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A Sisterhood’s Fight for Survival at Sea

"There is true humility to wondering if today is your last day." - Jennifer Appel


It was the ultimate test of sisterhood. Two women this week proved that strong women fiercely face rogue waves together and swim beside one another as long as necessary. What should have been for Jennifer Appel and Tasha Fuiava an 18-day relaxing trip from Honolulu to Tahiti quickly became an excruciating, 5-month odyssey that turned into the ultimate fight for their lives. Appel and Fuiava, along with their dogs Zeus and Valentine, left Hawaii on May 3 for their dream voyage at sea, but their face-off of one obstacle after another would keep that dream from becoming reality.

Tasha Fuiava climbs aboard USS Ashland after 5 months aboard the ill-fated Sea Nymph she spent 2 and 1/2 years building.

Photo: US Navy

Appel's and Fuiava's first night at sea became a battle against 40-50-foot waves in a 3-day storm that left them with a damaged mast. As they made their way to a small island to make the necessary repairs, they realized upon approach that the vessel was too large, leaving them no choice but to press on. And it was shortly after they made the choice to continue their journey that a white squall overtook their boat and killed their boat’s engine. The pair was left floating in the middle of nowhere as prey for packs of tiger fish, who as Appel noted, “decided to use our vessel to teach their young how to hunt.” For 5 more months the two women did their best to survive as their boat drifted 900 miles off the southeast coast of Japan. Knowing their location would likely not allow their distress signals to be received, Fuiava, who was the night-watch person, still sent distress signals for 98 days in the hopes that somehow she and her shipmates would be rescued. Inevitably however, the vessels she’d made such an effort to alert would “turn and keep going. It was kind of sad.” The women and their dogs prepared for the worst as they huddled together in the downstairs base of the boat with the year’s supply of rice, oatmeal and distilled water they’d brought on board. Fuiava estimates the pair “did not believe we would survive another 24 hours.”

Zeus is welcomed aboard the USS Ashland after torrential waves damaged his owners' boat.

Photo: US Navy

But fate had different plans. As she blew kisses to the servicemen and women who would later spot her impaired ship, Appel visibly celebrated as the US Coast Guard approached and pulled each of the survivors to safety aboard the USS Ashland. Said Appel about her ordeal and ultimate rescue, “there is true humility to wondering if today is your last day, if tonight is your last night. It was so satisfying to know the men and women that serve our country would come and assist us.”

Jennifer Appel thanking the Navy for her rescue

Photo: US Navy

The ladies were rescued Wednesday after a Taiwanese fishing boat spotted them the day before and contacted the US Coast Guard for help. The women and their dogs will remain on board the Navy’s ship until the USS Ashland reaches its next port of call.

UPDATE: on Monday 10/29 in an interview between the US Coast Guard and Fuiava and Appel, the US Coast Guard confirmed the women neglected to activate their registered EPIRB (Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacon), an emergency alert system that signals rescue locations worldwide to trouble at sea. Their refusal to do so has caused speculation to the validity of their story of being stranded at sea. Appel argues that “EPIRB calls are for people who are in an immediate life threatening scenario,” whereas Appel and Fuiava believed the boat, albeit damaged, was still capable of making it to a safe place for repairs. Coast Guard spokeswoman Petty Officer 2nd class Tara Miller said the women chose not to activate the EPIRB, noting the women never felt they were “truly in distress, like in a 24 hour period they were going to die.”

Other questions surround their claim of hitting a force 11 storm - the National Weather Service In Honolulu reports no storms were in or near Hawaii on May 3. The Coast Guard is continuing to review the case at this time.

Source: Washington Post, CBS News, Associated Press

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