Castaway fisherman's drift matches currents and winds

University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa
Nikolai Maximenko, (808) 956-2584
Senior Researcher, International Pacific Research Center
Jan Hafner, (808) 956-2530
International Pacific Research Center
Posted: Feb 13, 2014

Tracers’ paths from December 20, 2012, to February 1, 2014, driven with 06% wind-force.
Tracers’ paths from December 20, 2012, to February 1, 2014, driven with 06% wind-force.
Winds, in m/s, during week of December 20, 2014.
Winds, in m/s, during week of December 20, 2014.

Fisherman Jose Salvador Alvarenga's improbable 13-month voyage from Mexico westward across the Pacific agrees with simulations of a computer model developed at the University Hawaiʻi at Mānoa's International Pacific Research Center. UH Mānoa scientist Nikolai Maximenko and scientific programmer Jan Hafner placed 16 tracers into their ocean model 200 nautical miles southwest of the coastal fishing village Chiapas, Mexico, on December 20, 2012, around the time that Alvarenga says he was blown off shore.

Image 1 shows the track of these tracers over the 13 months, the length of Alvarenga’s stated voyage. The blue circles represent the ends of the trajectories on January 31, 2014, around the time that Alvarenga was found on Ebon Atoll in the Marshall Islands. Image 2 shows the winds at the beginning of model simulation.

The animation at displays the movements of the tracers in the model. After their release, the particles are quickly driven offshore by very strong winds and by wind-induced currents. Small initial differences scatter the tracers with time and thus they become exposed to different wind and ocean currents: some move faster and overshoot the Marshall Islands over the 13 months (black dot indicates approximate place where Alvarenga was found), others have not yet reached the islands.

Overall, however, the 16 tracers show a remarkably narrow path over this long period of time, given the satellite daily wind and current variability that drove the model. The paths of the tracers passing by, or nearing, Ebon Atoll span not more than 2 degrees latitude, or about 120 miles.

Alvarenga’s claim that he had been adrift for 13 months and that he came from Mexico, therefore, falls well within the model’s limits and is consistent with the prevailing pattern of wind and ocean currents during his ordeal.

The mathematical computer model was originally developed by Maximenko and Hafner from paths of actual drifters with 15-m deep drogues. The initial purpose had been to chart the varying ocean surface circulation.

“When the devastating tsunami happened in 2011 in Japan, our model was adapted to track different types of tsunami driftage by adding different strengths of direct wind-force to the model,” Maximenko recalls. “Details of our model are on our IPRC Marine and Tsunami Debris website” (

“The experience with capsized fishing boats from the tsunami that reached the shores of Hawaiʻi 1½ to 2½ years later guided us in using realistic model parameters to simulate the fisherman’s boat drift from Mexico,” explained Hafner.