Survival at Sea, or Something Stranger?

By now, you’ve probably heard about the two women who were sailing a yacht from Hawaii to Tahiti, and wound up at sea for five months before being rescued from their sailboat, the Sea Nymph.  They wound up much closer to Japan than their declared destination by the time they were approached by a tender from a US warship (video at end of post).

Here’s a happy moment after rescue.  Apparently, the surf’s up…

Still clip from US Navy footage. One of the rescued women tethered to her surf or SUP board, aboard a navy tender.

The voyage, as they reported it, sounded quite dramatic.  Soon after departure, they got caught in a tough storm that cost them their engine and compromised their rigging.  And then…

  • They made distress calls for 98 days with no reply.
  • Their water purification system failed, but they fixed it.
  • They departed with a projected 1-year supply of food, but it was 90% gone by the time they abandoned the vessel.
  • On at least two occasions, sharks showed up and attacked the boat.
  • After being rescued, they said that that they believed they would have died within 24 hours of when the US Navy arrived.

But, it doesn’t add up.  Some of it seemed shaky to this writer when the story first broke, and more questions have surfaced since.

Three of the four now-so-happy campers as a navy tender approaches close aboard.  The vessel looks low in the water in this still, but it was just rocking.  Boat was floating high and  fine.  Pic by US Navy.

The rig looked fine.  The mast was intact, and the boom was attached with the main roughly secured on it.  Barring halyard failure, which wasn’t mentioned, there was no visible reason why the main couldn’t go up.  The headsail was smoothly furled up with waiting sheets.  The only specific indication in any news report was that there was spreader damage – but the spreaders looked perfect.  So, did they sail?  Also not mentioned in any news report we saw.

They said they were caught in a “Force 11” storm right after departure, with wave heights to 30 feet and winds to 60 knots – for three days.  Or was it more?  Depends who you listen to. 

“We had no way to realize we were about to enter a typhoon that had winds of 110-150 miles an hour and minimum wave heights of 40 foot in height.”

-from an interview on CNN, according to an article by NPR.

This supposedly cost them their engine, and possibly the proper functioning of their mast or attached rigging and electronics.  However, the National Weather Service says there was no “organized storm” activity near Hawaii at the time.  NASA satellite imagery confirms.  Kinda hard to miss a weather system of this magnitude.  (The NWS did issue a small craft advisory for some areas in Hawaiian waters on the day they departed, but that’s pretty f-in far from Force 11.)

The owner of the boat (one of the women on the voyage) claims to have added 6 tons of fiberglass to the 50-foot boat in order to beef it up.  Perhaps this was a misprint of some kind, but assuming any part of that was correctly reported by the news outlets – the number, the material, or the unit of measurement ton were correct – it still makes no sense.

Regarding sharks attacking the boat: one of the women said she could hear her own teeth rattle in her head when they rammed it, and they they all lay down together inside the boat and tried to be quiet.  She said the sharks could hear them breath, and smell them, and that they told their dogs not to bark.  Dog Whisperers?

A 50-foot vessel would be more than twice the length, and probably more than three times, of any sharks they might have encountered.  If they brushed up against the boat, or butted their heads against it, no doubt it would have frightened just about anyone.  But lets not blow it completely out of proportion.  Many sharks use contact to assess whether something is worthwhile (or actual) prey.  But even large species, including tiger sharks mentioned in the press, aren’t known to ram vessels far larger than themselves.  Sometimes they bite running engines, as the electrical field generated by them mimics that of living things they track and prey on.  But this engine was gone, and ostensibly, most of their electronics.

Apparently, that didn’t stop them from communicating near Tahiti, their stated destination, in June.  According to the Coast Guard, contact was made with a vessel called the Sea Nymph (same as the womens’ vessel).  The captain of the Sea Nymph said they were not in distress and that they intended to make landfall soon.   That begs the question of how they basically got to Tahiti, turned around, and then wound up most of the way to Japan.  The discrepancy is staggering: between 3,500 and 5,000 nautical miles.  This very rough estimate is due to secrecy of the US Navy on final position, which was approximately 900 miles from Japan.

They reported that they had six forms of communication when they departed, and that all failed.  That in itself is somewhat suspicious.  One was a cell phone that went overboard soon after departure.  Fair enough.  I didn’t see a list of all the others anywhere yet.  But the most interesting one of all was the EPIRB.  This didn’t actually fail.  TURNS OUT…  It was never used!  They didn’t mention having one in their initial interviews.  But when the Coast Guard got through with them (and perhaps they’re not yet), they said they had one and chose not to deploy it.  An EPIRB is a satellite based rescue beacon that is highly reliable, and would almost certainly have resulted in their position being known.  They said in retrospect that there were two occasions where they should probably have activated it.  The owner contradicted herself somewhat regarding EPIRB use.  On the one hand, she said in interviews that when they were found, they believed they wouldn’t have survived another 24 hours.  But she also told the Coast Guard that in her “experience” (her language), they shouldn’t be deployed unless death is imminent within 24 hours.

Speaking of this 24-hour threshold, it’s quite completely unclear why they felt they had only about 24 hours left to live.  Reports were somewhat conflicted, but according to ABC News, the owner said they could not speak on why they felt they only had 24 hours left.  She stated very specifically:

“I would love to answer that question now. I’m not actually allowed to answer that as long as we are on the vessel,” Appel said before going on to detail how their sailboat was damaged while it was being towed by the Taiwanese vessel.

“The pictures speak a thousand words. It is absolutely phenomenal the amount of damage that they did to the structure of that boat. So that kind of help speaks for itself.”

(They reported that they were first discovered by a Taiwanese fishing vessel, and that the owner swam from her vessel to this one to make a radio distress call.  (HEL-lo: sharks?????).  Sounds like they were taken in tow at some point for some undisclosed amount of time, and they make it sound like this damaged their vessel. )

Their two dogs and they looked surprisingly healthy upon rescue despite all this.

And now, the video clip we promised…

If/as more details come to light, we’ll report and poke around here.

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2 thoughts on “Survival at Sea, or Something Stranger?”

  1. You called it all – thanks for the laugh! This whole story reeks of a spectacular web of lies! The only question is WHY? Desperate for attention? fame? So weird.

    1. I’m sure we haven’t heard the last of it. The boat was drifting around in the Pacific, so if it wasn’t already sinking, and those tiger sharks don’t finish it off, maybe it will be spotted and they can try to reunite with it…

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