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PHANTOMS: A True Story

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Old 04-01-2006, 04:39 PM
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PHANTOMS: A True Story


PHANTOMS: A True Story



This is the true story of five men who vanished mysteriously into the vast emptiness of the Pacific ocean like phantoms. Two were good friends of mine and a third man was an acquaintance when I lived in the tiny rainforest community of Nahiku on the island of Maui. Sixteen months after I moved to the Big Island I read their names in a newspaper article about a small fishing boat that had disappeared in a storm off the Maui coast.

For the next few days I recalled Pat Woessner and Scott Mooreman and the bush life we shared in the tropical wilderness on the windward side of Maui. A hopeful scenario kept popping into my mind. The missing boat might have run aground somewhere on the remote uninhabited south shore of Maui. If that was the case, I could visualize Pat and Scott and the other men sitting on a lava rock drinking beer and laughing while they waited for the Coast Guard to show up.

When the search was called off after weeks of finding no trace of the boat, I was stunned to suddenly realize my friends were gone. But it was nothing compared to the shock of the gruesome discovery that was made nine and a half years later on a lonely atoll in the Marshall Islands 2,300 miles from Hawaii.

I was mortified to realize their fate might have been mine as well. If I had followed my heart and remained in Nahiku instead of moving to the Big Island, I could have easily been the sixth man on the doomed boat. I wouldn't have thought twice about going fishing on that calm February morning if Pat or Scott had invited me.

Over the years the five men have been forgotten by all but their families and friends. To resurrect their memory, I will describe how my own life intersected with theirs for a few years in a uniquely beautiful place we all loved. I will also explain the chain of events leading from an ordinary fishing trip to a stormy controversy and an unthinkable tragedy that need not have happened.

NAHIKU

Pat Woessner was one of the first longhairs I met after I moved to Nahiku in 1974. He came looking for my next-door neighbor one day and introduced himself. At age 23 Pat looked like a young street fighter: wiry muscular build, rugged face with high cheek bones and narrow eyes that gave him a mean expression. But his shy easy-going personality belied his physical appearance and I soon learned that Pat was Mr. Mellow.

Pat lived in lower Nahiku was his brother, Mike, a handsome "surfer boy" all the girls were crazy about. We were all part of an influx of young haoles that had started in the early 1970s. The newcomers were refugees from city life looking for their own version of paradise: hippies, nature freaks, hermits, earth mommas, Vietnam vets. The men wore their hair long, grew and smoked dope, lived with their girlfriends out of wedlock and partied more than they worked. Most of the locals were provincial, as isolated from the outside world as Medieval serfs, and they didn't know what to make of us. The more conservative members of the community reacted with dismay, alarm and occasional outbursts of xenophobic hostility.

Pat was one of the few newcomers who made a sincere effort to get along with the locals. He helped form a softball team to play in the Hana league. They were called the Nahiku Gorillas, perhaps in deference to the long hair, full beards and bushy mustaches that most members wore.

John Medeiros, a fireman who headed the softball league, liked Pat's enthusiasm. "He was an unbelievable softball player. He played with no shoes, no shirt and he was always diving and scraping after the ball. He played like he had a contract to fulfill."

"When you play ball with a bunch of guys and drink beer with them afterwards, you can't help but get to know them," Medeiros said. "Pretty soon were were all pretty close-knit. Some of the guys even left the Gorillas and played on local teams."

Pat also learned to speak the pidgin dialect and worked shoulder to shoulder with locals on construction jobs in the area. One of his co-workers was Ralph Malaiakini, a Hawaiian man several years older than him.

Pat liked to party more than anyone else in the small circle of friends we eventually shared. At gatherings his eyes would glaze over and a Buddha-like grin would spread across his face like he knew some sort of secret. I always wondered what he was thinking when I saw that smile, but I never asked him for fear of breaking the spell he was in.

At one point Pat fell madly in love with a French girl named Gabrielle. She was traveling around the world and stopped in Nahiku to visit Felipe and Jean-Louis, two French brothers who spent part of each year on Maui. Gabrielle was a small girl with short dark hair, bright eyes and a thick Parisian accent. She looked a few years younger than Pat and in her presence he became a new man -- openly affectionate, blissful, as contented as a puppy dog. He considered her the perfect woman for him.
For months Pat and Gabrielle went everywhere together, kissing and holding hands like teenagers. Then she broke his heart by leaving for Guatemala to live with the Indians. Pat received letters from her, but they only made him feel worse. Like many of us, he had found his niche in paradise and he couldn't tear himself away to go globe-
trotting, not even with a girl he loved.

