On May 3, Hawaii natives Jennifer Appel and Natasha Fuiava and their dogs Valentine and Zeus set sail from Honolulu aboard a 50-foot sailboat bound for Tahiti, some 2,600 miles to the south. While Appel was a seasoned mariner, Fuiava was not, and the journey got off to a rocky start when one of their cell phones fell overboard on the very first day. From there, things only got worse.
As ABC News reported, they realized early on that a structural failure on their sailing mast would impact their voyage and limit their sailing speed to 4 to 5 knots. They then encountered an intense storm that produced near hurricane-force winds and 25-foot waves. The two days of battering left the boat flooded, but Appel and Fuiava attempted to stay on course. With a failing motor and snapped sail, however, it didn’t take long for the two to drift westward into the Pacific.
For the next five months, the women were quite literally lost at sea. Fortunately, they had packed a year’s worth of food after gleaning the tip from a book, and the sailboat’s water purifiers kept them hydrated. While the supply kept them nourished, it could only do so much when it came to morale. Appel called the experience “very depressing and very helpless,” though she added that—in trying times—you learn to make due with “what you can and what you have.”
“You have no other choice,” she said. “There is a true humility to wondering if today is your last day? If tonight is your last night?”
The weather was also not on their side.
Appel, Fuiava, and their canines managed to survive two more major storms, but it was the shark attacks that had them truly fearing for their lives. According to ABC News, the mariners awoke one night to a group of seven sharks, including five adults measuring 20 to 30 feet in length along with two babies, slapping their tails against the hull repeatedly. A second encounter came one day later, when a lone tiger shark came back and slapped the boat again.
“We had survived two different shark attacks,” Appel explained. “And with both of them we thought it was lights out. They were horrific.”
While they would occasionally spot commercial ships in the distance, their flares and distress calls always went unanswered, until their luck changed earlier this week. On Tuesday, the women were spotted by a Taiwanese fishing boat about 900 miles south-east Japan—and some 5,000 miles from where they had intended to sail.
Time reported that the fisherman alerted the coastguard in Guam, and the USS Ashland was deployed to rescue them the following day.
“Thank God we were being rescued,” Appel said of her feelings as she watched the U.S. Navy ship approach them. “I have tears in my eye as I say this. It was incredibly emotional.”
The women and their dogs are now receiving medical attention aboard the USS Ashland and will reportedly remain on board until its next port of call. Appel said she was humbled by the service and kindness of the soldiers who saved their lives.
“It was so satisfying to know that the men and women who serve their country would come and assist us,” she told reporters in a conference call from the ship. “It was actually quite mind-blowing and quite humbling.”
The Navy, meanwhile, has released a statement saying such search and rescue missions are just another part of the job.
”The U.S. Navy is postured to assist any distressed mariner of any nationality during any type of situation,” Ashland Commander Steven Wasson said.
While any sane person would assume Appel and Fuiava would be opting to stay on dry land for awhile, the women actually hope to retrieve their boat, which is still adrift at sea—and finish their journey.
“Well you got to die sometime, you might as well be doing something you enjoy when you’re doing it, right?” Appel said.