Inconsistencies cast doubt on harrowing tale of sea survival

HONOLULU — Two Hawaii women who say they were lost at sea on a sailboat for months never activated their emergency beacon, the U.S. Coast Guard said, adding to a growing list of inconsistencies that cast doubt on their harrowing tale of survival.

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.

Jennifer Appel confirmed in an interview Tuesday that 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 after they were rescued by a Navy ship.

“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.”

In retrospect, though, Appel said there were two times that she would have used it — once when she and Tasha 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 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.

A retired Coast Guard officer who was responsible for search and rescue operations said if the women had used the emergency beacon, they would have been found.

“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 said.

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

Appel and 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.”

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 on May 3 along with their two dogs and were rescued by the Navy last week, thousands of miles off course.

Key elements of the women’s account are contradicted by authorities, and are not consistent with weather reports or basic geography of the Pacific Ocean.

The discrepancies raised questions about whether Appel and Fuiava could have avoided disaster.

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, 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.

Similar vessels typically have a keel of 5 to 7 feet, she said. The extra-long keel meant it couldn’t get in to nearby harbors.

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

Still, they pressed on.

Days later, after parts of their mast and rigging failed, they sailed up to another small island, still with a working motor, but decided against trying to land, believing the island was mostly uninhabited with no protected waters.

“It is uninhabited. They only have habitation on the northwest corner and their reef was too shallow for us to cross in order to get into the lagoon,” Appel said.

But Christmas Island, part of the island nation of Kiribati, is home to more than 2,000 people and has a port that routinely welcomes huge commercial ships.

“We could probably nurse it down to the next major island in Kiribati,” Appel said. “Then we’ll be able to stop there and seek safe haven and get up on the mast and fix it.”

The island has at least two airfields, and women had flares aboard to alert people on land. Plus, its widest point spans about 30 miles, a day’s hike to safety from even the most remote area.

When asked if the small island would have been a good place to land and repair their sails, Appel said no.

“Kiribati, um, one whole half of the island is called shipwreck beach for a reason,” she said.

Christmas Island has a place called Bay of Wrecks on its northeast side.

So, instead of stopping for help, they say they set a new destination about 1,000 miles away and a few hundred miles beyond their original target of Tahiti. They were headed to the Cook Islands.

“We really did think we could make it to the next spot,” Appel said.

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.

More than five months after they departed, 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 picked up by the U.S. Navy.