Survival Approach: Trust to Luck (and Rescue)

A couple set out on 17 August 2016 to travel from one tiny island (Weno) to another (Tamatam), in the vast Pacific, in an 18-foot open boat. They landed on another island entirely, an apparently nameless, uninhabited island in Chuuk State, Micronesia. And there they waited to be rescued… for a week.

Navy Chuuk Rescue 02

Their survival today is living (literally!) proof of the old adage, “It is better to be lucky than to be good.” They survived for seven days before being found, first by a passing ship which saw lights on the uninhabited island, and then by a US Navy patrol aircraft, which saw the “SOS” they’d drawn in the sand. The Navy snapped these pictures.

Navy Chuuk Rescue 01

From that point, the rescue of the two marooned people was assured, although it took two more days (from Wednesday, 24 August, to Friday the 26th) for them to be picked up and delivered to safety.

Twenty-four hours after the two and their boat neither returned to Weno nor arrived at Tamatam, the Coast Guard was alerted. A seven-day search of 17,000 square miles came up dry (no pun intended), and the good fortune of a ship passing, and the survivors having a flashing light for signaling, made the rescue possible.

It’s a lot easier to list the things that these people did wrong than what they did right, but they did do a couple of things right — bringing a means of signaling was one, and leaving word ashore about their route and intentions was another. (We’ve heard the Coasties call this a “float plan.”) But this adventure came within a hair’s breadth of being, instead, one of those missing-persons mysteries that the vast Pacific produces every year.

So learn from what they did right and what they did wrong, when you’re out in open water.

36 thoughts on “Survival Approach: Trust to Luck (and Rescue)

  1. staghounds

    It would be interesting to know if these are experienced local boat travellers. The planned distance looks like about 150 miles, and I don’t know boats. But I do remember as a child that it was nothing for Bahamians to set off on interisland journeys in little boats as though it were nothing. They always had a “Float plan”, but seemed casual about carrying extra fuel and water. This was pre GPS and cellular, no navigating equipment other than a compass, if that.

    As far as I have been given to understand, every single Pacific island we’ve been to in modern times shows signs of humans having been there before us.

    1. Claypigeonshooter

      Seen part of a PBS special where a group of people attempt a long trip on a primitive boat. They had a Island native as there navigator and he could navigate on stars alone. I think they had to turn back for some reason.

  2. Boat Guy

    My guess would be there was either water on the island or they trapped rainfall.
    It IS always better to be lucky than good. These two cheated the sea (and natural selection). Now, there will likely be people who are better prepared, trained and equipped who will be taken by being “unlucky”.
    It’s not nice to dick around with Mother Nature. Sooner or later doing that will kill you.

    1. John M.

      Especially when “Mother Nature” in general includes “the Pacific Ocean” in particular.

      -John M.

  3. S

    Uninhabited island may mean inhospitable, or uncomfortable, or inconvenient, or ideal, depending on who is describing it under what circumstances. Personally, if it’s reasonably approachable, and where one can establish a cache or even a cistern and even a garden, it’s something I’d conceal by any means especially including disinformation. My daily carry includes a water filter, shelter compact but appropriate, and heating/cooking. The one defecit is a ranged implement of force communication, but I’m confident of acquiring those when and if I need them, either by scavenge or ambush. The great ocean “wastes” are the last refuge of free men….embrace them. The sea is not your friend, and neither is the jungle, but once you learn that both hate your opponent equally as much as you, and are more powerful, perhaps you can make an ally out of these. Last man standing….

  4. Loren

    I’ve spent a lot of time in a Panga, which is an open 22′ Mexican fishing boat. Built like a brick shit house and floats like one too if swamped. Mexicans take them offshore out of sight of land with nothing more than a milk jug of water and a couple of tamales. Most come back although you hardly ever see anybody old out there. No old men of the sea anymore, just moonlighting taxi drivers.
    The photo above seems to show a couple of locals playing dice with Darwin.
    I’ve learned over the years not to trust anybody for my own outdoor safety except me, unless they’re from an English speaking country and have 20 years worth of sunburn on their arms.