I faced the same situation with my girlfriend. She wanted to go traveling and see the ends of the earth, places like Tierra del Fuego in South America. I loved Nahiku more than I loved her and I intended to stay put.

That's how Pat and I and most of the other young haoles felt about Nahiku. It was a garden of nature's delights and our attachment to it was difficult to explain to friends and relatives on the Mainland who had never seen it with their own eyes. The breathtaking scenery looked like the Hawaii I had always dreamed about, but was never sure existed in reality.



Local residents referred to the remote area where they lived as "inside" and the populated part of the island as "outside," as if it were another world. I came to think in the same terms after I had lived in Nahiku for awhile. West Maui seemed foreign to me when I took occasional trips to that side of the island. Nahiku felt safe and familiar. The endless squall lines that drifted in from the ocean gave Nahiku a brooding atmosphere that mirrored the dark green foliage of the rainforest. Things occurred or didn't on a happenstance schedule known as Hawaiian time. Yes meant maybe later and maybe was another way of saying probably not. Work often hinged on prospects for fishing, surfing or pig hunting. I learned to live on Hawaiian time because clock watching was futile.

Fishing was practiced like a religion and the holy grail was the elusive ulua or jack cravelle, which grew to mammoth size in the waters off East Maui. I was an avid fisherman myself and I copied the traditional method of cliff fishing, which involved a rope line tied to a sturdy guava pole and a large hook baited with baby lobster or octopus. By the mid 1970s some residents owned small boats with outboard engines. Ulua were more plentiful offshore and having a boat multiplied a fisherman's chances of landing a whopper weighing a couple hundred pounds.

HANA

Seven miles from Nahiku, Hana was the only town of any size in East Maui. An increasing number of tourists from hotels on the other side of the island drove the Hana Highway to see the tropical rainforest and visit the quaint little town known as "the last Hawaiian place."

The list of the rich and famous who built country estates in the area grew every year: musicians George Harrison, Kris Kristofferson and Rita Coolidge, comedians Jim Nabors, Bill Dana and Richard Pryor, actor Eddie Albert, business tycoons like TWA airline co-founder Sam Pryor.

Hana had once been a sugar plantation and the town consisted of a hundred or so old plantation-style houses. The most popular spot was Hasegawa’s General Store, owned and operated by Harry Hasegawa. The jovial bespectacled Hasegawa, one of the few Japanese born and raised in Hana, crammed the tiny store with an amazing variety of goods because the nearest shopping center was 52 miles away. He also had the only gasoline pump in town. His store was a social gathering place as much as a retail business and Hasegawa knew the first names of all his regular customers.



Scott Mooreman was another young man who found his paradise in rural East Maui. He was 24 when I met him and built like an athlete, tall and muscular with California beach boy good looks. At the time Scott had a cute girlfriend named Judy Chamberlin. She was a remarkably good surfer who had once vacationed in the highlands of New Guinea. When she returned, all her clothes smelled like smoke from wood fires used to heat the native huts at night.

Scott was divorced and had a young son, Garrett, back in California. He had grown up in the San Fernando Valley where he watched the TV series "Adventures In Paradise" and dreamed of living in Hawaii some day. (When I was a kid in Michigan, I watched the same program and had the same dream.) At Monroe High School Scott was a football and track star, an all-American boy. Like many young people in his generation, he later grew his hair long, turned on with pot and vehemently opposed the Vietnam war.

In 1975 Scott left the Mainland to go traveling. "When he got to Hana, he quit traveling," his father, Jack Mooreman, recalled. "That was it. He came back to California once for his son’s birthday and he kept saying he missed softball in Hana. Both his mother and I were impressed at how much more loving and easy Scott was when he came back from Hana. He and I had had our differences in the past, particularly over the Vietnam thing, but in recent years it had been really good. We’d gotten real close."

When Jack Mooreman visited Hana in 1976, he liked what he saw and understood why his son loved the place. "It’s old-time small town America at its best."
The last time Scott saw his mother, Patricia, he wanted to set her mind at ease before he returned to Hana. "Mom, I hope you understand I’m going home," he told her.

