Joseph Reid from Scripps asked to confirm Men's Journal story

The San Blas castaways

— Some writers are so suspicious. In the January issue of Men's Journal, writer Mike Guy raised new doubts about a story several Mexican fishermen told last summer of being lost in the Pacific Ocean for more than nine months. The men said they embarked on October 28, 2005, from San Blas, a village off the west coast of Mexico, for three days of shark fishing. According to Guy's article, entitled "The Impossible Journey," the men's harrowing escapade began when their boat ran out of fuel in waters known as much for drug trafficking as fishing. Guy quotes another fisherman from San Blas: " 'I think these perdidos (lost ones) spent some time out there, a month or two maybe,' [the villager] says, pointing toward the sea. 'But I think maybe they were on land for much of the time, in Costa Rica or Colombia, or even Panama,' where the smuggling operations are based."

Guy was not the first skeptic. A large fishing trawler found the perdidos on August 9, 2006, in an open boat close to Baker Island, near the equator. Their apparent good health provoked Mexican journalists in the first days afterward to ask the men pointed questions. And the trip that began with five on board ended with three. One surly fellow, who eventually died, was not a fisherman and seemed out of place. "In short," wrote Guy, "common sense and human physiology dictate that their amazing journey likely didn't happen the way they said it did. The truth is, if they were really shark fishing, they were likely the only shark boat in Mexico capable of keeping up with the narco-traffickers on open water. They probably at least tried to eat their dead comrades." Guy felt it "extremely difficult to accept that three men in a 27-foot lancha could have drifted 5500 miles across the Pacific in nine months and lived."

To clinch this journalistic conviction, Guy called a San Diego witness. "For one thing," wrote Guy, "the prevailing wind and current patterns make [the perdidos'] 20-mile-a-day journey highly unlikely, according to Joseph L. Reid, professor emeritus of physical oceanography at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in San Diego and an expert in Pacific currents. There are actually two westward-flowing currents: a relatively weak one at about 12 degrees north (San Blas is about 22 degrees north), and a much stronger one, just below the equator. In between, however, runs an easterly countercurrent that the fishermen would have had to cross en route to their rescue spot.

" 'The fact that they crossed the countercurrent makes it very strange,' Reid says. 'Then there are the doldrums, which are a little north of the equator. There would have been days on end when there was no wind at all.'

"Reid estimates that if they had really started near San Blas, the fishermen would have averaged between 12 and 15 miles a day, which means that their journey should have taken closer to a year. Far to the south of San Blas, however, the winds and currents are more consistent. If the fishermen had started drifting at the latitude of, say, Panama or Colombia, they would have zipped along at close to 28 miles a day, says Reid. Their journey would have taken more like 200 days instead of 285."

However, it looks as though Guy and Reid may not have understood each other. I discover as much during an interview with Reid at the Scripps Institution. It first hits me when he pulls out a calculator to compute again the average miles per day the fishermen had to cover if their story is true. "Let's see," Reid mutters into the calculator, "4400 nautical miles divided by 285 days is 15.4 nautical miles per day." Of course! The oceanographer Reid, who first came to Scripps as a student in 1948, routinely thinks in nautical (or sea) miles, which are calculated by reference to points of longitude and latitude. So that's one reason, I tell myself, that before my arrival Reid asked me to bring coordinates both for where the fishermen first got lost (approximately 22 degrees N, 106 degrees W) and where they were rescued (approximately 1 degree N, 176 degrees W). Writer Mike Guy must have failed in their interview to specify that the 5500 he was quoting were "statute" (or landlubber) miles. (One nautical mile is equal to approximately 1.15 statute miles.) And where did the figure 5500 miles come from in the first place? Five thousand miles is more like it. That's the distance cited last summer in the first excited news flashes about the fishermen's rescue.

No wonder, then, that Guy thought Reid said the Mexican castaways' story was "highly unlikely," that the journey should have taken closer to a year than nine months. As I interview him, Reid is saying that "with wind on top of the ocean currents, the 4400 [nautical] miles seems like a reasonable estimate of what they could have made in 285 days." Reid, who now denies that he ever called the trip unlikely, thinks that Guy found him for their short phone conversation by calling Scripps Institution and asking for an expert.