  5. joshua

    they are also fortunate that once the Coast Guard knew they were missing, no one thought twice about searching 17k square miles…. the size of Connecticut and Maryland combined. And that having found nothing, they were not forgotten… so when a random report from a merchant was received, folks put it together and investigated.

  6. Ken

    Reminds me of the joke about people asking about how big of a boat they need to get xx far out to sea. Anything will get you out there, getting back on the hill is the problem.


    I have always thought the lost at sea survival has got to be be one of , if not the toughest. Stuck out on a life boat with nothing but the close on your back and whatever it may have packed with it. Jesus that is terrifying to me. I am an experienced outdoor woodsman, and could do pretty well in da woods as they say. But I don’t want to have anything to do with the ocean.

    But if I did lose my mind and decide to do something so foolish, I would have the same stuff with me as I take into the mountains. A few flashlights, a signal mirror and USAF orange signal panel along with all the other various things I take with me and have never had to use so far. Those two guys sure got lucky.


    Hognose, now that I am thinking about it. Years ago I picked up up some signal panels here and there, They kind that fold into themselves with a OD green outer cover.
    One comes with a orange/reddish panel and one that is more of a reddish purple-ish panel. Are the different colors supposed to be used for different reasons? Lime one is a marker signal and the other color is for signalling but also means enemy is close by or something like that?

    1. Hognose Post author

      VS-17. (VS = Visual Signal). There’s no fixed meaning to the panel, a lot of ways to use them. They should be two-sided with red-purple on one side and orange on the other).

    1. Hognose Post author

      That’s how they survived. They ate Ginger and Mary Ann. (And are suspected in the disappearance of that funny looking dude that followed the Skipper around).

  9. Squid

    “No pun intended”!

    This isn’t too unusual a journey for Miconesians. I also didn’t see any description of what gear or supplies they did have. Most surprising thing was that the passing vessel noticed and reported their light. I’ve seen a lot of stray lights at sea.

  10. Cap'n Mike

    Judging by the condition of the boat, I would guess that they got off course and either ran out of fuel or maybe had a mechanical problem.
    It sure makes you appreciate the vastness of the Pacific that it took 2 days to reach them, after they were found.

    I have fallen out of the boat once before, and felt really dumb.
    We have survival/life vests that we always wear when out patrolling the harbor.
    I’m rarely out of sight of land, but do operate year round, day and night, almost always alone.
    This is beyond what I have on my duty belt.

    Inflatable Life Vest (In case the dumb cop falls out of the boat again)
    Water activated strobe (For if the dumb cop falls out at night)
    Monocular (So the dumb cop can watch the boat drift away)
    Handheld Waterproof GPS (So the dumb cop knows where he fell out of the boat)
    Trauma kit With Tourniquet, Quick Clot and SWAT-T Bandage (For if dumb cop gets caught in the prop when he falls out of the boat)
    Floating Waterproof VHF Radio (So the dumb cop can get the other cops to come rescue him)
    Knife (So the dumb cop can defend himself from marauding sharks)
    Grease pencil (A SWCC gave it to the dumb cop for writing notes on the boats windows)
    Signal Mirror (So the dumb cop can signal planes and boats during the day)
    Red Lens Flashlight(So the dumb cop doesn’t ruin his night vision)
    Hand Held Signal Flare (So the dumb cop can ruin his night vision)
    Narcan (Because Heroin Happens)
    Fire Starter & Space Blanket (In case the dumb cop makes it to an one of the little islands around here and has to wait til morning for the other cops to rescue him)

    I figure its not a question of if but when.

    1. Aesop

      Actually brilliant kit. consider adding one of these:
      PLB (in case swimming cop wants to tell people exactly where he’s swimming, right now, and to please come and retrieve him).
      ACR sells one for about $250. Deploy antenna. Push button. Start thinking up story for how you ended up in the water.

      Bonus: they work anywhere.
      In case you ever need rescuing other than in the water.

