Sailors missing for months didn't activate emergency beacon because they weren't 'in imminent peril'

Jennifer Appel and Natasha Fuiava were rescued after being stranded for months.

ByABC News
October 31, 2017, 11:42 AM

— -- Jennifer Appel, one of the two sailors rescued by a U.S. Navy ship after being stranded in the Pacific Ocean for almost five months, told ABC News via email that she and her fellow mariner didn't activate their emergency beacon because they weren't in "an immediate life-threatening scenario."

Jennifer Appel, an experienced sailor, and Natasha “Tasha” Fuiava, a sailing novice, left Honolulu on their sailboat on May 3 with their two dogs, Valentine and Zeus, bound for Tahiti, 2,600 miles away in the South Pacific. Less than a month into their voyage, during a spell of bad weather, Appel and Fuiava's sailboat's engine stopped running for good. Two months into their voyage, they began issuing daily distress radio calls.

They told Coast Guard officials that they never turned on the boat’s Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacon (EPIRB) because they never felt "truly in distress," nor did they think the situation was "dire" enough to warrant it, a spokesperson for Coast Guard District 14 said.

The EPIRB -- which the Coast Guard confirmed was properly registered -- would have immediately notified search and rescue teams of a vessel in distress, officials said.

Appel said via email to ABC News today, "EPIRB calls are for people who are in an immediate life-threatening scenario. It would be shameful to call on the USCG resources when not in imminent peril and allow someone else to perish because of it."

"The USCG Honolulu Sector receives many calls a day," Appel wrote. "They have limited resources for the enormous span of water their area covers. A fair amount of those calls are for people in the process of losing their boat and swimming in the ocean. While I do not deny that a broken spreader, blown backstay and non-functioning motor are all disabling situations -- and we had all at the same time when we were at the Equator and 160 degrees West, our boat was still afloat; we had food, water and limited maneuvering capability due to fortifying the broken items at the mast. (Yes, I climbed the mast in open ocean to make hack patches so we could continue as any good sailor would.)"

She added: "Pahn Pahn calls, which we made, are different than EPIRB or MAYDAY calls," Appel wrote. "Pahn Pahn calls let the USCG and other boats know that the vessel has issues but they are not immediately life-threatening."

"The Pahn Pahn distress calls that we made daily after we realized we could not return the last 726 nautical miles to Oahu from roughly 8 degrees North and 156 degrees West -- that went unanswered and allowed us to reach Wake Island -- were determined to be due to antenna issues that only allowed for a 1-2 nautical mile of reception. We thought we had about 200 miles reception and were notified of the discrepancy once aboard the Navy vessel," she wrote. "Had we known our calls were going nowhere -- we would have used the EPIRB -- but hindsight is 20/20."

"We did a MAYDAY call for assistance only when it was absolutely necessary and help did arrive because the resources were available," she wrote. "We are grateful for that."

On Oct. 24, the women were finally spotted by a Taiwanese fishing boat 900 miles from Japan -- 5,000 miles from where they'd intended to sail. But despite the crew's best efforts to secure the sailboat, they actually damaged it further. A bad towing job led to what the women called the scariest 24 hours of the voyage; apparently, it damaged the boat enough that they were concerned whether it could stay afloat.

"That 24 hours of being towed," Fuiava said in an interview provided by the U.S. Navy last week, "that was the scariest moment of the entire trip."

Appel told the Taiwanese boat to use their radio, which is how they were able to get a U.S. Navy ship to find them and pick them up. The women were rescued last Wednesday by the USS Ashland.

Appel said in the interview provided by the U.S. Navy last week that their rescue was the "most amazing feeling because we honestly did not believe that we would survive another 24 hours in the current situation."

The women and their dogs have since made it to solid ground in Okinawa, Japan.

Linus Wilson, a boating expert and author of three sailing books, told ABC News that he wondered if the women had fabricated some of their claims.

“Several of Ms. Appel’s statements about her voyage do not check out and don’t ring true to many experienced sailors,” he said in an e-mailed statement on Monday. “I think a reasonable person may start out thinking that Ms. Appel was just a foolish skipper, but it seems likely many events that she recounts may have been fabricated to sensationalize the story.”

“It would be a shame if someone used a very expensive U.S. Navy rescue as a publicity stunt,” he added.

Similarly, Phillip Johnson, a retired Coast Guard officer who was responsible for search and rescue operations, said something about the women’s story just doesn’t add up.

"There's something wrong there," Johnson told The Associated Press on Monday. "I've never heard of all that stuff going out at the same time."

The Coast Guard said it has some additional questions for the women, but it characterized its process as a routine "review" and not an "investigation."

ABC News’ Erin Dooley contributed to this report.