Peter Hanchett was one of the sons of Hana Ranch manager John Hanchett and the only licensed plumber in town. He was a pig hunter and fisherman like most local men in the area. Although I didn’t know him well, I liked Hanchette for his friendly manner and sense of humor.

Benny Kalama, another native Hawaiian, was a mason and tile layer who had five children ranging in age from six to sixteen. I never met him, but I knew one of his relatives fairly well. Elliot Kalama was an ex-Marine who had married a former girlfriend of mine.

There was no commercial fishing fleet in Hana. A few fishermen occasionally sold part of their catch to Hasegawa or the ranch store, but most of the fish were eaten at home or given away to friends. Nobody wanted to try to make a living as a full-time fisherman. The were plenty of fish, but it was considered too dangerous in the rough waters around that part of the island.

One of the Hana fishing boats was a 17-foot Boston Whaler named the Sarah Joe. It was owned by Robert Malaiakini, twin brother of Ralph, Pat Woessner’s co-worker on construction jobs.

The boat was named after the Malaiakini’s mother Sarah and their father Joe. It was painted white outside, blue inside and had an 85-horsepower engine as well as a 7.5-horse backup. The manufacturer advertised this type of vessel as unsinkable and ran TV commercials showing how pieces remained afloat after the boat had been sawed into chunks. John Hanchett, an experienced boater himself, believed this claim. The U.S. Coast Guard did not.

THE STORM

The Alenuihaha channel between Maui and the Big Island was considered the roughest waters in Hawaii. It swirled adjacent to Mauna Loa, the largest mountain in the world if measured from its base on the sea floor. The channel was 17,000 feet deep and swept by strong surface currents moving to the southwest.

Weather in the channel was always dicey. Gusty wind and choppy water were the rule and clear skies could turn overcast with frightening speed. When a storm exploded over the channel, the normal 4-8 foot swells could grow into waves of enormous height. For small boaters it was often a matter of trying to outrun a storm in huge seas to return safely to shore.

On Saturday, February 10, 1979, a low pressure system that had formed near the islands intensified as it approached the Alenuihaha channel. Hana received no television stations and radio stations issued weather reports mainly for the western portion of Maui. The U.S. Weather Service office in Kahului had a phone recording with the latest weather forecast, but few Hana residents ever called it. Boaters were accustomed to going to sea without consulting weather reports first. They played the weather by eye, knowing if they waited for sunny days, it might be weeks between trips.

Sunday morning, February 11, Hana Bay was as flat as a lake with mild southerly winds. These conditions were rare for East Maui, where blustery tradewinds kicked up whitecaps almost every day. Most of the five young friends -- Malaiakini, Kalama, Hanchette, Woessner and Mooreman -- had planned to do some work that day, but they changed their minds and decided to go fishing when they saw how calm the ocean was. As often happened, work had to yield when fishing conditions were that good.

Malaiakini borrowed the Sarah Joe and its trailer from his brother. After gathering their fishing gear, the men drove to Hasegawa’s General Store. They bought and installed new spark plugs in the boat’s two engines, filled the coolers with beer and soft drinks and brought ice for the ulua they hoped to catch. They invited Hasegawa to come along, but he declined with a smile and wished them good luck.

When the Sarah Joe left Hana Bay about 10 a.m., the sky was partly cloudy and Malaiakini had a CB radio aboard if he needed to contact anyone. After clearing the rock island at the mouth of the bay, he steered south toward a spot where he had enjoyed good fishing luck in the past.

Less than two hours later the wind shifted to the north and picked up speed rapidly. By early afternoon a maelstrom had erupted over the Alenuihaha channel. Gale-force winds generated massive waves and the sky opened up, dumping a deluge on the area. It was worse than the storm a month earlier that had sunk the Holo Holo, an 80-foot research ship, with the loss of two crewmen.

There were conflicting reports as to whether the Sarah Joe had radioed a distress call. One CBer thought he received a message from the Sarah Joe claiming it was awash in huge seas without power, but this was later discounted as inaccurate along with a second reported message. No one knew for sure if the crew had ever used the radio to ask for help or report their position.

Hana was flooded and some houses were damaged by wind. Older residents said it was the worst storm they could remember in 50 years. East Maui had been blind-sided by a storm much more devastating than the official forecast. That morning the Weather Service had issued a small boat warning for heavy rain and 20-foot seas. This forecast so typical for the wet and wild Hana area it would have caused little alarm if anyone heard it.

