By Ron Arias
July 11, 1988 12:00 PM

To My Beloved Wife, I want to write you so bad but I don’t know what to say. Only that I feel this great desire to live, which is all that gives me strength. But I don’t think I can resist because God is making it very difficult for me. But what can I do? I love you and my four daughters so much. I only know that if I die, you won’t have bad memories nor will you tell my daughters I was a bad man. My strength is ending, and if I die, I hope someone will be able to send you this.—Joel González

On Jan. 24, as the dawn’s first light brightened the cloudless sky 20 miles off the coast of Costa Rica, Joel González, 27, stood at the helm of the Cairo III, maneuvering the squat, 29½-foot fishing boat through light swells in the Pacific Ocean. Suddenly, Joel felt a squall send the vessel shuddering and lurching to one side. Within minutes, the dreaded north wind, a 50-to-60-mph seasonal scourge of the coastal area, struck with full force, heaving up 30-foot swells that bashed in doors and windows, swamped the cabin and left the wooden craft bobbing wildly and close to foundering.

“That was the beginning of our nightmare,” says Joel, who was alone on deck until his four panicked crew mates scrambled from their bunks. “There was so much noise, I thought the boat was breaking up. The guys looked like monkeys, hanging on to anything they could grab. It’s a miracle we didn’t go down. The boat was half filled with water, and we bailed like madmen. We lost our net, the radio went out, and before long the engine overheated and gave out. All day the water poured in. We’d nail the doors shut, but the waves would just smash them open again. We fought and fought, bailing and working the pump. From that day we never saw the coast again.”

Eventually, the five fishermen, who had left the port city of Puntarenas Jan. 19 on a routine, week-long trip near the coast, would remember the 22-day storm as one of the most terrifying chapters in the five months they were lost at sea. They would still have to face many desperate bouts of hunger and thirst, a badly leaking hull, the constant danger of shark attacks and the threat of mental collapse. But amazingly, they would battle on for a total of 144 days, to be rescued near the end of their endurance June 15 by a Japanese fishing ship about 700 miles from Honolulu and 4,000 miles from Costa Rica. Their odyssey would set a world record for survivors cast adrift, surpassing the 133 days a Chinese seaman spent alone in the Atlantic in 1942-43. Shaky but miraculously healthy after such an ordeal, they would return home as heroes. “I never thought I’d see my wife and kids again,” says Joel. “That’s why I started to write her a note explaining how we died. I kept it in a little bottle with my gold ring tied to the top. With my last strength, I was going to throw the bottle into the water, hoping someone would find it and send her the note.”

The captain of the Cairo III on its epic voyage into maritime history was Gerardo Obregón, 33, a quiet, affable man with five years’ experience as a skipper. Except for Pastor López, 27, the small, talkative fisherman who joined the group in December and who would become its spiritual leader in the crisis, the crew had sailed together for a year. The veterans included Joel, the poet of the group; Jorge Hernández, 26, a tall, sober-faced young man; and Juan Bolívar, the crew’s elder at 47, with more than 30 years of seagoing experience.

I only know one thing—that if it’s possible to love after life, I will love you. This is the last I’ll write you, since I see things are so difficult that I no longer have the illusion or the strength to go on. We’re out here two months now and nothing has happened to lift our spirits.

The day the Cairo III put out to sea, Joel’s wife, Edith, 26, awoke with a strange feeling. Though her husband had gone on many fishing tours with Captain Obregón, on this morning she feared unreasonably for Joel’s safety. She was worried about the condition of the boat’s wooden hull, about all the holes and cracks they had tried to fix in a hurry. When Joel was leaving the house that he and the family shared with his parents in an impoverished barrio near Puntarenas, he kissed his four daughters—ages 2 months to 5 years—and turned to go.

“Hey, what’s this?” Edith protested when her husband forgot to kiss her.

“What are you so worried about?” Joel said, picking up on his wife’s anxiety. “I’m not going as far as Panama.”

