Raw fish, air guitar help trio survive 9 months adrift

Mexican fishermen Jesus Vidana, left, Lucio Rendon, center, and Salvador Ordonez arrive in the Marshall Islands Monday.
Mexican fishermen Jesus Vidana, left, Lucio Rendon, center, and Salvador Ordonez arrive in the Marshall Islands Monday.

Three Mexican fishermen said they sang ballads, danced and played air guitar as they drifted for months in a boat across the Pacific, surviving on raw fish caught with jury-rigged engine cables and drinking rainwater.

They read the Bible aloud, prayed -- and tossed overboard the bodies of two dead companions they said starved to death. The government said Tuesday it would investigate the deaths and other aspects of the survivors' account.

Several days after being rescued by an Asian fishing boat, the men seemed to be in remarkably good health Tuesday as they shyly appeared before Mexican television cameras in the Marshall Islands, 8,850 kilometers (5,500 miles) from their home on Mexico's Pacific coast.

Their ordeal began, they said, on October 28, 2005, in their hometown of San Blas, when they set out with the boat's owner and another man on a shark-fishing expedition they expected to last a few days. Mother Nature had other plans.

A cold front swept in and a strong wind dragged the boat out to sea, they said. As the men struggled to turn toward islands they could see in the distance, they ran out of gas. They prayed to drift back to Mexico before their food and water ran out.

Instead, the prevailing currents apparently pushed their 8.2-meter (27-foot) boat all the way across the Pacific. With no shelter onboard, the men protected themselves from the sun with blankets and set about doing what they knew best: fishing. They crafted lines from cables and hooks from springs in the boat's motor.

"We straightened them and made hooks," survivor Lucio Rendon said in an interview Tuesday with the Televisa network. "There were times when we caught four, five fish, and at times nothing."

The men said they needed to fashion new fishing gear because they lost their shark-fishing equipment -- a long stretch of line with a series of baited hooks -- when it became tangled or broke.

Rendon, Jesus Vidana, and Salvador Ordonez said they ate the fish raw -- as they did the seabirds that occasionally flew by. But the boat's owner, whom the survivors knew only as Juan from Mazatlan, and a fourth employee refused to eat the catch.

"Juan didn't eat and he began vomiting blood," Vidana told Televisa. "The man was kind of delicate. It grossed him out eating something raw."

One died in January and the other in February, the survivors said.

Investigation planned

President Vicente Fox's spokesman, Ruben Aguilar, told reporters Tuesday that "without a doubt there has to be an investigation."

"The presidency accepts as fact that they had this experience of practically nine months adrift, but a series of circumstances have to be explained, such as how the two other fishermen aboard the boat disappeared."

A woman who answered the telephone at the Marshall Islands' Embassy in Washington said the government had not commented on the case.

The fishermen said they were saddened when their companions died, and waited three days before throwing Juan overboard.

"For Senor Juan we said seven Our Fathers and seven Hail Marys, then threw him into the ocean," Vidana told Televisa. "The same with the other one. We prayed and tossed him overboard."

Mexican news media have cast doubt on the men's account of their nine-month odyssey, suggesting they might be drug smugglers who made up the story to avoid prosecution. There are no records of their departure, and some relatives initially said they had been gone for only three months.

"There are stories going around that you were shipping cocaine," Televisa anchor Carlos Loret de Mola told the men via satellite.

"Well, no, that isn't true," Rendon said.

The survivors also denied they ate their dead companions.

No doubts about survival

The fishermen said they know their tale is far-fetched -- but insisted it's true. They also said they never doubted they would live to tell it.

"We made plans about what we were going to do when we hit land again," Vidana said. "We always had the hope of reaching land. Always."

Vidana cheered his companions by singing romantic ballads, playing air guitar and dancing, "so we would not be so sad about what had happened to our companions," Ordonez said. "The three of us also chatted. At moments one read the Bible -- me or Lucio."

The men trimmed their beards with two pairs of tiny scissors, one of which eventually rusted and broke and went overboard along with the fish bones. They relieved themselves hanging over the side of the boat.

Against all odds, the men stayed healthy.

"We never had a headache or a stomachache," Ordonez told Televisa. "The raw food didn't hurt us. We drank rainwater that tasted like gasoline."

The men said they dreamed of small, impossible comforts: an umbrella for shade, a radio to call for help, a stove to cook the fish and birds they swallowed with closed eyes and clenched stomachs. At times, the sea grew rough.

"There were two times when strong winds took hold of us and almost flipped the boat over," Vinada said.

Promises to God

Rendon and Vidana said they promised God they would stop smoking and drinking if they survived. Ordonez said he simply focused on his desire to get back home.

On August 9, their dreams came true. A Taiwanese fishing crew spied the men, pulled them aboard and fed them their first hot meal in months.

In Mexico, the fisherman became instant folk heroes. In their hometown, family and friends couldn't believe they were alive and began preparing huge celebrations for their return. Vidana reportedly has a 4-month-old daughter he has never met awaiting him.

"We should follow the example of these three fishermen, making prayer the source of our strength," the Roman Catholic Mexican Council of Bishops said in a statement.

The men landed Monday in Majuro on the Marshall Islands, where doctors confirmed they were well enough to go home and Mexican diplomats offered to help.

As for the boat, the three were unanimous:

"We don't even want to see it," Rendon told the newspaper Reforma. "We were in it a long time. We don't want it. It can stay where it is."

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