Holes emerge in Hawaii women's tale of survival in the Pacific

Something is wishy-washy here.

Two Hawaii women who claimed they were lost at sea for five months and “would have been dead within 24 hours” had the U.S. Navy not picked them up last week never activated their emergency beacon, the Coast Guard said Tuesday, adding to a growing list of inconsistencies and questions that cast doubt on their harrowing tale of survival in the Pacific Ocean.

"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 Coast Guard officer, said Monday in a telephone interview with The Associated Press.

The women previously said they had radios, satellite phones, GPS and other emergency gear, but they didn't mention the Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacon, or EPIRB.

A Coast Guard review of the incident and subsequent interviews with the women revealed they had an EPIRB aboard their boat but never turned it on.

More than five months after they departed from Hawaii for a planned trip to Tahiti and the South Pacific, they were picked up in the western Pacific about 900 miles southeast of Japan. The two women and their dogs were all in good health when recovered by the U.S. Navy Wednesday, a day after being spotted by a Taiwanese fishing vessel.

Jennifer Appel confirmed in an interview with The Associated Press Tuesday they had the beacon and did not use it. She said that in her experience, it should be used only when you are in imminent physical danger and going to die in the next 24 hours.

"Our hull was solid, we were floating, we had food, we had water, and we had limited maneuverable capacity," Appel said in Japan, where the U.S. Navy took them. "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."

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Sailors help Zeus, one of two dogs who were accompanying two mariners who were aided by the amphibious dock landing ship USS Ashland.  (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Jonathan Clay)

However, just hours earlier, Appel appeared to contradict herself by claiming her scenario was a life or death situation.

“Had [the USS Ashland] not been able to locate us, we would have been dead within 24 hours,” she told reporters in Okinawa on Monday, adding that they were both extremely grateful for the men and women of the USS Ashland.


“They saved our lives,” Appel also said last week, according to a Navy press release. “The pride and smiles we had when we saw [the Navy] on the horizon was pure relief.”

The two say they were able to last on the open waters because they packed a water purifier and enough dried food to last a year.

The EPIRB communicates with satellites and sends locations to authorities. It's activated when it's submerged in water or turned on manually. The alert signal sends a location to rescuers within minutes.

Johnson described the device as sturdy and reliable, but added that old and weak batteries could cause a unit not to function.

But Appel and Tasha Fuiava also said they had six forms of communication that all failed to work.

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

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Tasha Fuiava, an American mariner who had been sailing for five months on a damaged sailboat, climbs the accommodation ladder to board the amphibious dock landing ship USS Ashland.  (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Jonathan Clay)

In retrospect, though, Appel said there were two times that she would have used it — once when she and Fuiava were off Hawaii around late June to early July, and a second time 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," Appel said of the Wake Island missed opportunity.

Previously, Appel and Fuiava had said they were close to giving up when the Navy rescued them last week, thousands of miles off course.

The two women met in late 2016, and within a week of knowing each other decided to take the trip together. Fuiava had never sailed a day in her life. They planned to take 18 days to get to Tahiti, then travel the South Pacific and return to Hawaii in October. They set off May 3.


Their accounts of the weather conditions during the trip also are not consistent with weather reports or basic geography of the Pacific Ocean, according to The Associated Press.

On their first day at sea, the two women described running into a fierce storm that tossed their vessel with 60 mph winds and 30-foot seas for three days, but meteorologists say there was no severe weather anywhere along their route during that time.

After leaving "we got into a Force 11 storm, and it lasted for two nights and three days," Appel has said of the storm they encountered off Oahu. In one of the first signs of trouble, she said she lost her cellphone overboard.

"We were empowered to know that we could withstand the forces of nature," Appel said. "The boat could withstand the forces of nature."

But the National Weather Service in Honolulu said no organized storm systems were in or near Hawaii on May 3 or in the days afterward. Archived NASA satellite images confirm there were no tropical storms around Hawaii that day. Appel expressed surprise that there was no record of the storm. She said they received a Coast Guard storm warning while sailing after sunset on May 3.

The pair said they thought about turning back, but the islands of Maui and Lanai didn't have harbors deep enough to accommodate their sailboat. At 50 feet long, however, the vessel is relatively small, and both islands have harbors that accommodate boats of that size. Plus, the Big Island — the southernmost island in Hawaii — has several places to dock.

Appel, though, said she modified her sailboat, called the Sea Nymph, by adding six tons of fiberglass to the hull to make it thicker and heavier and extend the keel to a depth of 8.5 feet to give the boat greater stability. 

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

So they pressed on.

Then, they say, another storm killed their engine at the end of May.

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.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.