Three other Hana boats ventured into the channel that day and made it back to port intact. The skipper of one said "it was like a rushing river out there."

The Sarah Joe was reported missing about 5 p.m. To begin the search, the U.S. Coast Guard dispatched a helicopter and diverted a C-130 fixed-wing aircraft from another mission. Visibility was very poor, however, since the storm was still raging and nightfall was closing in.

Sunday night dozens of cars were parked at Hana Bay, waiting for the first two search boats to return from an area to the south. On one boat was John Hanchett, Peter’s father, who reported the weather in the channel was "the worst I’ve ever been in. The swells were so large, if we had been 50 yards from them, we wouldn’t have seen them. When it got dark, we couldn’t see ten feet."

(Continued)

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Old 04-02-2006, 01:49 PM
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Phantoms (Part 2)


THE SEARCH

The search for the Sarah Joe was one of the largest sea searches in the history of Hawaii and also one of the most controversial.

The Coast Guard searched for five days. Forty-four planes covered 56,000 square miles and logged nearly 330 hours flying time. No trace of the Sarah Joe or its occupants was found and the Coast Guard called off the official search over the angry objections of relatives and friends of the missing men.

"We appreciate the fact that Coast Guard people were risking their lives in this search," John Hanchett said. "What we objected to was the kind of planes they used -- small planes with insufficient equipment to conduct precisely patterned sweeps over their sectors -- and the quality of the search they conducted. We felt like they were always one step behind the Sarah Joe each day."

Hanchett and other Hana residents contended the Coast Guard began the search too close to Maui and the Big Island when prevailing currents and strong northerly winds would have quickly pushed the Sarah Joe far to the southwest. They also questioned why the Coast Guard search peaked during two days of poor visibility and then tapered off after weather conditions cleared. Some relatives asked high-ranking state and federal officials to persuade the Coast Guard to reconsider its decision to halt the search, but this tactic may have backfired and made the Coast Guard defensive and more intransigent.

A Coast Guard spokesman denied that the search was based solely on computer data as Hana residents complained. "We did have other input. We have a lot of experience and have searched this area before. We used everything we had at our disposal. We are satisfied the search went as well as we could plan and execute it."

Hanchett admitted the Sarah Joe may have been ill-equipped to deal with such a massive storm. "But these were young strong healthy guys. They were experienced fisherman and good swimmers. They were capable and had each other to rely on. If someone had found debris, we would have agreed they didn’t live through the storm. But nothing was found -- nothing. And so we felt there was still a chance they were afloat and alive."

A private search continued for another week. The few friends who owned boats used them to keep looking. The families, other friends and even some strangers donated a total of $50,000 to hire commercial boats and private planes to join the extended search. In addition to the sea search volunteers scoured the isolated south shore of Maui and the Hamakua coast of the Big Island in case the Sarah Joe or its crewmen had landed in those areas. Nothing was found except a life jacket that didn’t
come from the Sarah Joe.

Meanwhile, various newspaper articles used three different spellings for the last names of both Pat and Scott. As an experienced journalist, I found this ludicrously unprofessional and evidence of how unimportant they were considered by the media. In the end the Coast Guard declared the five men presumed drowned at sea and the case was closed. It was a matter of out of sight, out of mind for the powers that be.

But hope died hard in Hana. It was a full year before family members, friends and other Hana residents held a memorial service for the five men who vanished so mysteriously it seemed like they had been sucked into a black hole.

THE ATOLL

Southwest of Hawaii the Pacific is an empty expanse of ocean stretching for 2,300 miles. The first land in that direction is Taongi Atoll, a group of tiny islands encircling a 30-square-mile lagoon.

Part of the Republic of the Marshall Islands, the atoll was uninhabited for several reasons. The area was considered poor fishing grounds by the Marshallese. The islands were semi-arid due to minimal rainfall and had no surface fresh water. The atoll had once been subject to a religious taboo. In modern times the only residents were a handful of Japanese soldiers who were bombed out in 1944. A decade later the atoll was under consideration as a site for nuclear bomb testing.

The surrounding reef had only one break where a boat could enter the lagoon safely. Sibylla Island was one of the narrow strips of land at the edge of the lagoon. It was little more than a sand bar three miles long, a hundred yards at its widest point and a mere several feet above sea level. A handful of migratory birds were the only animals that occupied Sibylla from time to time. There were nine species of plants on the island -- mangrove, scrub bushes and grasses, none of them palatable or nutritious for humans to eat. The climate was hot year-round, occasionally reaching as high as 98 degrees. Almost all of the scant rainfall occurred in the four-month period from July to November. The rest of the year was dry.



