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A bizarre new entry into the annals of sailing survival

2018 January 1

As a card-carrying member of the Mainstream Media (Ink-Stained Wretch Newspaper Division), I cringe whenever my brethren in national news organizations report on sailing.

They never get it quite right. 

When Lester Holt teased an upcoming report on his NBC news program about the rescue of the crew of a sailboat lost at sea for months, I set down my wine glass and turned up the volume. Then I cringed.

The rescue segment reported that two women and two large dogs were saved by the U.S. Navy 900 miles southeast of Japan. The report went on: Rescue was needed because the women and dogs had been adrift on a sailboat for five months. They were drifting aimlessly because a storm caused their engine to fail shortly after the start of a voyage from Hawaii to Tahiti. They had faced many perils, including shark attacks. Video showed the four of them on the deck of a boat (the dogs in PFDs, the women not) with an upright mast with furled sails attached.

When Lester returned to the screen, I greeted him with an agricultural expletive. The report was a crock full of that expletive. For openers, couldn’t someone on the reporting team have found a source (just about any sailor would do) to explain that engines have almost nothing to do with a sailboat’s ability to travel from Hawaii to Tahiti—unless the boat is towing a fuel barge?

That might have been a little harsh. I probably shouldn’t blame the news media for jumping on the story before it was fully baked. Survival, after all, is known to be one of the most compelling triggers for human interest. It ranks right up there with sex. It turned out that by some accounts this story has a bit of each.

When journalists finally did their job, the story proved to be fascinating in the manner that truly bizarre tales—and train wrecks—often are, though at the same time embarrassing for sailors who take pride in the skill and self-reliance they believe distinguishes their pursuit.

For my part, I was so vexed by the unfathomable thought that a sailboat would drift around on an ocean for months with its crew having to be rescued by a Navy vessel because the engine didn’t work that I emailed Jennifer Appel, the rescued owner of the 45-foot boat named Sea Nymph.

I asked whether she and her crewmate, Tasha Fuiava, had tried the commonly used method of propelling their sailboat after the engine failed—with sails—and if they had a GPS device to tell them where they were. She replied that they had two fully functioning Garmin GPS units and were able to sail using various sail combinations after a spreader was damaged in the big storm. 

That sounded like enough to sail from Hawaiian waters to Tahiti, a voyage made by so many sailboats, some of them small and slow, that it’s affectionately known as the Coconut Milk Run.

Meanwhile, the plot thickened. U.S. Coast Guard investigators reported there was an EPIRB aboard the boat, but it wasn’t activated, even though Appel said in a Navy video, “We honestly did not believe we would survive another 24 hours.”

Then the National Weather Service reported there had been no serious weather disturbances at the time and in the place off Oahu where Appel said they had been battered by a Force 11 storm that lasted 80 hours and caused their engine to fail.

Then Hawaiian sources scoffed at Appel’s explanation that the reason she didn’t return to a Hawaiian port to make repairs was that there were no harbors deep enough to accommodate the boat’s draft. The boat, a Morgan Starrett & Jenks made from the molds of the Morgan 45 cruiser-racer, draws only about 8 feet.

Then a shark expert weighed in to dispute Appel’s claim that a group of five tiger sharks, each 20 to 30 feet long, had attacked the boat trying to penetrate the fiberglass hull. The only shark that has ever acted like that, the expert said, was the star of the movie “Jaws.” Appel, however, stuck with her shark story, writing in an email to SAILING: “During our experience, staying above 5 knots kept sharks away from the boat. From what we learned, if a boat is disabled and cannot achieve a minimum 5-knot pace, it is better to have a hull that is thicker than 3/8 of an inch.” 

Then the UK’s Daily Mail, in a convincing demonstration that Brit tabloid journalism remains alive and robust, published what it purported to be the “truth about the bungling yachtswomen,” which included lurid details of Appel’s past business enterprises, accompanied by some remarkable photos (I mentioned there was an element of sex in the story), the least sensational of which was a shot of what the Mail reported was a previous sailboat said to have come to grief under Appel’s ownership. It was shipwrecked, stuck on the rocks.

Ridicule was inevitable as wacky details were revealed one after the other. Snarky posts appeared on various sailing forums. “I’m impressed that the humans didn’t eat the dogs after five months,” one sailing cynic wrote. Another responded, “Or vice versa . . . a more likely scenario given the couple’s skill set.”

Nonetheless, Appel and her friend got their 15 minutes of fame, including an appearance with Matt Lauer on NBC’s Today show. Some observers have suggested this is what they were after all along. 

If that is the explanation for this profoundly strange story, I can’t imagine how this fame will benefit them. A book? Unless it’s illustrated by the Daily Mail photos, I doubt it would be a best seller.

I can report that the Sea Nymph survivors have started an effort to monetize their misadventures. They’ve set up a GoFundMe page asking for contributions, saying the money will be used to push back against news media that “omitted and obfuscated the facts,” making them the victims of “fake news.” 

It seems to me the real issue here is not fake news. Maybe it’s fake sailors.