Sailors and their dogs rescued after 5 months at sea

The U.S. navy rescues two sailors and their dogs after five months adrift on the Pacific Ocean in a damaged sailboat.

Hawaiian women endured sharks, bad weather and a broken water purifier aboard crippled sailboat

Boater recounts details of ordeal after 5 months lost at sea 0:58

A planned voyage from Hawaii to Tahiti aboard a small sailboat didn't start off well for two Honolulu women. One of their cellphones washed overboard and sank into the deep blue water on their first day at sea.

From there, things got worse. Much worse. About a month into their trip, bad weather caused their engine to lose power. Their mast was damaged. And then, as they drifted across thousands of kilometres of open ocean, their water purifier stopped working.

It was very depressing and very hopeless.— Jennifer Appel, sailor

But the two sailors, accompanied by their dogs, were resourceful and prepared with more than a year's worth of food, and after more than five months of being lost in the vast Pacific Ocean, sending out daily distress calls that no one heard, they were rescued by the U.S. navy on Wednesday about 1,400 kilometres southeast of Japan.

The ship, USS Ashland, rescued the women after a Taiwanese fishing boat spotted their crippled vessel on Tuesday and alerted the U.S. Coast Guard, the navy said in a statement released Thursday.

The women, architect Jennifer Appel and her friend Tasha Fuiava, both of Honolulu, set sail on May 3, but lost their engine in bad weather four weeks later. They believed they could still reach Tahiti using their sails.

Instead, what was meant to be a month-long trip stretched into 176 days, and took them roughly 8,000 kilometres off course. 

"We made some modifications in order to proceed, but we could go no more than about four or five knots, so we had limited capability to manouevre," said Appel. 

By the time they were rescued, the pair thought their boat would sink within 24 hours.

"[The navy] saved our lives," Appel said.

Fuiaba climbs aboard USS Ashland after the U.S. navy ship rescued them and their dogs on Wednesday. It's not clear if the pair had tested their emergency beacon before the journey. (Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Jonathan Clay/U.S. navy/Associated Press)

Attacked by sharks

In a phone call with news media, Appel said they had sent a distress signal for 98 days with no response.

"It was very depressing and very hopeless, but it's the only thing you can do, so you do what you can do," she said, according to an audio recording of the call.

I had hope all along.— Joyce Appel, mother

A group of sharks attacked their boat one night, and a single shark returned a day later, she said.

"We actually thought it was lights out… they were horrific," Appel said. "We were just incredibly lucky that our hull was strong enough to withstand the onslaught."

Asked if they ever thought they might not survive, she said they would not be human if they did not. She credited the two dogs with keeping their spirits up.

"There is a true humility to wondering if today is your last day, if tonight is your last night," she said.

The sailors say bad weather damaged the small boat's engine and mast about a month into the journey, leaving it to drift across open ocean waters. (Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Jonathan Clay/U.S. navy/Associated Press)

Appel's mother told The Associated Press on Thursday that she never gave up hope that her daughter would be found.

Joyce Appel, 75, who lives in Houston, said she got a call from her daughter early Thursday morning more than five months after they last spoke.

She answered the phone as she always does, wondering who wanted to sell her something, when she heard her daughter's voice on the other end of the line.

"She said, 'Mom?' and I said, 'Jennifer!?' because I hadn't heard from her in, like, five months," she said. "And she said 'Yes mom,' and that was really exciting."

Jennifer Appel departed on May 3, her mother said, and she hadn't heard from her daughter since.

Zeus, one of two dogs that had been accompanying the sailors, is helped on board USS Ashland. One of the sailors credited the dogs with keeping their spirits up. (Communication Specialist 3rd Class Jonathan Clay/U.S. navy/Associated Press)

'I waited and waited'

Joyce called the U.S. Coast Guard about a week and a half after her daughter left Honolulu, she said.

"The coast guard, in Hawaii, did a search and rescue effort," she said. "I waited and waited and waited to see when I would hear from her." In that time, the elder Appel moved and got a new phone number and was worried her daughter wouldn't know where to call. "I knew she didn't even know the phone number here.

"I had hope all along, she is very resourceful and she's curious and as things break she tries to repair them, she doesn't sit and wait for the repairman to get there, so I knew the same thing would be true of the boat."

The mother said the pair's water purifier had stopped working and they were down to their last gallon of water when Jennifer got it fixed.

USS Ashland, seen here in the port of Aqaba, Jordan, in August 2005, rescued the sailors after they were spotted by a Taiwanese fishing vessel. (Abraham Faroujian/Reuters)

Two months into their trip, well after they were scheduled to arrive in Tahiti, the women began making distress calls, but there were no vessels close and they were too far out to sea for the signals to be detected on land.

They told the navy that they survived because of the water purifier and because they had packed enough food for a year, mostly dried goods like oatmeal and pasta.

The women received a medical assessment, food and beds aboard the ship, where they will remain until the next port of call, the navy said.

"The U.S. navy is postured to assist any distressed mariner of any nationality during any type of situation," said Cmdr. Steven Wasson, the commanding officer of USS Ashland. 

With files from CBC News