Reid has taken me into a map room that looks down on Scripps Pier, jutting into the ocean. To discover current speeds on the route the fishermen drifted, Reid pored over the tallest and widest book I have ever seen. It is called the Atlas of Surface Currents, Northwest Pacific Ocean, and it has recorded mariners' observations over many years. Those include observations from the old days, Reid tells me, "when they used to take their positions from the stars being visible at both daybreak and twilight every day.

"The one thing that does bother me about the fishermen's trip," Reid continues, "is how they got south as close to the equator as they did. They would have had to cross a strong countercurrent [the same one mentioned in the Men's Journal article]." Last April, at the Scripps Birch Aquarium, Reid gave a lecture entitled "Winds, Currents, and the Voyages of Discovery." With a sly look, he says he told his audience that night "that, once people began to look, the major discoveries were downwind." And so now Reid is consulting wind currents in another huge volume, the Pilot Chart of the Pacific and Indian Oceans. The average speeds he sees there convince him that although "the countercurrent would have sent the fishermen back a little, I guess they got blown across it. In other words, they're going west for the most part, but the winds are pushing them south."

On another map Reid seems to detect how much traffic the fishermen might have encountered on their voyage. "Not much," he says, "and it's going north and south." I tell Reid that the men reported seeing ships off in the distance and airplanes in the sky, but only one ship ever saw them. Its crew apparently thought they were working and sailed on.

Reid agrees with Men's Journal that, had the fishermen started drifting from the coasts of Panama or Colombia, they would have encountered stronger currents just below the equator. "Then," Reid tells me, "one might expect their speeds to have been higher, and the trip would have taken less time." The journey still would have been astonishing, however. A Central American sojourn would have allowed the fishermen to spend time on land, perhaps picking up drugs, before starting out and eventually drifting straight westward. But in the absence of evidence, Mexican authorities never prosecuted them.

I ask Reid if any of the great voyages of discovery approximated the Mexican fishermen's trip. "I suppose the first one to have sailed that route was Magellan," he says, "who first came through the Straits of Magellan and up the coast of South America. I don't know how far he came north before he turned west. But he did go on a course not very far from the equator, eventually north of it, all the way over to the Philippines. That was, I guess, the first European voyage in that area."

Did Magellan keep records? "To some extent, yes," Reid tells me. "At that time, though, they could not determine their longitude, only their latitude." (Determining longitude required the invention of a seaworthy timepiece, which occurred about 200 years after Magellan's voyage.)

Today, do mariners use global positioning devices like those found in cars? Says Reid, "Ships were the first to use global positioning. Once people discovered how cheap it was they began putting it in automobiles."

Since Mike Guy's January article, two others about the fishermen's ordeal have appeared. In its February 19 issue, the New Yorker ran a story by Mark Singer called "The Castaways." Singer, with 11,000 words, provides a much more sympathetic account than Mike Guy's, using great detail from the fishermen's own words. He writes, for instance, that midway through the trip, when the castaways surmised how far they had traveled, they hoisted a sail made from blankets to travel even faster. They believed that by doing so they might reach China. Singer also gives a riveting account of the men collecting rainwater to drink and eating raw fish, sea turtles, and sea birds. According to the survivors, the two men who died could not bring themselves to eat the raw meat, retching every time they tried it.

On February 11, Christopher Goodwin wrote in TimesOnline an article called "The Men Who Came Back from the Dead." Goodwin's account emphasizes the religious belief of Salvador, the oldest and most resourceful of the lost men. Salvador's faith became more intense after their small boat survived during bad weather in December 2005.

After the castaways got back to San Blas, Joe Kissack, who works for a small book publisher in Atlanta, went to Mexico and acquired the movie rights to their story. Immediately he gave each of the men $10,000 and promised them much more after the movie comes out. But Salvador and Lucio, one of the other men, began using the money to drink heavily. " 'He says he drinks so much,' " Goodwin reports Lucio's grandmother as saying, " 'because he suffered a lot and he can't forget what happened.' "

Goodwin, who downplays the possibility that the fishermen were drug runners, then quotes Kissack: "It is a story about faith and hope and survival, a story that can inspire millions, and bring them to God." But Goodwin thinks that the fishermen are now experiencing post-traumatic stress disorder. "The tragedy of the three Mexican fishermen is not what happened on their terrible voyage," he writes. "It is that those who have been most involved with them since their return -- such as the voracious Mexican media -- have ignored the men's suffering for their own ends."

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