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Story of Two Americans Lost at Sea for Months Leaves Experts With Questions

Two Americans who were allegedly lost at sea for five months didn't activate an emergency beacon on their boat, leaving experts scratching their heads.
Image: Tasha Fuiava, Jennifer Appel
Jennifer Appel, right, and Tasha Fuiava sit with their dogs on the deck of the USS Ashland on Oct. 30, 2017, at White Beach Naval Facility in Okinawa, Japan.Koji Ueda / AP

In the days since two Americans were rescued after five months stranded at sea, experts have begun raising questions about holes and inconsistencies in the women’s stories.

Jennifer Appel and Tasha Fuiava said they left Hawaii on a sailboat named Sea Nymph in early May headed for Tahiti. The route is fairly common and takes about a month to complete.

The pair said that after a piece of the mast broke and a storm flooded the engine, their vessel floated 5,000 miles off course into the Pacific Ocean.

Appel, an experienced boater, and Fuiava, a novice, said they braved ominous weather, shark attacks and faulty equipment before being spotted by a Taiwanese fishing vessel around 900 miles southeast of Japan and ultimately rescued by the U.S. Navy.

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On Monday, it was revealed that the women had an Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacon (EPIRB) aboard the ship but never activated the device.

An EPIRB is a battery-powered device that works with satellite networks to get a distress signal to the U.S. government or Coast Guard as quickly as 45 minutes after its activation, said Chris Edmonston, president of the Boat U.S. Foundation, a boat safety advocacy group. It can be manually activated with a switch, but will activate automatically if it hits water.

Related: Sailors Rescued After Months at Sea Didn’t Activate Emergency Beacon

“In my experience, it takes the Coast Guard 45 minutes to an hour to figure out where you are,” Edmonston said. “Theoretically, there are some places across the globe where it could take an hour due to satellite positions. All maritime governments work to rescue people if they go off.”

After being rescued, Appel told TODAY that she “honestly believed that we were about to die within the next 24 hours." However, The Associated Press reported that Appel told the Coast Guard she didn’t activate the device because they never felt distressed.

“She had stated they never felt like they were truly in distress, like in a 24-hour period they were going to die," said a Coast Guard spokeswoman, Petty Officer 2nd Class Tara Molle.

Image: Water Rescue
On Oct. 25, 2017, sailors from the USS Ashland approach a sailboat with two Honolulu women and their dogs aboard. They were allegedly lost at sea for several months while trying to sail from Hawaii to Tahiti.Jonathan Clay / U.S. Navy via AP

In a statement Tuesday, Appel explained why she didn't use the EPIRB, saying those calls are for people who are in imminent danger.

"It would be shameful to call on the USCG resources when not in imminent peril and allow someone else to perish because of it. Every sailor knows that. Land people do not; so please do not allow the spin of ignorance to cloud good judgement," she said.

"Had we known our calls were going nowhere — we would have used the EPIRB — but hindsight is 20/20," Appel added.

Edmonston said Appel did a disservice by not activating the EPIRB during the trip because they passed by several points where rescue would have been easier.

“She noted she set off flares where she saw ships so she was near shipping lines. Had she set off EPIRB, it would have been easier for a rescue,” Edmonston said.

In her statement Tuesday, Appel defended her claim that nearby ships didn't see the flares she set off. "As for other boats not seeing our flares ... the other boats in the ocean missed the flares that were shot when the Titanic sunk, too," Appel said.

Related: How Did 2 Sailors Survive 5 Months Lost at Sea? Planning and Luck, Experts Say

The fact that the women fired flares at passing ships indicates they were in a situation that would have warranted an EPIRB activation, Edmonston said, though he added that everyone’s judgement at sea is different.

“If I was in a storm that had 50-foot waves, and I knew I had lost my engine, I’d be setting it off. If I was just drifting, and I could put up a sail, and I had electric power, and I had some idea where I was, I might keep sailing,” he said.

The storm Appel and Fuiava described as producing 50-foot waves and flooding their engine is also a mystery. The National Weather Service records show no organized storms in the region in early May, the AP reported.

Image: Water Rescue
On Oct. 25, 2017, USS Ashland Command Master Chief Gary Wise welcomes aboard Jennifer Appel, an American mariner, one of two Honolulu women who were rescued after being lost at sea for several months.Jonathan Clay / U.S. Navy via AP

“At first I thought she was totally reckless for shipping out during a storm, and she didn’t wait for a weather window,” Linus Wilson, author of several sailing books, including “How to Sail Around the World Part-Time,” said. “But she just made up the storm.”

As the vessel floated out at sea, the women said they made distress calls every day using a very high frequency radio (VHF radio), which has a range of 25 miles.

“The whole notion they called for 99 days on VHF is ridiculous,” Wilson said, adding that when the women passed by islands or other ships, the VHF signal would have been received.

However, Appel said in her statement Tuesday that, unbeknownst to them at the time, their distress calls were only reaching as far as 1 to 2 nautical miles because of a faulty antenna.

In June, the Coast Guard said it made contact with a ship identifying itself as the Sea Nymph near Tahiti. Its captain said that the vessel was not in distress and was expected to make land the next morning.

According to the timeline provided by the women, their ship allegedly had already lost its engine and sustained damage at that point.

Retired U.S. Coast Guard Captain Kyle McAvoy said that an investigation into the rescue will be undertaken to address any discrepancies, but said it’s possible everything will check out.

“I think the Coast Guard out in Hawaii has the lead at looking into all of this. Their job will be to peel back each layer of onion skin as the investigation plays out,” McAvoy said. “I think they’re just going to have to look into it, and maybe this story does check out with a few hiccups.”

Edmonston shared a similar sentiment, saying “the seas do funny things to people’s thought processes.”

“It seems as if she was trying to test herself and her boat’s limits," Edmonston said, "but you have to be prudent about the situation you put yourself and others in."