“Well, you never know,” Edith said. And with that, Joel gave her a kiss and departed.

Eight days later, Edith and Gerardo’s wife, Lydia, 27, knew something had happened to their husbands; all the fishing-fleet boats except the Cairo III had fled into port to escape the rough seas and winds that had been pounding the coast for several days. Alarmed, the women asked the local coast guard office to begin an air and sea search for the boat. Officials assured them that they would scour the adjacent Gulf of Nicoya and the ocean beyond.

While the coast guard hunted for them in vain, Joel, Gerardo, Jorge, Juan and Pastor were battling crashing waves and their own exhaustion, bailing continuously, eating or resting when they could, crawling about on all fours to keep their balance on the dizzily pitching deck of their five-ton vessel. “We were desperate, terrified that at any minute we would sink,” says Joel. “Until the end of the storm all we did was bail, crawl into our bunks for a few hours’ sleep and bail some more.” The provisions—rice, flour, beans, crackers, sugar and some meat—ran out on the third day of the storm. The men had to make do on the few fish they had caught before the storm hit.

After three weeks of fierce winds and high seas, the storm calmed, leaving the crew of the Cairo III free to consider their predicament; they were alone in the ocean with no way of getting back to shore, and no hope of a swift rescue. “We realized we had to depend on our own resources and couldn’t expect help,” Joel recalls. “Right then we decided that we had to stick together. We made rules to ration food and water and agreed to bail in four-hour shifts, day and night.” They began dismantling the wooden cabin and its four sleeping berths to provide fuel for their cooking fire. With the bunks gone, the crew found that the most protected niche on board was the hatch-covered icebox set under the rear deck. No longer used to store their catch, the icebox was barely large enough to accommodate four men in a crouch or lying down. All but the captain, who would lie down in a sheltered spot in the bow, would sleep here.

A daily struggle for food and survival had begun. All they had was a long, trailing fishing line with a lot of dangling hooks and no bait. As soon as the swells began to abate, they decided to try and catch some of the turtles they had seen inquisitively approaching the boat. Though a half-dozen 12-foot sharks were already circling nearby, catching them would require baited hooks. The turtles, some measuring up to three feet in width, could be gaffed am with a big hook tied to a pole.

“My job,” Joel explains, “was to hide behind the side rail and, before they could see me and be scared away, I’d have to spring up and hook them. As soon as we pulled one onto the deck, Gerardo would kill it and open the bottom part with his knife. Then Jorge would clean the meat, Pastor would cook us something like a stew in seawater, and Juan would divide up the pieces. I guess we trusted Juan the most to be fair. This was very important because some days we wouldn’t catch anything, and when we finally did, even if it was a fish no bigger than a man’s hand, it was Juan who’d cut up and distribute the little pieces that would tease our stomachs for another day.” Some days when their luck was running they would eat well, other days they caught nothing and went hungry. Their only source of fresh water being rain, they measured their chances of survival by the weather.

The rainwater that we had is about used up. We have no food. And all around us, the same thing, water and more water. We have suffered so much that I believe, with death, God will filially allow us to rest. I know you may never get this note, Edith, but anything is possible. And if I can’t hang on, I hope you will find out exactly how and when it was that I died.

After three weeks of waiting with no news from the coast guard, Edith and Lydia hitched a two-hour ride to the capital city of San José. There they spoke with a government official who told them that the coast guard had been unable to make a search beyond the gulf because their large patrol boat had broken down. “He made all these excuses,” says Edith. “And when we suggested that the Cairo III might have drifted into Nicaraguan waters, he said it was out of his hands. He also said there were no clues about our husbands’ whereabouts and that they couldn’t invest a lot of money on a search when the chances of finding something were so small.”