      1. Boat Guy

        Back in the dawnoftime when I was a JO aboard one of our tincans I kept a package of pencil flares in my back pocket (for daytime) and chemlights in one of my shirt pockets (for nighttime). Later when I started hanging out with the Cool Kids a Mk 13 Day/Night taped to the scabbard of your Mk II knife was considered de rigeur.
        Strobes are purty neat-o too…

        1. Hognose Post author

          Good news: the Navy is phasing out the Type I “Man Overboard Camouflage”. Bad news: they’ll still be wearing disruptive camo aboardship, just of a different pattern.

          Back in the Cold War day, my LBE was a modified aviator’s survival vest, and I kept some of the survival pockets and gear, including the strobe, fishing kit, signal mirror and gyrojet flares. I was keenly aware that I was doing the job most likely, apart from strike pilot, to make me an isolated individual behind enemy lines. All my rifle ammo was in the vest, too, apart from the big Break Contact Mag that was in the rifle (in those days, 40 rounds!).

          (This comment has been edited. I stupidly wrote “phasing about” which probably means something in naval jargon, as in:

          Hoist the mains’l!
          Reef the stays’l!
          Sharpen the penc’l!

          …and with that, my jokes at the expense of our webfooted friends are complete).

          1. Boat Guy

            We’ve been referring to that abomination as the “MUP uniform” – a uniform you may recall. I’ve on occasion told Navy folks “Ya know, all you need to complete the ensemble is a Kalashnikov and a nine-year-old girls head”. Not an exact copy to be sure, but very evocative.
            My preferred shipboard apparel was Nomex coveralls; sorta a flight suit without the bling – and with fewer pockets. The two-piece stuff that was (is?) issued to armored vehicle crews would be even better.

      2. Hognose Post author

        Yep. There’s a satellite constellation explicitly orbited to look for them. Aircraft are gradually replacing existing 121.5/243.0 MHz emergency beacons with new emergency locators that are triggered by impact (or manually) and operate in this same band (I forget… 430 MHz?). The problem with the old beacons is that the new satellites can’t see them, and their transmissions can jam those VHF and UHF frequencies with their signals, which are also the global Guard freqs.

      3. Cap'n Mike

        I think the Coast Guard guys have those in their survival vests.
        I will check them out and see if I can talk my boss into buying them.

  11. Aesop

    Oh, and this gets better the deeper you dig. Especially with GoogleEarth to play with.
    Tamatam (their destination) lies about 145 nm west of Weno (their departure point), on a heading of 273 degrees, or nearly straight due west.
    East Fayu Island, where they were discovered and rescued, lies 74 nm from Weno on a heading of 336 degrees, or roughly NNW.

    The equivalent in general terms would be leaving St. Louis for Kansas City, and ending up in Iowa. Rushmore.
    Or, in precise WeaponsMan terms, leaving Boston for Albany NY, and winding up in Andover NH.

    I’m thinking they left one helluva party on Weno, and are lucky they had a week to metabolize the alcohol and avoid the BWI charges.

    I’m also about 98% certain the woman keep telling the guy to pull over and ask for directions, but he assured her he knew exactly where he was going.

      1. Loren

        Wind, current and a car compass in a boat that’s bouncing all over the place. Surprised they didn’t get farther off course.
        Read a book called The Navigators. Polynesian navigators who could find islands just by reading the waves was a small part of their knowledge. If cook had carried one he might not have missed San Francisco bay as he sailed by.

  12. Petro

    When I go anywhere off the well groomed trail I carry a SPOT on the back of my pack, turned on and sending back pings. If I get messed up enough that I can’t hit the red button, or the device gets mushed and stops working, at least they can get close to where my body is.

    Last week’s backpacking trip: (pings expire after 7 days, so if you’re late seeing this, you didn’t miss much).

    Delorme has a similar product now that can pair with a smart phone and send TXT messages back over the Sat link.

    Works a treat here in the US. If I were going out in a boat I’d double bag it.

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