The nearest inhabited island was 200 miles away -- a very long voyage for the small Marshallese boats that rarely if ever visited. It also lay far beyond commercial shipping lanes, making Sibylla Island one of the loneliest spots in the vast Pacific. This was no tropical paradise by any stretch of the imagination. It was much more like the desert islands made infamous in books about shipwrecked sailors who never returned home.

THE DISCOVERY

It was a blazing hot day September 10, 1988, when marine biologist John Naughton went ashore on Sibylla Island with four other scientists looking for green sea turtles and nesting birds. They had been commissioned by the East-West Center and the government of the Marshall Islands to seek a site for a wildlife sanctuary.

The team was on land only a short time when they stumbled across something partially buried in the sand. It was the fiberglass hull of a battered boat that looked like a Boston Whaler. Naughton noticed the large letters “HA” imprinted on the wood. He knew the letters meant the boat was registered in Hawaii, but something else stirred in his memory when he saw parts of the letters S-a-h and J still legible on the hull.
By sheer coincidence Naughton had been involved in the search for the Sarah Joe nine and a half years earlier in Hawaii. Astounded by his discovery, he led a search of the island. About a hundred yards from the boat wreckage the scientists found a crude wooden cross marking a shallow grave.

“There was a cairn or pile of flattened coral shingles and toward the top of it was a human mandible,” said Charles Streck, a civilian archaeologist with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Aside from the lower jaw bone, the top portion of the grave contained a sheaf of papers that appeared to have been burned.

“We didn’t dig up the grave,” Naughton said. “We could see it was a Christian burial and the Marshallese with us were somewhat superstitious. We immediately saw there were fillings in the teeth. And we could see it was not a very old burial just by the fact that the bones were not very bleached.” Streck concurred that the grave appeared to be fairly recent. “It was in an area that had been washed by really high storm waves sometime in the recent past,” he said.

Naughton also found some meaningful floatsam on the ocean side of the island. Litter from Hawaii-pieces of styrofoam beer coolers, glass balls and other debris-had been washing ashore for a very long time. The island was directly downstream in the southwest current that had obviously carried the Sarah Joe from Hawaii.

Naughton reported the discovery to Marshallese authorities. When he returned to Hawaii, he was surprised to learn they had not relayed the information to U.S. officials. This omission would play a key role in the conclusions of a private investigator who was hired to find out what happened to the five men.

After Naughton notified the Coast Guard in Hawaii, the vessel Mallow was dispatched to Sibylla Island with two forensic experts from the Army Central Identification Lab in Honolulu. Other bones were found when the grave was exhumed. The identity of the boat was confirmed from the manufacturer’s ID number and the Coast Guard re-opened the case of the Sarah Joe.

Later the remains found on Sibylla Island were determined to be those of Scott Mooreman, based on teeth X-rays and other dental records from a California orthodontist who had treated Mooreman when he was a teenager. Lab commander Lt. Col. Johnie Webb said the exact cause of Mooreman’s death could not be ascertained from the recovered bones.

On November 5, 1988, the family held memorial services for Scott at a church in Studio City, California. They buried his remains at Forest Lawn Cemetery in Los Angeles.

“Over the years I kind of felt something more was going to happen,” Jack Mooreman commented. “Somehow I was not surprised there was something to put a last chapter in the book and erase the unknowns-for us, anyway.”

Patricia Mooreman added: “I just hope the other families will hear something about their sons.”

Scott Chun, a Honolulu businessman who was related to Peter Hanchett and acted as a spokesman for the Hana families, began working with Marshall Islands Senator Tony DeBrum and the Pacific Daily News in Guam to find out what happened to the other four men. “The community of Hana wants to recover her sons that are lost at sea,” he said.

John Hanchette said of his son: “There’s little doubt in our minds that he’s not alive. It’s been nine and a half years. You don’t want to be silly about it.”

Honolulu private investigator Steve Goodenow later accompanied two Hana family members to Taongi Atoll. He found important items the Coast Guard had missed. Walking the outer reef at low tide, Goodenow located the Sarah Joe’s main engine wedged in the reef. He also discovered more of Mooreman’s bones on Sibylla Island, including vertabrae with a minor congenital defect known to Mooreman’s parents.