By late February, the men were drifting with the prevailing westerly winds and current. The boat’s compass, the only navigational device on board, now showed their course was almost due west. On a day of relative calm, Juan, whom the others nicknamed “the old man,” suggested they make a mast and sail. The only one among them who had worked on a sailboat, he volunteered to design and direct the project. “On our own, the way we were, we couldn’t get anywhere,” he recalls having told them. “Only God could take us there, but it wouldn’t hurt if we helped Him a bit. The wind and current were too strong for us to get back home, but a sail would move us to the west faster.” With a thick crossbeam wrenched out of the cabin roof, the men fashioned a 21-foot mast, tore away planks to make a boom and sewed together blankets and pieces of vinyl cushion covers to create a crude, triangular sail. After the sail was fastened to the boom and mast with fishing line and wire, Juan had them make a rudder. While prying out nails for reuse in these tasks, the crew found themselves blessing the thoroughness of Cairo III’s original builders. “The boat turned into a floating hardware store,” says Pastor. “We had so much wire and nails of all sizes.” The makeshift rudder worked well at first, but like the sail it had to be constantly repaired.

Getting the boat back under way was a psychological boost and allowed the five to weather the storms and towering seas they encountered frequently. The men confess they had little idea of world geography or where they might wash ashore. By mid-March they must have crossed a couple of time zones because they knew from their watches that the sun was setting much later than it did in Costa Rica. The crew’s two-date wristwatches also helped them keep track of their voyage. “The watches gave us an idea how far we had gone and how many days we’d been out,” says Gerardo. “By keeping them set to Costa Rican time, they were also a reminder, or a way of tying us to our country.” Gathering food—usually turtles, sometimes a shark they would snare with a baited hook and fishing line—had become almost an obsession. And since the thought of eating raw flesh was repulsive to all five, they took extreme care in safeguarding and cleaning what became their most cherished possession—a plastic Bic lighter that Joel, a nonsmoker, absentmindedly threw in his suitcase before the trip. “I was chosen to cook,” says Pastor, “because I was the most careful in lighting the wood. It’s funny now, but during the trip that lighter seemed like life itself for us. Late in the trip, when we had torn down the cabin and the wood was running out, we could just barely warm up the meat. But it still made all the difference to our stomachs.” The moment when Pastor flicked the lighter into flame became an important, hope-affirming ritual. With the other four watching intently, Pastor would start the fire with fragments of a sponge mattress and nurse it to glowing life with splinters of wood. Once, the Bic slipped from Pastor’s grasp and fell to the bottom of the flooded engine well; without hesitating, he dived into the oily slop to retrieve it. “We were angry at him for being so clumsy,” says Joel, “but I think he felt worse than we did.”

Edith, don’t spend the rest of your life suffering and wondering what happened to me. Be courageous and try to overcome life’s hardships, since from the time of our birth we know we’re going to die sooner or later. And if God takes me first, what can I do? I fought till the end and did everything I could to return to you. But finally I was defeated. Yet even now, on the brink of death, there’s still a little flame in me that refuses to go out.

Sometime in April Edith dreamed that she received letters from Joel, postmarked in Korea, instructing her to take care of the children. Desperate for news of Joel, she clung to her faith that he was still alive and hid her anxiety from the children. Emily, their 2-year-old daughter, who was especially close to her father, also had dreams that Joel was still alive. In one dream, she was stranded on a rock in the sea and he came to save her. In another, he returned home and, complaining of hunger, asked for a plate of rice, beans and fried eggs.

By this time, most of the boat’s cabin had been torn apart to be used as firewood in the small, cylindrical stove they had made out of a gas tank. All that remained above deck was a flat wooden awning held up by four posts. They used the awning for shade from the intense tropical sun and to catch rainwater, which they trapped in a gutter on one side by tilting the boat with their weight; the runoff spilled into a 40-gallon barrel.

Gradually the stress and punishing hardship of life aboard the Cairo III began to distort the crew’s sense of reality. Food deprivation became a maddening fixation. At first they had argued over choice pieces of turtle liver, but now, increasingly, the bickering was centering on their dreams of favorite meals. At night, ravenous and unable to sleep, they lay under the stars, their thoughts plagued by tantalizing visions of heavenly dishes. In a lunatic game, the men would find themselves haggling endlessly over an ideal plate of food, “buying” the fruits of their imagination with the little money each man carried on board. Upset that the others were only torturing themselves, Juan pleaded with them to stop, but they refused, finding some humor in taunting the older man.

