When Jennifer Appel and Tasha Fuiava set off on a journey in a sailboat from Hawaii to Tahiti, they thought they were incredibly prepared. They had a year's worth of food, a water purifier and their two dogs for company.
But as they set sail in the spring, the first day may have been an omen. One of their cellphones washed overboard into the Pacific and from there, things got progressively worse, reports the Associated Press.
Bad weather caused their engine to fail about a month into the trip. Then the mast on their boat became damaged. And their water purifier stopped working. And they were stuck in the middle of the open ocean.
But the women continued on, believing they could make it to land by sail. Two months into their trip, long past when they thought they would have arrived in Tahiti, they said they started making daily distress calls, which went unanswered.
Finally, after more than five months being lost at sea, they were discovered by a Taiwanese fishing vessel in late October. The crew alerted authorities and the U.S. Navy sent the USS Ashland to rescue them about 900 miles southeast of Japan, thousands of miles off course from their intended destination.
The sailboat was declared unseaworthy, so the women and dogs were brought aboard the Ashland, an amphibious dock landing ship.
"They saved our lives," said Appel through a U.S. Navy press release. "The pride and smiles we had when we saw [U.S. Navy] on the horizon was pure relief."
Here's a video of the rescue. (The dogs are so excited!)
98 days of distress calls, but no reply
According to the AP, 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.
She said a group of sharks attacked their boat one night, and a lone shark returned a day later. Both times they felt lucky that their hull was sturdy enough to withstand the battering.
She credited the two dogs with keeping them company and keeping their spirits up. They lived off their food supply of mostly pasta, oatmeal and rice and tried not to give up hope that they would be rescued.
Appel said the the ordeal has been life-changing.
"There is a true humility to wondering if today is your last day. If tonight is your last night. If the storm that’s approaching is going to bring down the rig."
'Most cruising sailors found the story just really odd'
Days after the rescue, questions started to rise about the women's story when they admitted they had a functioning rescue beacon on board but chose not to use it. According to the AP, the women said they chose not to activate the Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacon (EPIRB) because they never feared for their lives.
“We asked why during this course of time did they not activate the EPIRB. She had stated they never felt like they were truly in distress, like in a 24-hour period they were going to die,” Coast Guard spokeswoman Petty Officer 2nd Class Tara Molle told the AP.
Parts of the story have been questioned, including the tropical storm the women say they dealt with their first night at sea in May. National Weather Service records show no records of a storm on or near Hawaii at that time.
There were other details about their story that have raised eyebrows. Some sailing experts question that all six forms of communications the women had on board could go dead at once.
“I think most cruising sailors found the story just really odd,” Linus Wilson, an associate professor of finance at the University of Louisiana, who has since logged more than 10,000 nautical miles since 2010, tells People.
“To have people afraid they’re going to be lost at sea, or that they’re going to be attacked by sharks, I think it’s a terrible picture for the sailboat cruising community,” he says. “Sailors who have been out on the water and have cruised long distances, their comments about the story are negative—there are so many holes in it that it just doesn’t make any sense.”
Editor's note: This story has been updated.