PACIFIC ISLANDS REPORT
Pacific Islands Development Program/East-West Center
NINE DAYS ADRIFT IN A SMALL OPEN BOAT
By Bill Jaynes
On Saturday, April 10, Dr. David, sat on his front porch in Nanpohnmal and looked out over the majestic, sweeping view of Pohnpei’s lagoon south of Sokehs Island. Stacked in his carport were at least six cases of soda and at least the same number of cases of bottled water, an opulence that a week before he had begun to think he might never see again. The trailer that carried his 19 foot open boat and 40 horsepower engine to the lagoon on the morning of the Pohnpei Fishing Club Catch 5 tournament sat empty in the lawn. He bent down, rubbed his swollen legs, stretched and began to tell his story.
"We checked in for the tournament at 6:30 that morning and there was another boat there too," he began. The other boat was captained by Ferny Perman. Dr. David said that he and his nephew went out through Palikir pass. Perman, whose boat was faster overtook and passed them so they followed his boat in the direction of Bird Island.
Not long after, the fishermen caught a 40 pound yellow fin tuna. "But it was a Catch 5 tournament so we needed four more kinds of fish," said David and enumerated the species, counting them off on his right hand.
The two headed towards Ant Atoll where many fishermen have had good success at catching Mahi Mahi and Wahoo and where the fishing club has placed a payao, a fish aggregating device. They were happy that their first catch of the day had come so early and scoured the ocean looking for the birds that would indicate both schools of bait fish and the bigger fish they were after that feed on the small bait fish. They found nothing. They concentrated for a time around the payao but still caught nothing.
They turned southeast from Ant in the direction of Black Coral, a tiny island located on Pohnpei’s southwest barrier reef. Approximately half way between Ant and Black Coral they found a floating log. They soon caught 3 Mahi Mahi and a Wahoo in its vicinity before a storm blew in. The storm brought with it, clouds that completely obscured Pohnpei and soon the two fishermen did not know where they were. "All we could see was ocean," Rayder said.
They used up three of the four gas tanks they had brought with them searching for land until it was nearly dark.
"I told my boy that we would have to put out a sea anchor and wait until morning," David said. But the seas were rough and the anchor line snapped in the night. They filled one of the empty fuel containers with sea water and dropped it in but that line also eventually snapped. They waited for signs of a rescue as best they could until 10:00 in the morning and when nothing came they used the boat’s canopy to make a sail. The westerly winds took them in the direction of Chuuk, over 250 miles away.
On the night of the third day at sea, Rayder spotted three lights and thought they might be approaching an island. They started the engine and headed in the direction of the lights. Soon they could see that they were approaching a ship. "Ships have a red and green light as a navigational aid so that other ships know which direction they are heading," David said. "But this ship didn’t have those lights." He said that as they got closer to the ship the lights went off and it steamed away. Dejected, the two men killed the engine and continued to drift.
"I don’t know what they were doing," David said shaking his head, "probably stealing fish."
Dr. David relies on twice daily insulin shots to control his diabetes. He had a shot on the morning that he set out to go fishing. He left the rest of his insulin at home thinking he would be back in time for his next shot. Probably the fact that the two men had such a small amount of food available to them saved him from entering a diabetic coma.
"I thank God that he did save us," Dr. David said. "I really thought that we would die on the way."
The two men suffered from intense thirst. "I’ve never been that thirsty," Rayder said, a bottle of water in his hand. "It was really scary."
Surprisingly, David was able to use information he had learned on a favorite television program to help them to survive. "It was something I heard on the show ‘Man versus Wild’ on the Discovery Channel," David said. "That guy was in the Sahara Desert." They used a survival technique David learned about on that show in order to keep from dying of thirst.
They had cut thin slices of the yellow fin tuna they caught on the day of the tournament in order to air dry the meat and keep it from spoiling. They ate a couple of slices of the sashimi every day. "A booby bird landed on the motor one night. I caught it and I ate half of it," David said. Oliver initially rejected the other half but by the next day he was hungry enough to eat the other half of the bird raw.
They found a coconut floating in the ocean. Oliver husked it and they drank the liquid and ate the copra.
"It was all we had all that time," David said. "Some bits of fish, a raw sea bird, and that coconut, and not enough water."
The men found a large fish aggregating device floating in the water with a radio beacon on it probably placed by a purse seiner fishing vessel. They made two or three circles around the device to see if fish would rise to their lures but they got no bites. They assumed that it had only recently been placed there and that it might be weeks before a purse seiner would return to it.
They once again hoisted their make shift canopy sail and the wind powered them on with their makeshift sail.
"That canopy was really good," David said. "We went really fast," and usually in a westerly direction though not always. One night the wind changed and took them back east again.