A ship came on the morning of April 15, as a few small birds flitted low over the foam-tipped swells. Jorge was brushing his teeth near the stern when he glimpsed a freighter about two miles away. “Look!” he shouted. “A ship! A ship!” For a long time the men shouted and waved their arms. “I dropped my toothbrush in the water, I was so happy,” Jorge recalls. Alas, no one aboard the freighter spotted the tiny speck of the Cairo III in the vast ocean, and the ship disappeared over the horizon. The men fell silent and despondent, their disappointment all the more acute because it was the second time a distant ship had passed them by. “We thought it was another of God’s tests for us,” says Pastor. “After that, we just assumed that we’d be saved or hit land if God meant us to.”

The day of that second boat sighting, Juan suffered a crippling attack of stomach pains. Although they all contended with constant diarrhea, the normally stoic Juan finally asked Joel, the crew’s designated “doctor,” for some antacid pills. “I was the doctor only because I happened to bring along some aspirin and a handful of other pills,” he says. “Poor Juan. He was hurting the most, but the pills helped. He also had to have a tooth pulled, which we yanked out with a piece of twine.”

In mid May, Gerardo ordered the dismantling of the engine. It was dumped overboard, along with batteries and a gas tank, to reduce the boat’s weight. They had been riding ever lower in the water, bailing around the clock to control the flooding below decks, and now Gerardo began going into the water to plug holes and cracks in the hull from the outside, tethered to Cairo III by a rope. Wary of the sharks that circled the boat with nerve-racking constancy, the others would keep a close lookout while the captain stuffed rags and pieces of plastic and mattress sponge into the vessel’s leaking skin.

It was after completing this chore, after Gerardo had been pulled up and the men were sitting down to rest under the awning, when Pastor shouted: “My God, look at that!” The others started, then froze at the sight of a monstrous whale.

“It was about 20 feet away, so big it looked like a piece of land,” Gerardo recalls. “The tail alone was as big as our boat. All we could do was hold on and watch. If it touched us, we would sink in a minute. There were other whales but never that big or that close. I was ready to poke it with a little harpoon we’d made, just to shoo it away. But as it came closer, it dove under us and stayed there for about 20 minutes. We held our breath and prayed, and then, thank God, it went away.”

May 10. My beloved. Incredibly I’m still alive, since by this date I thought I would have been rescued or dead. But so great is God’s power that even from here I can wish you a happy birthday and my mother, a happy Mother’s Day.

Not long after the day the whale appeared Jorge was on deck, about to clean the severed head of a 10-foot shark. As he stooped to pick it up, the jaws reflexively snapped shut on one of his fingers. Yelling in pain, he yanked his hand free and saw that a tooth had punctured a finger. “It shocked him so much his legs wouldn’t stop trembling,” Joel remembers. “You could bash a shark over and over with a club, cut his insides out, and he would still go flopping around and twitching for an hour. We all had cuts from those fights, but Jorge’s wound was the worst.”

On May 31, they once again rationed out the last dregs of water. “There were many days when we had no rain,” says Joel. “By the end, we cherished the water we could drink more than food.” Tormented by thirst, the men lay about on the deck in their tattered shorts, looking at the faraway, dark clouds that seemed to taunt them with the promise of rain. They had begun to eat their fish raw, something they had sworn they wouldn’t do. “We had to,” says Pastor, “because we’d used up all the wood to make a fire. If we ripped up any more of the boat, we’d probably sink, since there wasn’t much left of it.” But now their tongues and throats were so parched that they could hardly swallow. They had killed about 200 turtles so far, and the creature that had saved them from starving was no longer of use.

