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Sailors’ account of months at sea raises questions

Dec 28, 2017
Crew of the 37-foot sloop Sea Nymph being rescued by a boat from the U.S. Navy ship Ashland.

Crew of the 37-foot sloop Sea Nymph being rescued by a boat from the U.S. Navy ship Ashland.

Courtesy USN

Two sailors rescued after drifting for months in the Pacific Ocean recounted a nightmare scenario: powerful storms, crippling vessel damage and even aggressive sharks. The sailors’ account of their experience has, however, raised questions by some experienced ocean voyagers.

Photos and video showing crew from the dock landing ship USS Ashland rescuing Jennifer Appel and Tasha Fuiava in a desolate stretch of the Pacific ricocheted around the world. But many sailors question their account — particularly why they never activated their emergency beacon while reportedly adrift for nearly four months.

“Several of Ms. Appel’s statements about her voyage do not check out and don’t ring true to many experienced sailors,” said Dr. Linus Wilson, who runs the website Slow Boat Sailing and wrote the book How to Sail Around the World Part-Time.

“I think a reasonable person may start out thinking that Ms. Appel was just a foolish skipper, but it seems likely many events that she recounts may have been fabricated to sensationalize the story,” he continued. “It would be a shame if someone used a very expensive U.S. Navy rescue as a publicity stunt.”

Attempts to reach Appel and Fuiava, of Honolulu, were not successful.

Appel and Fuiava left Honolulu on May 3 with their dogs Zeus and Valentine aboard Appel’s 37-foot Sea Nymph. They reportedly planned to sail to Tahiti then spend several weeks cruising around Polynesia before returning in October. The pair carried a watermaker and packed enough food for a year.

Nearly five months later, on Oct. 24, Taiwanese fishermen spotted Sea Nymph drifting nearly 900 miles off Japan. Its crew brought the vessel under tow and the Coast Guard was notified. Ashland met the vessels at about 1030 on Oct. 25.

Speaking to reporters from Ashland, Appel said they encountered a powerful three-day storm with 60-mph winds and 25-foot waves almost immediately after leaving Honolulu. Roughly a month later, Sea Nymph’s engine flooded and its starter was destroyed. Appel also said the vessel’s rigging was damaged, making it difficult or impossible to sail.

While adrift the pair claimed a pack of sharks slammed into the sailboat’s hull during one “horrifying” night. They said they made pan-pan calls over radio for 98 straight days but never got a reply, and claimed they fired 10 flares after spotting nearby merchant ships.

As the ordeal continued, other problems occurred. Appel later claimed she believed they would not have survived much longer.

“We asked why during this course of time did they not activate the EPIRB,” Coast Guard spokeswoman Tara Molle told the Associated Press. “She had stated they never felt like they were truly in distress, like in a 24-hour period they were going to die.”

AP also reported the Coast Guard made contact with a vessel called Sea Nymph in June near Tahiti, and that the captain did not note any distress. The vessel was reportedly slated to reach land the next day. It isn’t clear if this was the same boat.

Molle declined to comment on the case, and instead referred back to her comments to the AP.

Tania Aebi, who completed a solo circumnavigation in a 26-foot sailboat almost 30 years ago, said the sailors’ story does not sound credible. Citing their appearance immediately after the rescue, she noted the women appeared clean, well fed and well rested for such an ordeal.

“Every single person I’ve talked to about this — and it comes up without any prompting from me — says it smells fishy for various reasons, has a theory about the true story,” she said.

Without further details from Appel and Fuiava, the questions about the sailor’s experience may never be answered.

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