Many precautionary measures were made mandatory following the sinking of the RMS Titanic in 1912, and lots of them are still implemented in maritime practices to this day.
For example, the Titanic tragedy resulted in the creation of the International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea. First created in 1914, this maritime treaty includes a requirement for ships to convey the requisite number of lifeboats needed to transport their passengers and crew. Compulsory lifeboat drills and inspections were also recommended in the wake of the Titanic disaster.
In addition, further legislation obliges all boats carrying passengers to maintain 24-hour radio communications. Vessels must now also stay in contact with the other ships around them as well as with posts on land. And it was agreed, too, that a red rocket flare from a boat should be interpreted as a request for assistance from nearby craft.
As the 20th century progressed, then, ships were increasingly seen as a safe mode of transport. Cruising consequently became a in-demand way in which families could vacation – and it isn’t difficult to see the attraction. For one, traveling in this manner allows tourists to visit many different locations while also living in luxury on lavish liners.
But while large ships may have benefited from the addition of new safety features, many small fishing vessels across the globe remain relatively basic. That’s right: despite the technology available to wealthy seafaring companies, there are plenty of people around the world who take to the open ocean aboard inadequately equipped boats. And as a result, it’s not uncommon to hear of fishermen becoming lost at sea – even to this very day.
For example, in October 2015 Jesús Vidaña, Lucio Rendón and Salvador Ordóñez became stranded when their engines gave out in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. The three Mexican fishermen subsequently spent the better part of a year in a battle to survive. And all that they had with them during that time were very limited supplies – which consisted of a basic fishing rod, some blankets, a Bible and not much else.
Sadly, though, two of the fishermen’s colleagues did not survive the ordeal. And rather than risk the temptation of using their friends as food, Vidaña, Rendón and Ordóñez made the hard decision to throw their bodies overboard. But the remaining trio lived on and were finally saved by a Japanese trawling boat after nine agonizing months at sea. Later, the three men credited their survival to God.
But while nine months is an incredibly long time to be a castaway, it isn’t a record. Reportedly, José Salvador Alvarenga spent 14 months adrift in the Pacific Ocean from November 2012 to January 2014. And having survived the alleged ordeal, the Salvadoran fisherman is the only individual in recorded history who is believed to have spent over a year lost at sea and lived to tell the tale.
So just how did Alvarenga keep himself going at sea for so long? Well, the Salvadoran claims that he received sustenance by eating fish, birds and turtles that he caught with his bare hands. He also reportedly drank rainwater and the blood of turtles in order to stay alive. And after having apparently endured on the open ocean for over a year, he then surfaced on the Marshall Islands, where he received hospital treatment before returning home to El Salvador.
But that wasn’t the end of Alvarenga’s time in the spotlight. In 2015, you see, journalist Jonathan Franklin’s book 438 Days: An Extraordinary True Story of Survival at Sea put the fisherman’s tale right back into the public eye. And the text ultimately received a mixed reaction; while some people were skeptical about the events mentioned within its pages, others were outright angered.
For one, Alvarenga had not started his voyage alone. And soon after the release of Franklin’s book, the family of Ezequiel Córdoba – the other man aboard the fishing vessel – duly took legal action against Alvarenga. In particular, Córdoba’s family claimed that Alvarenga had survived his ordeal by cannibalizing their relative, and so they filed a $1 million lawsuit against the survivor. Alvarenga’s legal representative soon dismissed this allegation, however.
Still, there are of course plenty of other occasions on which people have been lost at sea. And one of the most recent examples occurred in 2018 – with the tale subsequently emphasizing the very real dangers that some fishermen still face.
The story in question began in Costa Rica – in the country’s second most populous city, Puerto Limón, to be exact. The bustling port’s primary use is for the export of goods, although some cruise ships anchor there as well. And it was from the city that two fishermen embarked on a voyage toward the end of the year.
Then, once the men were at sea, they decided to soak their nets – a fairly common practice among fishermen. After submerging the fabric in water for some time, you see, it should become less rigid; and this, in turn, makes the equipment much easier to cast and work with in general.
As the Costa Rican fishermen waited for their nets to soak, meanwhile, they drifted off to sleep. Again, this is not unusual, and lots of people use this downtime to rest. When the pair awoke, though, their nets were not to hand. And worse still, they realized that their boat had been whisked off course and away from their equipment by strong waves as they had slept.
Desperate to retrieve their nets, the fisherman therefore kick-started their engine and set off in search of their equipment. However, it was then that disaster struck once more. Yes, as the duo searched the seas for their belongings, their boat ran out of fuel – meaning they were now at the mercy of the open ocean.
At this stage, then, the fishermen could do little more than hope and pray; maybe they would be found, or perhaps they would wash up on land before it was too late. But things didn’t look great for the duo, since they reportedly only had enough to eat and drink for a week. And as those seven days came and went, the pair were unfortunately still floating hopelessly on the ocean.
So, with their supplies running worryingly low, the two men were forced to turn to the ocean in search of some much-needed food. And even without their equipment, the pair attempted to catch fish themselves. Despite some success in this search for food, however, a lack of drinking water was causing the duo a major problem.
