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.
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.
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 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."