Alive on the ocean wave: the world’s record-breaking survivors of the sea

Shailene Woodley in adrift
Action adventurers: Shailene Woodley stars in this real-life tale of a boat-based disaster

The two plucky protagonists in this stormy drama got more than they bargained for when they went to sea, as did the stars of this run-down of record-breaking seafarers

An incredible story of survival at sea, Adrift is the inspiring tale of a young couple who set out to cross the ocean from Tahiti to San Diego but didn’t reckon on sailing into one of the most catastrophic hurricanes in history. Directed by Baltasar Kormákur, the Icelandic filmmaker behind 2015’s gripping true-life adventure Everest, Adrift stars Shailene Woodley and Sam Claflin as Tami Oldham and Richard Sharp, two real-life adventurers whose astonishing story of determination, strength and sheer resilience is played out on the big screen in the face of a storm of awesome ferocity.

All action: Shailene Woodley behind the scenes on location filming adrift

Here are some other incredible tales of survival at sea against the odds:

Two fishermen in a cool box

In December 2008, a small Thai fishing boat sank while on an expedition and most of its 20-strong crew were never heard from again. But, 25 days later, a customs plane spotted an ice box bobbing about near Horn Island, in Australian waters; in it were two Burmese men from the fishing boat disaster. They had made it through Cyclone Charlotte and shark-infested waters by sheltering in a cool box usually used to store fish.

Torpedoed by Nazis

For a long time, China’s Poon Lim held the record for most days spent adrift at sea on a raft, for 133 days between November 1942 and April 1943. The British merchant ship he was on had just left Cape Town when it was torpedoed by a Nazi U-boat.

Survival instinct: Poon Lim had to tread water for two hours before finally spotting a raft Credit: US Navy

After throwing himself overboard, Poon Lim had to tread water for two hours before he finally spotted a life raft, where he found biscuits, a torch, some flares and a supply of fresh water. When those meagre rations ran out, he caught fish, seagulls and sharks to eat before being rescued by three Brazilian fishermen at the mouth of the Amazon river. On his return to Britain, King George VI awarded him a British Empire Medal, and the Royal Navy added his story to its survival manuals.

One man and his laundry

Louis Jordan was rescued by a German tanker 66 days after the rudder, mast and radio on his boat were knocked out by a storm during a fishing trip. The perk of being shipwrecked on his particular boat was that he had a supply of tinned food and a lot of useful tools to hand, such as his laundry. When the food ran out, he used his laundry to attract fish that he then caught with a net. He was so well fed on his return that people were reluctant to believe he had actually been lost at sea for two months – the authorities even checked his bank account to see if he had used it.

The record holder

On 30 January 2014, two Ebon Atoll locals found quite a sight on their local beach – a thin, bearded man, stark naked, clutching a knife and shouting in Spanish. This was José Salvador Alvarenga, who had been lost at sea for more than a year – 438 days to be exact.

Record breaker: José Salvador Alvarenga had been lost at sea for over a year Credit: Getty

His fishing boat had blown off course when its motor cut out during a storm off the coast of Mexico. His only companion, a 22-year-old known only as Ezequiel, died four months in, but Alvarenga managed to survive by eating fish, turtles, birds, sharks and drinking rainwater. Although he contemplated giving up a few times as his craft meandered across the Pacific, he says his faith kept him alive.

76 days in an inflatable

It takes a stout heart and some pretty serious faith in your boat-building abilities to set out on a transatlantic boat trip in a vessel you made yourself. But that’s exactly what Steve Callahan did. One week in, his DIY boat was damaged beyond repair and he spent the next 76 days on an inflatable life raft, eking the most out of the meagre supplies he managed to grab before his boat went down. Luckily, one of those supplies was a spear gun, which he used to catch fish – at least until one angry fish broke a spear and then took its frustration out on the raft. Callahan managed to patch up the burst dinghy as best he could but was very relieved when he was picked up off the coast of Guadeloupe a few days later.


This Telegraph feature is brought to you by the new film Adrift.

Released in cinemas nationwide on Friday 29 June and directed by Baltasar Kormákur, Adrift is based on the incredible true story of two young adventurers, who after setting off on the journey of a lifetime across the Pacific Ocean are pushed to their limits as they sail directly into one of the most catastrophic storms in recorded history.

To watch the trailer and to buy tickets, go to