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Story of sailors rescued after 5 months at sea cast into doubt by inconsistencies

October 31, 2017 8:27 PM
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Story of sailors rescued after 5 months at sea cast into doubt by inconsistencies

Hawaiian women didn't activate emergency beacon, weather service has no record of May 3-6 storm

Two Hawaii women who say they were lost at sea for five months never activated their emergency beacon and described running into a fearsome storm that meteorologists say didn't exist, adding to a growing list of inconsistencies casting doubt on their harrowing tale of survival.

The women previously told The Associated Press that they had radios, satellite phones, GPS and other emergency gear, but they didn't mention an emergency position indicating radio beacon (EPIRB). A U.S. Coast Guard review and subsequent interviews with Jennifer Appel and Tasha Fuiava revealed that they had the device aboard their sailboat but never turned it on.

Appel said Tuesday that in her experience, the beacon should be used only when facing imminent physical danger and death in the next 24 hours.

"Our hull was solid, we were floating, we had food, we had water, and we had limited manoeuvrable capacity," Appel said in Japan, where the U.S. Navy took them after their rescue last week.

"All those things did not say we are going to die. All that said, it's going to take us a whole lot longer to get where we're going."

The sailors say bad weather damaged the small boat's engine and mast about a month into the journey, leaving it to drift across open ocean waters. (Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Jonathan Clay/U.S. navy/Associated Press)

In retrospect, Appel said there were two times she would have used it — near Hawaii in late June to early July and off Wake Island on Oct. 1.

"That's a lesson learned for me, because that was the best chance we had in the ocean to get help," she said.

The emergency beacon communicates with satellites and sends locations to authorities within minutes. It's activated when it's submerged in water or turned on manually.

"If the thing was operational and it was turned on, a signal should have been received very, very quickly that this vessel was in distress," Phillip R. Johnson, a retired U.S.Coast Guard officer who was responsible for search and rescue operations, said Monday from Washington state.

Fuiaba climbs aboard USS Ashland after the U.S. navy ship rescued them and their dogs on Wednesday. It's not clear if the pair had tested their emergency beacon before the journey. (Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Jonathan Clay/U.S. navy/Associated Press)

Appel and Fuiava also said they had six forms of communication that all failed.

"There's something wrong there," Johnson said. "I've never heard of all that stuff going out at the same time."

Key elements of the women's account are contradicted by authorities and are not consistent with weather reports or basic geography of the Pacific Ocean. The discrepancies raised questions about whether the pair could have avoided disaster.

The pair reported that their sailing equipment and engine failed and said they were close to giving up when they were rescued thousands of kilometres off course.

Jennifer Appel, one of the rescued sailors, is welcomed on board USS Ashland by Command Master Chief Gary Wise. The Coast Guard made radio contact with a vessel that identified itself as the Sea Nymph in June near Tahiti, and the captain said they were not in distress and expected to make land the next morning. (Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Jonathan Clay/U.S. navy/Associated Press)

The women met in late 2016, and within a week decided to take the trip together. Fuiava had never sailed. They planned to take 18 days to get to Tahiti, then travel the South Pacific and return to Hawaii in October.

They left on May 3, when they said they encountered a fierce storm off Oahu that tossed their vessel with 97 km/h winds and nine-metre seas for three days.

But the National Weather Service in Honolulu said no organized storm systems were in or near Hawaii that day or in the days afterward. Archived NASA satellite images confirm no tropical storms were around the state.

Appel expressed surprise Tuesday that there was no record of the storm. She said they received a Coast Guard storm warning May 3.

The pair said they thought about turning back but that the islands of Maui and Lanai didn't have harbours deep enough to accommodate their sailboat.

At 15 metres long, the vessel is relatively small, and both islands have harbours that accommodate boats of that size. The Big Island also has several places to dock.

Appel said she had modified her sailboat, called the Sea Nymph, by adding five tonnes of fiberglass to the hull to make it thicker and heavier and to extend the keel to a depth of 2.6 metres to give the boat greater stability. The extra-long keel meant the boat couldn't get in to nearby harbours, she said.

"Given the constraints of our vessel, we chose the appropriate action," she said. They pressed on.

Days later, after parts of their mast and rigging failed, but with their motor still working, they sailed up to a small island but decided against trying to land, believing it was mostly uninhabited with no protected waters.

"They only have habitation on the northwest corner and their reef was too shallow for us to cross in order to get into the lagoon," Appel said.

But Kiritimati, also known as Christmas Island, and part of the island nation of Kiribati, is home to more than 2,000 people and has a port that routinely welcomes huge commercial ships.

Appel previously said they thought they could make it to next major island in Kiribati, where they could fix the mast.

They said they set sail for the Cook Islands, about 2,600 km from Kiritimati and 1,160 km from their original target of Tahiti.

"We really did think we could make it to the next spot," Appel has said.

At one point in June, the Coast Guard said it made radio contact with a vessel identifying itself as the Sea Nymph near Tahiti, and its captain said they were not in distress and expected to make land the next morning. It's not clear it if was the women, who told the Coast Guard they were 2,400 km away, near Christmas Island.

More than five months after they departed, the women and their dogs were picked up in good health about 1,450 km southeast of Japan.


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