Lost-at-sea saga marked by inconsistencies, changing stories
By CALEB JONES and MARK THIESSEN
Oct. 31, 2017
HONOLULU (AP) — The dramatic story of two Honolulu women who were lost at sea for nearly six months before being rescued by the U.S. Navy played out on front pages and websites worldwide. But in the days since, inconsistencies in their account have come to light, and some of their story has changed.
Jennifer Appel and Tasha Fuiava said they intended to take their sailboat, the Sea Nymph, from Honolulu to Tahiti, then sail around the South Pacific before heading back to Honolulu in November.
But they said they encountered engine problems, suffered damage to the boat's masthead and lost all communications.
Here's a look at some of the inconsistencies in their story:
BAD WEATHER, LOST PHONE
Appel and Fuiava left for their planned 18-day trip to Tahiti on May 3. The women said they encountered a fierce storm that unleashed 60 mph (97 kph) winds with 30-foot (9-meter) seas. The pair said they rode out the storm that lasted three days because there were no ports deep enough in Maui or the Big Island for their modified 50-foot sailboat.
The National Weather Service reported no bad storms during that time. And numerous ports on Maui and the Big Island can accommodate vessels as large as cruise ships.
The women said they lost their cellphone overboard during the May 3 storm.
The Coast Guard received a call from the captain of the Sea Nymph on May 6 that they lost a phone, but the agency could not clarify if those aboard lost a satellite phone or a cellular phone.
The agency deployed a plane, which found the sailboat about 133 miles south of the Big Island. The Sea Nymph reported it was not in distress.
The pair said they had six ways to communicate, ranging from VHF radio to a satellite phone, but all failed. Phil Johnson, a retired Coast Guard officer who was responsible for search and rescue operations, said he had never heard of all communication devices failing.
The women carried an emergency beacon, which uses satellites to send a location to authorities in minutes.
In an interview Tuesday with The Associated Press, Appel said the beacons only work if airplanes are flying overhead, and the pilots would relay the information to the Coast Guard. She said she didn't activate it because they were not under a known flight path.
"The system does not rely in any way on aircraft to pick up their signal and relay their information," Johnson said Tuesday by phone from Washington state. "It's all done by satellite."
He said Appel's comments made him think she didn't how the beacon works.
Mariners are encouraged to file their planned routes with friends or relatives in case of problems. The documents include specifics about the trip, and when and where the boat will arrive. It's similar to filing a backcountry hiking plan in case you get lost. Appel told reporters she left a plan with her mother in Houston, and with friends in Honolulu.
Coast Guard officials met with Appel and Fuiava in Japan this week and learned no plan was filed. Fuiava also said she had informed family of their route and that relatives had reported the pair missing with calls from California, American Samoa and Alaska. The Coast Guard has no records of those calls.
CALLS TO COAST GUARD
Appel's mother, Joyce, told the AP that she called the Coast Guard in Hawaii about 10 days after the voyage started when she hadn't heard from her daughter.
The agency said it was contacted May 19 by a male friend of the family, reporting the pair overdue into Tahiti. It calculated the normal course and speed for a sailboat and told the caller they would probably not arrive until mid-June.
A Coast Guard plane was looking for another missing boat near Tahiti on June 15 and also tried to contact the women's vessel on VHF radio. It got a response from a boat identifying itself as the Sea Nymph, which said it planned to make land in Tahiti the following morning.
However, Appel told the Coast Guard after the rescue that they were 1,500 miles away on June 12. The plane could not have made contact that far away, Coast Guard Lt. Scott Carr said.
"There are many vessels out there," Carr said. "Was it a different vessel? We don't know."
One night when the women were adrift, they said huge tiger sharks bombarded their boat for hours. They claimed a group of 20- to 30-foot tiger sharks split up and tried to capsize the boat. One jumped out of the water and smashed into the vessel, they told reporters.
University of Hawaii professor and veteran shark researcher Kim Holland has never heard stories of any kind of shark repeatedly attacking a boat.
"They wouldn't be tiger sharks, and they are not known to have any sort of coordinated feeding strategy, and also they don't come out of the water," Holland said.
In fact, no sharks are known to hunt in packs, he said. The largest known tiger sharks are about 17 feet long.
The women seemed to be out of radio contact for months, with no known sightings or communication.
In interviews last week, they spoke of the storms, the sharks and attempts to get help in the island nation of Kiribati. Not until an interview Monday in Japan did they mention an attempt to radio for help at Wake Island on Oct. 1 or 2.
The women said the harbor there is built for submarines, and they couldn't navigate in without a motor. They called for help for a tow but said no one seemed to understand them and they drifted off.
Thiessen reported from Anchorage, Alaska. Associated Press writer Ken Moritsugu contributed to this report from Naha, Japan.