In the days after the food and water had run out, as the catamaran drifted helplessly in the Atlantic with a snapped mask and broken motor, there was nothing left to do but pray, said Muctarr Mansaray, 27.
“I pray every day. I pray a lot at that particular moment. I don’t sleep at night,” he said.
Mansaray and 24 other African migrants had set out from the African nation of Cape Verde in April, on what they were told by the two Brazilian crewmen would be a relatively quick and easy voyage to a new country where they hoped to find work.
This weekend, they were rescued by fisherman 80 miles off the coast of Brazil, after an incredible 3,000 mile journey across the Atlantic.
The men, from Senegal, Nigeria, Sierra Leone and Guinea Bisau had been at sea for 35 days – the last few days without food and water.
Details have now begun to emerge of the men’s terrifying and chaotic voyage in a 12m catamaran barely big enough for them to squeeze on. When food and water ran out, some even drank sea water and urine.
“After 35 days of journey in these conditions it is really lucky that nobody died,” said Luis Almeida, head of the federal police’s immigration department in São Luís, the capital of Maranhão state.
“There was not a cabin for all of them, so they were exposed to a lot of sun and solar radiation during these 35 days,” he said. The rescued men were disorientated, dehydrated and some had problems seeing after so long exposed to the glare of sun reflected on the waves.
Almeida said the case was unprecedented: African stowaways have been found on cargo ships in Maranhão ports before, but this was the first time a boatload of migrants had arrived in the state. The two Brazilians also on the boat were arrested for promoting illegal immigrations.
The journey began in the island nation of Cape Verde, 400 miles west of Senegal.
Mansaray, a Muslim from Freetown in Sierra Leone, had moved there five years ago to study science and technology with hopes of becoming a teacher. He studied for two years but was struggling to pay his university fees and working as a cellphone repairman.
“They called me the cellphone doctor,” he told the Guardian by phone from São Luís.
A friend who is a student in São Paulo told him he could study for free in Brazil’s biggest city and would be able to send money home to his elderly parents and sister in Freetown. “I said cool, that’s why I got that boat,” he said.
He said he had been introduced to a Brazilian on the street and then paid $700 (£521) for what he was told would be a 22 day passage.
He became scared when he saw the size of the vessel he was about to cross the Atlantic on.
“I am the last to arrive, when I enter on the boat, a lot of guys, oh my God, is this going to be safe all of us?” he said. “How can I do this journey? Because I am already in, I cannot discourage other people, so I find courage and go.”
‘The motor broke, and the sail broke’
Others had paid more on the promise that they would be given food, but within 10 days the food had run out, so the men survived on two biscuits or a few spoonfuls of food each day. One day, one man caught a fish with a rope.
“We boiled a fish, and everybody eat,” Mansaray said.
But the mast snapped when one of the boat’s crew was trying to tie it to the other side of the boat, he said, and the motor would not work because the crew had mixed kerosene and diesel. A storm came as a relief because at least there was rainwater to drink.
Elhadji Mountakha Beye, 36, was hit on the head when the mast broke and has been left with a scar. The mechanic from Dakar in Senegal had previously lived in Cape Verde, and paid €1,000 (£877) for his passage in the hope of finding work in Brazil where he hoped to meet up with a Senegalese friend in São Paulo. “There is better work there than in Senegal,” he said.
He described a hellish journey.
“It was tiring, there was no food, the food ran out, the water ran out,” he said. “Just on that sea. The motor broke, and the sail broke. Now just wait for someone to help us.”
Just as the situation was becoming dire, the men aboard the drifting vessel spotted a fishing boat and signalled that they were in distress. The fishermen, from nearby Ceará state, towed the catamaran to the nearby port of São José de Ribamar.
“The next day someone would have died,” Moisés dos Santos, one of the fishermen, told reporters when the men landed. “They said they ate two biscuits a day. They even drank urine, that’s what they say, they told us. We felt very honoured to save the lives of a lot of people.”
The men were met by a medical team from the Maranhão state government’s secretariat of human rights, taken to a health post for checks and then housed in a local gymnasium.
“All of them said life was precarious in their origin countries and they all have relatives or people they know living in Brazil. They were looking for a better life and to work in Brazil,” said Jonata Galvão, the state’s adjunct secretary for human rights.
Federal police said they are now evaluating a “migratory solution” for the men to stay in Brazil.
“We are not criminals. We are hard-working guys. So I believe that the government will help us to do that,” Mantsaray said. “It is my dream, and I believe my dream will come true with the help of God, and I can support my family back home.”