Picks and Pans Review: Five Against the Sea

updated 06/11/1990 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 06/11/1990 AT 01:00 AM EDT

by Ron Arias

It began on a January Monday in 1988 and stretched across 142 days and 4,500 uncharted Pacific Ocean miles. Five Costa Rican fishermen, their boat preyed upon by an unexpected tropical storm, fought against nature's harshest attack, waging their lonely battle armed only with their wits and a strong desire to remain among the living. The Cairo III's engine ran out of fuel, the radio was as dead as the fishermen thought they would soon be, and the food supply was reduced to the catch-of-the-day variety.

Juan Bolívar, Joel González, Pastor López, Jorge Hernández and Gerardo Obregón, all from the small town of Puntarenas, somehow survived. They fought against panic, ignored the fear that settled in during the early part of their nightmare, overcame quick outbursts of temper that were more the result of hunger than of anger. What little solace they could find came from embracing the mental images of their wives, children, family, friends and homeland and by tending to the business of staying afloat. It was all they had, all that kept them alive as they drifted across four time zones in a shattered boat over cold waters. And they displayed an amazing resourcefulness.

"Sea survivors invariably report they were plagued by sunburns, sores, wounds, boils and abscesses," writes Arias. "But the Cairo five were free of the usual skin ailments, suffering mostly cuts and nicks from the handling offish, turtles and sharks. Besides their frequent bucket dousings, the rain occasionally rinsed salt from their bodies, the awning provided them with shade, and they used turtle fat or antiseptic ointment from Joel's little medical cache to treat themselves. They also used the remaining diesel and kerosene as liniments for stiff muscles and sore joints."

Arias, a senior writer for PEOPLE, makes his story move as fast as the vicious storm that hit the Cairo III. Long interviews with the five fishermen provide the strong narrative base needed to re-create the cruel reality of the situation. As with any sea saga worth its salt, most of the book's action is internal—the men trying to ward off what they felt would be an inevitable conclusion.

That they survived and continue with their lives is testimony to both bravery and luck. All still live in Costa Rica (though only one has returned to deep-sea fishing), and each is still understandably affected by the long ordeal: Gerardo still believes there's no better life than a fisherman's; Joel has grown closer to his family and further removed from the sea; Jorge has become a farmer; Juan spends more time with his children; Pastor López digs for clams, feet always touching sand.

No matter what they do, of course, the five will never be able to erase from their memories those 142 days, which must be as close to them as the ocean they can so easily see from their bedroom windows. (NAL, $18.95)

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