Goodenow, who donated his fee and was paid only for expenses, made a startling discovery in the course of questioning various Marshallese officials. A few years earlier a Taiwanese trawler had been caught fishing illegally in waters near Taongi Atoll. A crewman on the Marshallese gunboat that stopped the trawler told Goodenow he had seen the grave on Sibylla Island, but no action had been taken. This would explain why Marshallese authorities were reluctant to report Naughton’s discovery to American officials.

Goodenow developed a persuasive theory based on this information coupled with evidence from the grave site. He concluded that a crewman from the Taiwanese fishing boat had found Mooreman’s remains on the island and buried them. He didn’t notify Marshallese authorities because his fishing vessel was in violation of local laws. Goodenow pointed out the nails holding together the makeshift driftwood cross were the kind found on commercial fishing boats. He also noted the Taiwanese custom of burning papers at a grave site as a sort of funeral pyre.

According to Goodenow, all available evidence pointed to the conclusion that Mooreman was the only occupant of the Sarah Joe when it crashed on the reef. And Mooreman had been dead for some time before that happened. No remains of the other four men were ever found on Taongi Atoll. Goodenow discovered Mooreman’s hair in the gunnels of the wrecked boat and noted that human hair separates from a body only after considerable decomposition has taken place.

The private investigator constructed a probable scenario for the tragedy after he returned to Hawaii. Using current charts and weather data, he plotted a drift course for the Sarah Joe from the Alenuihaha channel to Taongi Atoll. Before the boat swung southwest, the storm would have carried it northwest “tantalizingly close” to the island of Kauai. At that point, Goodenow speculated, some of the men might have tried to swim to shore and drowned in heavy seas.

Based on his analysis, Goodenow calculated that it took the Sarah Joe two full months to drift to Taongi Atoll. Along the way Mooreman was the last man to die from dehydration or starvation. If any other men died on the boat, their bodies must have been buried at sea to explain why no remains other than Mooreman’s were found on Taongi Atoll.



Goodenow faulted the Coast Guard for making two inadequate searches in the case-the original search in Hawaiian waters and the later search of Taongi Atoll after the Sarah Joe and Mooreman’s remains were discovered.

PERSONAL CONCLUSIONS

A very curious thing happened when I returned to the Hana area in 1987 after a ten-year absence. For three days I spoke to old friends and never once mentioned Pat Woessner, Scott Moorman or the other three men who were missing and presumed dead. I wasn’t trying to spare the feelings of the people who knew them. The truth was I had buried the memory of those men and simply forgot to broach the subject.

Even more strange is the fact that I didn’t become aware of this amnesia until the following year when the remains of the five men were discovered. Only then did I realize how successful I had been in pushing them out of my mind without any conscious intent to do so.

In hindsight I think I was in a state of shock and denial for years after the men vanished. In my numbed condition they seemed to have lost their reality, like phantoms who inhabited a strange twilight realm between existence and oblivion. From the beginning I was consciously haunted by the possibility that I could have shared their fate. I think this idea terrified me much more on an unconscious level, so much so that I blocked out the memory of two friends who had once meant a great deal to me.

When I started research for this story, I immediately ran into a depressing fact. I scoured the internet and I couldn’t find a single byte of information about the five men or the catastrophe they suffered. I wasn’t the only one who had managed to forget them.

In a sense these men disappeared twice -- when the original search failed to find them and later when they were forgotten by the world at large. I wanted to tell their story because the same thing may have happened to many others. During my research, I was astonished to discover the large number of Hawaii sailors who have been lost at sea without a trace-more phantoms. The situation was eerily reminiscent of the Bermuda Triangle and I wondered if anyone else had ever realized this.

Gazing at the newspaper photos of Pat and Scott, I was struck by how young they looked. I had almost forgotten they enjoyed less than half an average life span. My only consolation was the knowledge that they had found their paradise in East Maui before they perished.

Why did the tragedy of the Sarah Joe happen? The question has gnawed at me like the riddle of the Sphinx. I felt I had to solve it or be torn to pieces.