For four days they waited for rain. Some thought of suicide, and all five passed into a kind of delirious stupor. But at their lowest ebb, Pastor gave a rousing talk to get the men moving again. “The sail was down and we had been drifting,” Pastor remembers. “I told them that God was tempting us to die the way the devil tempted Jesus. ‘Fight back, get up and let’s raise the sail,’ I said. And somehow we did and we started moving again.”

Though Pastor’s brave talk rallied his friends, he too was feeling almost over-whelmed by despair. “A lot of the time I thought of suicide, how wonderful it would be to find a way out of this situation,” he says. “But I knew it was better to fight like a man than die like a coward.”

I don’t know how much life remains in me, Edith. I pray with all my will to be reunited with you. You and my daughters are everything. I love you without limits. I can’t accept reality, but that’s the way the end is. I don’t regret what I had in life, because it was the best—a great woman, beautiful children and a wonderful mother: I love you, Edith. I love you.

As death became increasingly likely, the crew of the Cairo III began to prepare for it. Joel scribbled the last entry in his letter to his wife—something he had shown only to Pastor, thinking the others would find it overly sentimental—and Pastor carved a loving message to his family on a plank, weeping as he did so. The five men carefully put on their best clothes, the ones they had been saving for their rescue, which now seemed a futile hope. Then they lay down, closed their eyes and readied themselves for the end.

After a while, a light rain began to sprinkle their faces. Their hopes reborn, the men became nearly hysterical with joy, licking moisture from the surface of the awning roof. “We were afraid it would stop,” says Joel, “but our prayers were answered, and it started to rain hard. At that point we were all crying.”

Ten days later, on the afternoon of June 15, a crewman on the bridge of the Kinei Maru, a Japanese fishing vessel, spotted the bobbing, sea-stained white hull of the Cairo III.

Joel saw the ship first: “I’d just caught a shark when I looked up and saw it,” he says. “I remember saying, ‘Hey, a boat! A boat!’ and screaming to them to wave to it. We were all leaping with joy. I cut loose the shark, and I remember thinking, ‘Thank you, God, thank you, thank you.’ Tears came to my eyes; I realized I wasn’t going to die.”

At home in Costa Rica, Edith was the first of the wives to receive the news from the boat’s owner, Carlos Rohman, of their rescue. When she heard the words “alive” and “saved,” she dropped the telephone receiver and collapsed on the sofa.

The five survivors, who regretted leaving their boat behind—probably to sink in a matter of hours—were taken by the Japanese to Honolulu, where U.S. Army physician Dr. Fred Thaler examined them, proclaiming the Costa Ricans surprisingly fit. “There were no obvious signs of scurvy, nor did they seem terribly emaciated,” says Thaler. “For what they had been through, they were in superb shape.”

After a flight back to their country by way of Los Angeles, the men were given a hero’s welcome home, especially in the port of Puntarenas. There, after sharing tears and hugs with their families, hundreds of cheering fishermen and other townsfolk paraded them through the streets.

Joel and Edith clung to each other, in the grip of emotions they hardly dared to voice. Edith’s eyes followed Joel wherever he went, as if she were afraid he might disappear again. Some days later he showed her the note from the bottle. She sat down and read it, crying softly, and telling him finally, “You touch my heart with your words.”

Today, two days after the tumultuous homecoming, Joel sits on the deck of Cairo III’s sister boat, the Cairo V. He’s just finished eating his third ham and cheese sandwich of the morning (like the other survivors, he eats often now, throughout the day). Fingering the bottle and the note to Edith, which is deeply creased from many foldings and unfoldings, he says he hasn’t returned to work yet but he will. He likes how it feels to be on a boat again. He has decided to keep the bottle as a memento of the voyage that nearly cost him his life—but also as a symbol of what the experience taught him. “During those days,” he says, “I realized how much I love my wife and children. And now I want to show them that without the family, there is no reason to live.”

—Additional reporting by Peter Castro and Meg Grant in Puntarenas.