Meanwhile, not too far away, the Empress of the Seas cruise ship was making her way to Jamaica. The impressive liner is part of Royal Caribbean International, which operates 25 vessels and owns the world’s four biggest ships. The firm also commands 19.2 percent of the international cruising passenger market; it’s fair to say, then, that Royal Caribbean’s staff should know a thing or two about ocean safety.
Originally commissioned by Admiral Cruises, Empress of the Seas joined Royal Caribbean’s fleet when the two companies merged in 1988. Construction of the liner was then finished in 1990, and she was initially called Nordic Empress. However, this name was changed to Empress of the Seas in 2004.
Currently operating out of Miami, Florida, Empress of the Seas offers cruises around the Caribbean. The ship’s primary destination, though, is Cuba. And while previously the liner’s trips to the island called at Havana only, Royal Caribbean now offers newer routes that take in Santiago de Cuba and Cienfuegos as well.
But although Royal Caribbean can lay claim to some absolutely enormous liners, Empress of the Seas is actually the oldest and smallest cruise ship in the company’s fleet. That said, passengers on board still live in relative luxury. On the vessel, you see, there are three restaurants, four bars, a spa and even rock climbing facilities – all of which are spread across 11 sprawling decks.
The conditions on board the cruise ship, then, are a world away from those experienced by the two lost Costa Rican fishermen. However, even large vessels such as Empress of the Seas can sometimes find themselves at the mercy of the ocean and the unpredictable elements.
In fact, in December 2018 adverse weather conditions in the Caribbean forced Empress of the Seas to reroute, as a storm made it impossible for her to stop in Cienfuegos. Usually, the liner relies on a tender service to ferry passengers to and from the shore at the Cuban destination. But in such precarious conditions, the cruise ship’s crew instead opted to dock at a port that possessed a pier.
Consequently, on December 21, 2018, Empress of the Seas was sailing between Grand Cayman and Jamaica – crossing a stretch of water that she wouldn’t ordinarily have done. It was for this reason, then, that Royal Caribbean’s head of meteorology, James Van Fleet, described what happened next as a Christmas “miracle.”
You see, as Empress of the Seas was making her unexpected detour, the ship’s crew spotted a signal light coming from a small boat out on the ocean. And as a result, the liner slowed down and started to approach the mystery vessel. The crew also notified rescue centers in Jamaica and Grand Cayman, although these facilities were unable to help.
So, almost three hours after the signal was spotted, Empress of the Seas launched a tender that could get closer to the unknown vessel. And it was then that members of the cruise ship’s crew found two individuals on board the mysterious boat. They were, of course, the Costa Rican fishermen, who by this point had been adrift for nearly three whole weeks.
Later, in a statement released to USA TODAY in December 2018, a Royal Caribbean spokesperson confirmed, “Empress of the Seas did rescue two sailors who had been adrift for more than 20 days.” They added, “Both passengers on board the vessel were provided water and medical attention on board by the ship’s crew. There were no injuries reported.”
The statement also gave further details about the discovery of the fishermen and their subsequent rescue. Yes, according to the press release, “Empress lowered her tender boat at 9:57 p.m. and rescued the passengers. Due to the high swell, the boat was towed close to the ship in order to get shelter.”
Nevertheless, the fishermen hadn’t escaped their ordeal completely unscathed. In fact, one of the pair was so debilitated by his experience that he was unable to walk. And as a result, crew from the cruise ship had to carry the stricken individual onto the tender then up onto Empress of the Seas herself.
Then once the men were safely on board the liner, they were taken care of by the ship’s medical staff. The formerly stranded Costa Ricans also received some much-needed food and clothing. And, eventually, the duo disembarked Empress of the Seas in Ocho Rios in Jamaica, where they were transferred to hospital.
Fortunately, by this point the fishermen’s health had already begun to improve – so much so, in fact, that the man who had experienced weakness in his legs was able to walk unaided again. Yet the crew of Empress of the Seas wanted to provide even more assistance to the two survivors. Consequently, employees raised around $300 to provide the pair with food and clothing following their release from hospital.
Yes, the crew really had done their bit. And, unsurprisingly, media outlets across the world subsequently covered the amazing rescue story. But given the fact that Empress of the Seas should never have crossed paths with the Costa Ricans’ boat, some people couldn’t help but wonder what might have been. Van Fleet, for instance, later reflected on the extraordinary set of circumstances that had led to the rescue.
In fact, posting on his Twitter account in December 2018, Van Fleet seemingly alluded to some kind of divine intervention. The meteorologist wrote, “Had we not changed itinerary to get better weather, we would never have been in that spot at the time. Sometimes a little luck is all you need for a miracle.”
Indeed, the unlikely rescue clearly left its mark on Van Fleet. He added in another tweet, “Pure luck; lining of the stars; God. Whatever you choose to believe, the facts are [that] we would NOT have been in that area at the time had we not switched to go to Ocho Rios, Jamaica. You can’t help but think there was a greater plan in all of this.”