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Family leaves US on sailboat over religious concerns to start new life, becomes lost at sea

A northern Arizona family that was lost at sea for weeks in an ill-fated attempt to leave the U.S. over what they consider government interference in religion will fly back home Sunday.

Hannah Gastonguay, 26, said Saturday that she and her husband "decided to take a leap of faith and see where God led us" when they took their two small children and her father-in-law and set sail from San Diego for the tiny island nation of Kiribati in May.

But just weeks into their journey the Gastonguays hit a series of storms that damaged their small boat, leaving them adrift for weeks, unable to make progress. They were eventually picked up by a Venezuelan fishing vessel, transferred to a Japanese cargo ship and taken to Chile where they are resting in a hotel in the port city of San Antonio.

Their flights home were arranged by U.S. Embassy officials, Gastonguay said. The U.S. State Department was not immediately available for comment.

The months-long journey has been "pretty exciting" and "little scary at certain points," Gastonguay told The Associated Press by telephone.

She said they wanted to go to Kiribati because "we didn't want to go anywhere big." She said they understood the island to be "one of the least developed countries in the world."

Kiribati is a group of islands just off the equator and the international date line about halfway between Hawaii and Australia. The total population is just over 100,000 people of primarily Micronesian descent.

Hannah Gastonguay said her family was fed up with government control in the U.S. As Christians they don't believe in "abortion, homosexuality, in the state-controlled church," she said.

U.S. "churches aren't their own," Gastonguay said, suggesting that government regulation interfered with religious independence. "Jesus isn't the head of the church. God isn't the head of the church," she said.

Among other differences, she said they had a problem with being "forced to pay these taxes that pay for abortions we don't agree with."

The family moved in November from Ash Fork, Ariz., to San Diego, where they lived on their boat as they prepared to set sail. She said she gave birth to the couple's 8-month-old girl on the boat, which was docked in a slip at the time.

In May, Hannah, her 30-year-old husband Sean, his father Mike, and the couple's daughters, 3-year-old Ardith and baby Rahab set off. They wouldn't touch land again for 91 days, she said.

She said at first, "We were cruising."

But within a couple of weeks "when we came out there, storm, storm, storm."

The boat had taken a beating, and they decided to set course for the Marquesas Islands. Instead they found themselves in a "twilight zone," taking more and more damage, leaving them unable to make progress.

They could have used a sail called a genoa, she said, but they risked snapping off the mast and losing their radio and ability to communicate.

They had been on the ocean for about two months and were low on supplies. They were out of food and were down to "some juice and some honey." She said they were able to catch fish, but they didn't see any boats.

Still, we "didn't feel like we were going to die or anything. We believed God would see us through," she said.

At one point a fishing ship came into contact with them but left without providing assistance. A Canadian cargo ship came along and offered supplies, but when they pulled up alongside it, the vessels bumped and the smaller ship sustained even more damage.

They were getting hit by "squall after, squall, after squall."

"We were in the thick of it, but we prayed," she said. "Being out on that boat, I just knew I was going to see some miracles."

They watched the surrounding storms disperse, and "next thing you know the sun is out. It's amazing."

Eventually, their boat was spotted by a helicopter that had taken off from a nearby Venezuelan fishing vessel, which ended up saving them.

"The captain said, 'Do you know where you're at? You're in the middle of nowhere,'" she said.

They were on the Venezuelan ship for about five days before transferring to the Japanese cargo ship, where they were for nearly three weeks before landing in Chile on Friday. The Chilean newspaper Las Ultimas Noticias reported the story of their arrival.

Sean Gastonguay's brothers Jimmy and Ryan, who both live in Arizona, have been in contact with the family but declined immediate comment to the AP.

Hannah Gastonguay said the family will next, "go back to Arizona" and "come up with a new plan."

___

AP Writer Susan Montoya Bryan contributed to this report.

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