From a logical standpoint, it seemed that unlikely circumstances converged to seal the fate of the five men. They were in the wrong place at the wrong time and got caught in an unexpectedly heavy storm. Rough seas apparently killed the engine and salt water may have shorted out the CB radio. The Coast Guard failed to rely heavily enough on the most important factor -- the prevailing southwest current, which should have resulted in a search of the area in the direction of the Marshall Islands.

But logic told me so much less than what I wanted to know. Was all of this simply bad luck? Or is nature indifferent to human survival needs? Are we in control of what happens to us or mere dust in the wind? I was reminded of the fact that humans are fragile creatures who survive on the slender threads of civilization. People cling to life by holding fast to web of relationships that sustains human society. When the web is broken, individuals are often broken with it.

We think time is linear and that we move from the present to the future along the the shortest possible route of a straight line. But modern physics has re-discovered the ancient mystical truth that time is a circle and straight lines don't exist in a curved universe. We simply go round and round like the legendary Flying Dutchman and some of us fail to find the shelter of a safe harbor.

After all these years, I still have an occasional nightmare about a small boat tossing helplessly in huge waves. Through a misty fog I see the gaunt faces of five men who stare at me imploringly. It is only then that I realize I am trapped on board with them. I wake up sweating with my heart pounding wildly.

I have come to think of those unfortunate men as phantoms on a ghost ship, lost between two worlds but alive in the memories of those who knew and loved them. Like the Flying Dutchman, they are sailing somewhere on invisible stormy seas, searching for the long-lost home they will never find.
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Last edited by starrwriter; 09-14-2007 at 10:24 PM..
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Old 04-18-2006, 11:48 AM
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WOW Starrwriter, This is an amazing story. So none of the other men were ever found? Just the remains of the one man?

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Old 04-18-2006, 06:16 PM
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Originally Posted by ~lacy~
WOW Starrwriter, This is an amazing story. So none of the other men were ever found? Just the remains of the one man?
That's right, but I have my own theory about what happened to the men. I don't think it was the sanitized version created by the attorney hired by family members. The men who made it to Taongi Atoll would have fished out the lagoon in far less than 9 years. The only other thing to eat, coconuts, would have also been long gone way before then. Protein malnourished and suffering from vitamin deficiency diseases like scurvy and rickets, the stranded men would have faced only two choices after waiting years for a rescue that never came: (1)Take the long swim to China to get it over with (2)cannibalism as the men died one by one, hopefully without any help from starving survivors.
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Old 05-24-2009, 03:23 AM
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Originally Posted by starrwriter View Post
The men who made it to Taongi Atoll would have fished out the lagoon in far less than 9 years. The only other thing to eat, coconuts, would have also been long gone way before then.
My curiosity engaged by an anniversary of the Sarah Joe noted in the local paper, I ended up fleshing out a Taongi Atoll entry in Wikipedia, enabling me to split hairs here. Regarding the question of sustenance, I was surprised to learn that Taongi is too arid to sustain coconut palm. On the other hand, the islands are blessed with a great number of fearless booby and frigate birds, as well as their eggs. The lagoon is large and bountiful enough that I don't think five men could eat their way through it.

The seas surrounding Taongi are frequented by Asian fishermen and occasionally visited by vacationing American boaters from Kwajelein. So, for a castaway, survival largely depends on his skill at capturing fresh water, either as catchment during the three month rainy season, or by distillation, until drawing the attention of a passing soul. Given the amount of plastic crap that washes up on all of the Pacific islands, someone even moderately schooled in wilderness survival techniques might be able to scrape by for quite a while... provided mind and body remained whole.

Last edited by cmholm; 05-24-2009 at 03:26 AM..
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Old 05-24-2009, 07:12 AM
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A Wikipedia writer! I've never met anyone who edited Wikipedia for real, though I know plenty of people who put lies in there and track how long it takes for them to disappear.

Anyway, this is quite an old thread. I doubt Starr will be around to reply, though castaways are always an interesting topic.
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Old 06-16-2009, 10:32 AM
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I must admit that's a really fascinating story
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Old 06-28-2009, 12:35 AM
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Wow! That was quite a story. After a few pages I stopped even trying to look at it critically (as an editor would) and just wanted to read the story.

I'm sorry for the loss of your friends.

You did a great job on this. Have you ever considered turning it into a book?
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Old 08-03-2009, 11:59 PM
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Default Another view of Hawaii

I have been to Honolulu on a number of occasions but this story acquaints me with the real Hawaii. It also brings home how tragedies so often harshly impact those left behind.
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