Cast Away: Possible Today?

The new Robert Zemeckis/Tom Hanks movie, “Cast Away,” is another modern updating of the Robinson Crusoe story about a man stranded on a desert island and making a primitive life for himself there. He survives a plane crash in the Pacific and lives on the island for four years before escaping in a raft (this is from ads and reviews; I haven’t seen the film yet).

I’m wondering if it’s possible, in 2000, for an American[sup]1[/sup] to survive an incident at sea, make it to an uninhabited island with enough resources to provide a living, and last for four years without being discovered and rescued.


  1. When I was in the Navy ten years ago I was impressed by how systematic and scientific search and rescue procedures have become. When a ship sinks or a plane goes down, provided the approximate area and time of the incident are known, the ocean currents and prevailing wind patterns are so well-catalogued that a highly accurate search grid can be constructed.

  2. Nowadays, with a complete GPS constellation, black box radio beacons and such, the exact time and location (of a plane crash, at least, if not a ship sinking) is easily obtained.

  3. The globe is very well-mapped today. A habitable island within reach of a plane crash that SAR teams somehow missed? Not likely.

  4. A habitable island so far from other habitable (and inhabited) islands and shipping lanes that our hero can go for four years without someone stumbling upon him? When he’s trying to get stumbled upon? Remember, just as no man is an island, few islands are (lone) islands. They’re usually grouped into archipelagoes, and if no one lives on Island A, there’s probably still a few people over on Island B.

  5. By “habitable,” I’m referring to a source for the stranded man’s most desperate need: fresh water. On many otherwise lovely and bountiful desert isles you’d die of thirst.

When’s the last time something like this happened for real?

[sup]1[/sup]I only specified “American” because that’s the sort for whom the latest and greatest resources of the First World would be turned out to rescue. The Air Force doesn’t divert planes to look for survivors when an Indonesian ferry goes under. Harsh, I know, but there it is.

I haven’t seen the movie either, nor any of the previews, but my guess is that they probably find enough chunks of body parts in the wreckage and/or personal items of Tom Hanks that they assume he was dead and thus…no search party.

As far as how long you could go on a habitable island (i.e. with fresh water) while frantically trying to get rescued, I’d guess you’d be spotted within a month, tops. If he is really supposed to be stranded for four years, it sounds like the movie is going to have some serious 'splaining to do!

Probably JFK in WW2.

I agree that it would be extremely unlikely due to a plane crash.

It could be semi-believable if were due to the sinking of a small ship/yacht. There have been stories of people drifting for a couple weeks. This could let them drift to an island. Anything else would require sinking/crashing at the island.


“Probably JFK in WW2” what? Was he stranded on an island for four years? Not likely.

Wouldn’t most of your criteria apply to Amelia Earhart?

I dont think Amelia Earharts black box, beacon, or GPS was as advanced as ours today. :rolleyes:

but just a note: from what I’ve read, as far as his ability to survive for that long, the FedEx shipments keep drifting up on shore, providing him with an interesting variety of stuff to put to use in his struggle to survive.


Wait a minute. Wasn’t there a case of 7 people being stranded on an island for years back in the 60s? I think they even had their own theme song…

Somebody remembers…

If the plane goes down in water a radio beacon isn’t going to do much good. The “pingers” on black boxes are audio devices that only can be heard within a radius of a few miles. If the pilots were able to transmit their lat/lon before they went down, or if they were in radar coverage it would be easy to find the crash site. Otherwise, they would have to extrapolate out from the last known position, likely coarse, speed, and crash time window. That could expand the search area considerably.

I could easily see it taking weeks to find the crash site, if they could find it at all. Without a crash site the wind and current data is useless. There are regions in the south Pacific with literally tens of thousands of islands with only a few of which are populated. On top of that, the habitablity of these islands is likely unknown, so they would have to search every one. Eventually, after weeks of no success, the search would be called off. If anyone makes it through the initial search and is still missing, and the island they landed on is sufficiently remote, then I could see that person being stranded there for an indefinite period of time.

JFK in WW2?

As I understand it, John F. Kennedy’s PT boat was sunk by the Japanese. Kennedy was a strong swimmer, and managed to swim with his fellow survivors to a nearby island (he was given a medal for heroism, because he personally pulled some injured usrvivors along with him).

Now, once Kennedy and his mates reached that island, they were NOT stranded, a la Gilligan or Robinson Crusoe. Indeed, their problem was just the opposite! Many of the islands in the area were occupied (or patrolled regularly) by the Japanese Navy! Kennedy’s problem was NOT that nobody could find him or his men- it was that the people most likely to find them were the enemy!

In any case, Kennedy and his crew were rescued in a matter of days or weeks (I don’t have the reference books close by). They weren’t forced to survive long under “desert island” conditions.

Even assuming that nobody knew anything about the crash (even assuming that nobody knew there even was a crash), I’d still give it a month tops before discovery and rescue. Assuming that Our Hero could build a bonfire (and if he’s capable of surviving four years by himself, then he’s probably capable of improvising a way to start a fire), there’s sattellites which could see him. Allow a week for him to figure out how to get a fire going, another week for some grad student interning with the NOAO or NASA to notice something funny in the data, and another week to figure out that it’s man-made, and rescue is on its way. Add a few days to account for bad weather, and you’re still home in time to pay the rent.

As for most recent case of folks getting marooned, how about the Brazilian soccer team in the Andes (the event on which the book Alive was based)? It wasn’t exactly a desert island, but the idea’s the same.

Five, I don’t believe the OP was that precise - asking about the last time an engineer from a shipping company was the sole survivor of a plane crash, lived 4 years alone on an island, found a way off the island, went back home, rebuilt his live etc.

I took the OP to be more general - when did someone survive a crash, get stuck on an island, and get rescued. Typically people get rescued at the crash site or from the vessel’s life boats, they do not get stranded on an island.

I don’t want to post a spoiler because that is not what was asked for, just to say that I think the movie did a good job of explaining that it could be done.

The surprising part isn’t that he survived that long (most Boy Scouts and military personnel could pull it off, even without FedEx flotsam), but that he wasn’t rescued in all that time. Was that explained, too?

No, I think it’s possible to be stranded on and island and see no other human being for 4 years. Hell, take Pitcairn Island for example. That island HAS people on it and they see visitors every 6 months or so. For those that haven’t seen the movie I think if it has any holes in it they are really small.

#1.) The plane had four people on it, so him being the only surivor is quite possible. (as opposed to a 747 with 300 or so passangers)

#2.) The plane lost radio contact and was flying too low for some other communication device (I don’t remeber what it was)

#3.) The plane flew 200 miles off course on pupose to avoid a storm, then crashed. Tom Hanks draws a map figuring the search area is twice the size of Texas…hell, for all he knew the plane might have been out of radio contact before they diverted course, making the search circle even larger.

#4.) His plane went down 500 miles south of the Cook Islands. So he’s around the Society Islands, Tubuai Islands, Samoan Islands, the Tonga group…hell, smack in the middle of Polynesia. So there are THOUSANDS of unihabited islands.

Now I can’t say how possible it is to survive all by yourself with nothing and almost no help, be I think the situation he was left with is possible even today. Because eventually, if only a few FedEx boxes are found, people will just assume everyone’s dead and give up.