Sailboat survivors recount a doomed voyage and tell of tiger shark swarm

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HONOLULU – Trapped on a storm-battered boat in the middle of the Pacific Ocean for months, Jennifer Appel and Tasha Fuiava were pretty much running out of food and starting to believe they had been unlucky when they finally saw it: a US Navy ship blowing towards them.

“When I saw the gray ship on the horizon, I was just shaking,” Appel told reporters on Friday. “I was ready to cry, I was so happy. I knew we were going to live.

On Wednesday, the couple, followed by their dogs, Zeus and Valentine, boarded the USS Ashland, all four looking remarkably fit after being lost at sea for nearly six months.

They had been drifting aimlessly across the Pacific since the end of May and had sent unanswered distress calls for 98 consecutive days before crew members aboard a Taiwanese fishing boat saw them and did not see them on Tuesday. inform the navy.

They had left Honolulu on May 3 aboard Appel’s 50-foot vessel, Sea Nymph, for what was to be an 18-day voyage to Tahiti, followed by months of quiet sailing in the South Pacific before returning home. at their home.

Disaster struck almost immediately when a storm hit their boat with winds of 50 to 70 miles per hour for three days as they left Hawaii. They continued anyway, thinking the ship was not that badly damaged.

By the end of the month, however, another storm had flooded their boat’s engine and they discovered that her sails and mast had been damaged early enough that they could no longer generate enough wind power to stay on course. ship.

They were 900 miles off the Japanese coast and thousands of miles in the wrong direction, when a Taiwanese fishing boat found them and began towing them.

As the fishing boat attempted to tow the Sea Nymph, the 100 ton steel vessel damaged the much smaller sailboat pulling it across the ocean.

“We took incredible damage,” said Appel of the scariest 24 hour tow of the trip. It didn’t help that the women only speak English, a language not spoken on the fishing boat.

“We had a hard time telling them they were going to sink us in the next 24 hours,” she said.

Eventually, she was able to swim to the fishing boat and use their radio to make a distress call.

The Navy ship showed up on Wednesday the next morning. When he seemed to pass them just as quickly, they panicked momentarily once again.

“Alright, we’ll get there,” Appel thought to himself after the sailors radioed from Ashland’s bridge that they had seen them.

Their boat, found to be no longer seaworthy, was cleared to drift after they were rescued, though Appel says she hopes she can eventually recover and repair it.

She and Fuiava admitted that until the arrival of the Navy, they began to wonder if they would really survive.

Appel attributed their survival in part to veteran Hawaiian sailors who warned them to prepare well for their voyage.

“They said to pack every square inch of your boat with food, and if you think you need a month, pack six months, because you have no idea what could possibly happen there – low, ”Appel said. “And the Honolulu sailors gave us really good advice. We are here.

They thought they had packed enough to last a year, but as they approached six months, they found they had run 90 percent. The dogs’ food had run out and they were sharing theirs with them.

“Dogs have proven to really love human food,” Appel said.

“A lot,” Fuiava added.

One of their water purifiers was also broken but they managed to fix it.

One night a group of tiger sharks started attacking their vessel, and the next morning a shark returned and crashed into the boat again, Appel said. “We were incredibly lucky that our hull was strong enough to withstand the assault,” she said in a video interview provided by the Navy.

Although Appel has been sailing the Hawaiian Islands for 10 years and spent two years preparing for this trip, she acknowledged that she and Fuiava, a novice sailor, may not have prepared as well as they would have. could.

They said they had tried unsuccessfully to flag down a number of ships and fired 10 flares. One of their cell phones had been washed overboard at the start of the trip, but they were out of range anyway.

They were carrying two GPS units; one failed and they had to rely on the handheld model the entire trip, Appel said in a phone interview from the USS Ashland on Friday.

They also had a new VHF radio, an amateur radio, a weather satellite and a radiotelephone. She says none of them worked and that they apparently had a communication failure with their new antenna.

She says they had six ways to communicate with multiple backups, and none of them worked. This, she said, “goes beyond Murphy’s Law.”

They even carried a satellite phone which she said never seemed to connect.

The two women became quick friends a few years ago, when Appel was working on his boat and Fuiava was a security guard at the boat’s installation.

Appel invited her on a sailing adventure south of the equator.

“I’ve never been there and I don’t know what’s going to happen,” Appel said. She said, ‘OK, that sounds like an adventure. “”

During this time, loved ones had no idea where they were. Appel’s mother said she contacted the Coast Guard after not hearing from him a week and a half after the trip began, and records show the Coast Guard issued a message on June 7 indicating that the ship was missing.

Over the months, Appel’s mother heard nothing, she said she never gave up hope.

“She’s very resourceful and curious, and when things break she tries to fix them,” Joyce Appel, 75, of Houston, said of her daughter. “She doesn’t sit around waiting for the repairman to arrive. “So I knew the same would be true for the boat.”

She finally got a call from her daughter early Thursday.

“She said, ‘Mom?’ and I said, ‘Jennifer !?’ because I haven’t heard from him for about five months, ”she said. “And she said ‘Yes, mom’ and that was really exciting.”

Despite the ordeal, Appel says she is far from done with the sea. If she can find and repair her boat, she will be ready to take it out again.

“Well you have to die someday,” she said. “You might as well do something you love when you do it, right?” “

Continuous coverage here.

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