Micronesian fishermen saved after months adrift

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Their outboard disabled, two islanders from Papua, New Guinea, spent more than four months adrift in the western Pacific and a third man in their small boat died before a fishing vessel found the survivors and brought them to Pohnpei in Micronesia.

Michael Bolong (left) and Ambros Wavut spent more than four months adrift in a small boat.

The rescued men, both carpenters, left Lihir Island in Papua New Guinea’s New Ireland Province on July 15 to work on Tanga Island, about 30 miles away.

Yap Seagull, a 220-foot tuna seiner from Yap in Micronesia, came upon a weak but elated Michael Bolong, 54, and his nephew Ambros Wavut, 28, on Nov. 23, 116 miles south of Kapingamarangi Island.

As the crow flies, they were an estimated 300 miles from where they started, but after their outboard ran out of fuel, severe storms and ocean currents carried the castaways an estimated 1,000 miles during the four months and eight days they were adrift, according to a press release from the Federated States of Micronesia. Francis Dimansol, 48, who was making the trip with them, died, and his body was cast into the sea.

“After weeks, a month, we were forgotten,” Bolong told his rescuers. Based on what he knew about fruitless searches being called off after days or weeks, he figured he and Wavut had been given up for dead long ago — as surely they had been.

The two survived on rainwater and raw fish, Edgar Santos, administrator of Pohnpei State Hospital, told Soundings after his staff treated them. “They brought some dried food on the boat with them, but that didn’t last very long,” he says. Though they were carpenters, the men were carrying fishing gear. Santos says Pacific islanders rarely do any inter-island travel on small boats without carrying a hook and line with them in case bad weather or a navigational error leaves them at the mercy of the sea.

On arrival in Pohnpei on Nov. 29, the Papuans were “slightly emaciated,” Santos says. “But they were healthy. There was nothing wrong with them physically,” except for severe sunburn.

Dr. Claude Piantadosi, a Duke University professor of medicine and the author of The Biology of Human Survival, says that a diet of fish and rainwater is sufficient for a mariner to survive, if not thrive, while adrift. “We need water on a regular basis of about 1.5 liters per day, on average,” he says. “No drinking water at sea in the tropics means, as a rule of thumb, you will die in roughly 100 hours — a little longer if it is cool and shaded, and shorter if it is hot and sunny.

“The average time to starvation — no food at all — is about six to eight weeks for an adult man,” he says. “We can’t drink seawater safely, but collecting and storing rainwater is good, and people can drink the blood of sea birds and turtles but not fish. Fish will keep people alive for a long time because it has enough protein and all the essential vitamins and nutrients.”

The Federated States of Micronesia government praised Yap Seagull’s crew for picking up the survivors. In its release, the government says that under the federation’s admiralty and maritime law, the master of a vessel is required to “render assistance to any person found at sea and in distress or in danger of being lost if this assistance can be rendered without endangering the vessel, crew or passengers. While it is reported that some vessels have failed to render assistance to persons that they encounter at sea who are in distress, the Yap Seagull performed admirably and rendered assistance without question.”

The survivors’ open boat was abandoned at sea, but the Yap Seagull crew brought the outboard and the men’s belongings aboard. After their release from the hospital, Bolong and Wavut were taken in at the Salvation Army rescue mission until their repatriation to Papua New Guinea, Santos says.

The men were found by a tuna seiner 116 miles south of Kapingamarangi Island in the South Pacific about 300 miles from where they started.

He says small-boat crews from other islands go missing from time to time and turn up — tired, sunburned and emaciated — in Pohnpei. That’s what happened to some inter-island travelers from the Marshall Islands and Kiribati recently. “Our people drift other places, too,” he says. “Some are never found. It’s a way of life on the sea. People in the U.S. die in car accidents. We mostly die [by accident] from things like this.”

Four months adrift might seem a long time, but it isn’t the lengthiest by a long shot. Guinness World Records says the longest known time that anyone has survived adrift at sea is 484 days. Japanese Capt. Oguri Jukichi’s ship was damaged in a storm off Japan in October 1813 while carrying soybeans from Toba to Edo, Japan. The captain ordered the mast cut down, leaving the boat to drift. The crew lived off the beans and distilled seawater, but by the time an American ship rescued Jukichi off California in March 1815, 12 of his crew had died of scurvy; only he and one crewman had survived.

Last Jan. 30, a Salvadoran shrimper and shark fisherman working out of Chiapas, Mexico, washed up on Ebon in the Marshall Islands in a 24-foot open boat, saying he had been adrift for 14 months. José Salvador Alvarenga, 38, said he and his mate had been fishing off Costa Azul, Mexico, in November 2012 when a storm blew them out to sea. Without enough fuel to motor back to land, he drifted 6,600 miles to the Marshalls, surviving on fish, birds and turtles, and by drinking turtle blood and rainwater. Alvarenga reported that his mate, 24-year-old Ezequiel Córdoba Barradas, died after four months when he could no longer tolerate the revolting diet. 

February 2015 issue