Early in 1955, as the Colombian destroyer Caldas ploughed through the seas of the Caribbean, having been in dock in Mobile, Alabama for many months, eight crew members were swept overboard. Only one survived, discovered ten days later barely alive. He had survived afloat without food and water, exposed to the elements and the dangers lurking beneath the waves.
Hailed a hero, the reluctant Luis Alejandro Velasco, just twenty years old, became the toast of Colombian society and the military dictatorship of General Gustavo Rojas Pinilla. For a short time, at least. A man with enough uncultivated dignity to be able to laugh at his own heroism, Velasco told the budding journalist Gabriel Garcia Marquez the tale of his survival. The real story – the one unfettered by military censorship and revealing the carrying of illegal contraband on a naval ship, a cargo so heavy it was unable to manoeuvre a rescue. Having directly challenged the official version of the storm, denials followed its publication leading to reprisals and the eventual shutting down of the fledgling, idealistic newspaper. It resulted in Marquez himself being sent, for his own protection, to Paris.
The book The Story of a Shipwrecked Sailor was first published in 1970. Divided into fourteen short chapters, it follows the published articles in El Espectador in 1955. From the ship’s Mobile departure to the discovery of the half-dead Velasco on a north-Colombian beach, we experience the extraordinary survival, told in his own words but with the inevitable journalistic flourish of the writer. With newspaper article headlines – The Desperate Recourse of the Starving Man, Hope Abandoned… Until Death, each article/chapter tells of the man’s struggle to survive and the belief he would not survive his ordeal. Thirst, the lack of food, an unmerciful sun followed by pitch black nights, the arrival of sharks at 5pm every day (Velasco’s watch worked throughout) – all are recounted, as is the killing of a young seagull but which remains uneaten through to a description of the remote village of Mulatos in northern Colombia and survival.
It’s a familiar story of sailors cast adrift at sea and the battle with the elements for survival. Marquez writes in eloquent simplicity with clarity and to the point. And it’s short – a novella of barely one hundred pages. But its writing had such life-changing impact.