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Stranded sailors rescued from tiny Pacific island after making 'HELP' sign with leaves

The U.S. Coast Guard said the palm tree sign was “pivotal in guiding rescue efforts directly to their location.”
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A "HELP" sign made from palm tree leaves saved three sailors stranded on a tiny Pacific atoll for more than a week, after the U.S. Coast Guard spotted it from the sky.

The three men were found Tuesday evening on the minute Pikelot Atoll, which is part of the Federated States of Micronesia. They had been surviving on coconuts and water from a well on the island, officials said, but were fast running out of food when they were rescued.

The trio, who have not been identified but are all in their 40s and related to one another, used palm tree branches to make their desperate plea. They were rescued in good health although slightly dehydratedafter coordination by the U.S. Coast Guard stationed in the region and the U.S Navy.

The sailors had traveled on Easter Sunday from Polowat Atoll, around 115 miles away, on a fishing trip in a traditional 20-foot skiff with an outboard motor, the Coast Guard said in a statement.

The U.S. Coast Gurad, makes contact with three mariners stranded on Pikelot Atoll, Yap State, Federated States of Micronesia
The U.S. Coast Guard makes contact with three mariners stranded on Pikelot Atoll in the Federated States of Micronesia on Monday.U.S. Coast Guard

The Coast Guard's Joint Rescue Sub-Center in Guam got a distress call from a woman who said her three uncles were missing and they had not returned from Pikelot Atoll.

"Their initial goal was to fish around Pikelot, but the skiff was damaged when they approached the island due to the swells surging on the island and surrounding shoal," said Sara Muir, public affairs officer with the U.S. Coast Guard in Guam, via email.

The three men had planned to meet up with another family when they got to Pikelot — but the other party decided not to travel due to bad weather and sea conditions.

The initial search area was more than 78,000 square nautical miles. Only the sailors' palm tree sign alerted authorities to their whereabouts, when a Coast Guard HC-130J Hercules aircraft spotted it from the sky.

“In a remarkable testament to their will to be found, the mariners spelled out ‘HELP’ on the beach using palm leaves, a crucial factor in their discovery. This act of ingenuity was pivotal in guiding rescue efforts directly to their location,” Lt. Chelsea Garcia said in a statement.

The crew of USCGC Oliver Henry rescues three mariners stranded on Pikelot Atoll, Yap State, Federated States of Micronesia
The crew of USCGC Oliver Henry rescues the three mariners.U.S. Coast Guard

“Every life saved and every mariner returned home is a testament to the enduring partnership and mutual respect that characterizes our relationship, making a profound impact on the lives of individuals and the resilience of communities across the Federated States of Micronesia,” said Lt. Cmdr. Christine Igisomar, who coordinated the rescue mission.

Pikelot Atoll is an uninhabited coral island measuring just 31 acres about 415 miles southeast of Guam that is occasionally visited by fishing boats. An expedition of Micronesian sailors found an abandoned makeshift Catholic chapel there in 2000.

The rescue operation was hindered by poor weather and a lack of planes, the Coast Guard said. “Persistent efforts” eventually saw the USCGC Oliver Henry, already at sea in Micronesia, diverted to join the rescue.

Micronesia is a collection of about 600 islands that cover a huge expanse of the Pacific.

The plane dropped survival packages and a radio onto the island while the Oliver Henry was diverted to pick them up.

Using the radio, the sailors said they were in “good health, had access to food and water, and recovered their skiff, which unfortunately sustained damage, rendering it and its outboard engine non-functional,” the Coast Guard said.

After they were rescued, the trio were taken back to Polowat.

“Whether we’re out there protecting valuable resources or saving lives, we’re not just visitors — we’re members of this vibrant maritime community that connects all these islands,” said Lt. Ray Cerrato, commanding officer of the Oliver Henry.

By a remarkable coincidence, one of the Coast Guard rescuers not only spoke the local language of the sailors from Yap State but found out he was related to them.

Eugene Halishlius is normally stationed at the U.S. Coast Guard Base Guam but had been temporarily assigned to the Oliver Henry — after talking to them it emerged that he and the survivors are third and fourth cousins.

This is not the first time that authorities have rescued sailors stranded on the island. In 2020, three Micronesians were found on Pikelot by the Australian Defense Force, after they spelled out "SOS" using palm tree leaves.

The Coast Guard added that everyone who goes to sea should carry a radio beacon, which in some places is available to rent, to be able to indicate their location in an emergency.