"Maybe two nights before we found land it rained all night long," David said. "It was a terrible storm and we took down our ‘sail’ and filled our water containers."
On the last day adrift David thought that his nephew was becoming confused because of hunger. When they awoke at 6:00 in the morning he told Oliver to put up the "sail." Oliver initially refused.
What Dr. David didn’t know was that while he slept during the storm it was Oliver who bailed the boat all night long. "I didn’t want to go back into another storm," Oliver said, eyes wide. "We almost sank that night. Water was washing into the boat and rain was filling it up too. I didn’t want another storm."
"I wasn’t really too scared during the day time," he said. "I was alright. But at night I was really scared. Scared like I never been scared."
"It was really cold at night," said Dr. David. "I only had the t-shirt I was wearing and shorts." He said that he was able to sleep until maybe midnight but after that it was just too cold. "We slept mostly during the day."
Oliver did put up the "sail," that final morning and Dr. David went to sleep. An hour later Oliver woke his uncle and pointed excitedly at an island. "We started the motor and headed towards it. We were really lucky it was high tide and we went right over the break water," David said.
They circled the island looking for residents but they didn’t find any. Dr. David was barely able to move by that point but his nephew was strong enough to go on shore and climb a coconut tree and get them some coconuts. "He was so strong," David said. "I promised I would find him a job working on a fishing boat or something, maybe a purse seiner."
They still didn’t know where they were and there were no people around to help but there was another island approximately one mile further west and they used their fuel to get there.
It was Kuttu, one of the islands of the Mortlocks region in the Federated States of Micronesia’s Chuuk State.
"The people there were really friendly and helped us," David said. "The Deputy Mayor took us in."
David had to be carried from the boat to the shore and the people of Kuttu produced a wheel chair. A pastor on the island gave them clothes. David and Oliver changed and ate and slept until someone woke them at 10:00 in the morning and told them that Alex Tretnoff from Caroline Islands Airlines (CIA) in Pohnpei was already in the air to pick them up in the Mortlocks.
The pastor who had given them clothes volunteered to take the two men to De, a neighboring island that David said was about as far away from Kuttu as Pakin is from the Pohnpei Harbor, over 30 miles. Once again they climbed into the boat in which they had spent nine harrowing days and set to sea. "It was really scary," David said. "It was a long way to De and it took a couple of hours." But De was the closest island with an airstrip where Tretnoff could land.
When they got there David told the pastor to take the boat. He didn’t want it anymore. He said that he’s never going out on the ocean again.
It was Oliver’s first time to be in a small plane. "It felt funny in my stomach and it was scary so I just went to sleep," he said with his palm on his stomach.
The three arrived at the Pohnpei International Airport at just after 5:00 on Monday, April 9. Their nine day ordeal was finished.
The parking lot of the Pohnpei Airport was nearly as full as it is when a Continental Micronesia flight is scheduled to arrive and to depart. Public displays of affection are usually frowned upon in Pohnpei but not on that day. The two sunburned and exhausted men were inundated with unabashed hugs and kisses from their loved ones who swarmed the SUV that carried them from the airport to Dr. David’s home in Nanpohnmal.
Dais Lorrin who handles Pohnpei’s emergency responses was also at the airport. He said that Tretnoff had been in the air searching for the lost men as often as he could be.
Dr. David said that neither he nor his nephew ever heard any of the search planes.
Lorrin early on notified the US Coast Guard which sent a C-130 from Hawaii to aid with air searches. Lorrin said that the USCG was only able to participate for three days due to mechanical difficulties with the plane. He said that the USCG in Guam does not have the type of aircraft that would be needed for an air search.
A resident who returned to Pohnpei from the U.S. on the day that David and Oliver found Kuttu said that sometime in the last 20 to 30 minutes before his flight was scheduled to land in Pohnpei, the pilot of the Continental Micronesia Airlines asked passengers to look out the windows of the plane. The pilot told them about the missing fishermen and flew much lower than normal in the hope that one of the passengers might spot them. The pilot was unaware that the men had already landed in Kuttu.
The incident has sparked some self examination within the Pohnpei Fishing Club. An email campaign amongst members and former members of the club spawned a determination to review safety regulations for fishermen involved in tournaments. At least one marketing manager for a company that sponsors tournaments for the club said that his company was concerned about the issue as well. Future sponsorship might depend on what action the club takes.
Rayder Oliver said, "I want to tell people who fish everyday, or even just sometimes that they need to carry things with them that we didn’t have. We didn’t have any flare gun. They need to carry a lot more water," he said.
Family members gathered for a party on Saturday evening, April 10 and Dr. David’s home to celebrate their triumphant return.The Kaselehlie Press
Copyright © 2010 The Kaselehlie Press
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