High above the turquoise seas of the South Pacific, a United States Navy airplane soars through the air. The crew is scanning the scattered islands below, hoping to spot a trace of three missing sailors. Finally, they spot a cluster of strange markings on a remote beach – so have they finally found what they’ve been looking for?
On April 4, 2016, three men left their home in Pulap, an atoll in the Federal States of Micronesia. Boarding a 19-foot flat-bottomed boat known as a skiff, they planned to sail to Weno, an island some 160 miles to the east. There, they hoped to then catch a flight from Chuuk International Airport.
The trip was supposed to take just three hours, but the men soon ran into difficulty. As the weather became stormy, a large wave crashed over their boat and swamped the tiny vessel. Left stranded far from land, the crew had little choice but to attempt to swim to safety.
Fortunately, the men were wearing life jackets that helped to keep them afloat in the dark waters. Even so, they still had to swim for almost two miles through the night. Eventually, they reached the island of Fanadik.
Unfortunately for the three men, Fanadik is one of many uninhabited islands that make up Micronesia, an island country that covers around 1,000 square miles of the Pacific Ocean. So without any locals to call upon for assistance, the survivors were on their own.
Although they were uninjured, things weren’t looking good. The men were stuck on an island miles from civilization. Hoping to catch the attention of would-be rescuers, they used what little resources they had at their disposal. By collecting and arranging the fronds of palm trees, they were able to spell out a simple message – “HELP” – on the shore.
Then, when the men failed to arrive for their flight on Tuesday morning, search and rescue officials in Chuuk notified the United States Coast Guard of their disappearance. But with such a large area to cover, they were going to need some help.
In order to search the region where the men had gone missing, the Coast Guard enlisted the help of AMVER. Formally founded back in 1958 as the Atlantic Merchant Vessel Emergency Reporting system, the groundwork for this international communications system was laid in the wake of tragedies such as the sinking of the RMS Titanic in 1912.
In the absence of a global reporting system for emergencies, lives were being lost because passing vessels were unaware of perilous situations. So AMVER was put in place to allow ships to communicate directly with each other. Today, more than 22,000 vessels from hundreds of countries are part of AMVER.
Through AMVER, the Coast Guard was able to enlist two nearby vessels to help with the search. However, despite spending a combined total of 17 hours scanning the area, the ships were unable to find any trace of the missing men. As the hours passed, the situation looked evermore bleak.
Luckily, however, the U.S. Navy was also on hand to help track down the men. From its base in Guam, a U.S. territory in Micronesia, the Coast Guard coordinated a joint search effort. Then, at 6:00 a.m. on April 7, a Navy P-8 aircraft from Japan’s Misawa Air Base joined the hunt.
And, after two hours in the air, the aircraft spotted something strange on a remote island four nautical miles from Pulap. In fact, it was the “HELP” message that the men had produced on the beach from palm fronds. And next to it were the three men, waving their life jackets in the air.
As soon as they spotted the men, rescuers relayed the happy news back to their anxious families on Chuuk. After three days stranded on a desert island, the trio had been found alive and well. Soon, a ship set out for Fanadik, collecting the men and returning them back to Pulap.
For the Coast Guard, it was yet another success story in a partnership that saved some 15 lives over just a few days. In fact, they had been involved in seven different search and rescue operations in the region in just one week.
Amazingly, the 14th District of the U.S. Coast Guard is responsible for a vast swathe of land and sea covering some 12.2 million square miles. To put that in perspective, it’s an area approximately twice as big as Russia. So it’s perhaps unsurprising that it often needs a little help.
“Oftentimes, we are thousands of miles away from those who need help,” Coast Guard Command Center Honolulu’s search and rescue mission coordinator, Jennifer Conklin, said in a 2016 statement. “And because of that our partnerships with the Navy, other search and rescue organizations, partner Pacific nations and AMVER are essential,” she added.
In the past, the Coast Guard has also conducted outreach work in Chuuk state, where Pulap is located. By handing out essential equipment such as signaling mirrors, radar reflectors and life jackets, it hopes to curtail the number of fatalities in a region where resources are scarce.
Happily, the three men were reported to be in good spirits and didn’t seem to have suffered any lasting ill effects from their ordeal. However, reactions to the story online were mixed. While many of course congratulated the Coast Guard for their efforts, others found the similarities to the 1960s television show Gilligan’s Island – which features a bumbling crew getting stranded on a desert island during what was supposed to be a three-hour tour – too entertaining to ignore.
And this wasn’t the last time that lost sailors would find themselves rescued from a deserted Micronesian island thanks to a DIY SOS. Four months later, Linus and Sabina Jack went missing after departing from Weno with limited supplies. After one week of searching, a U.S. Navy helicopter spotted the plea for help that they had written in the sand.
According to experts, making a visible sign is one of the most important things you can do if you find yourself stranded on a deserted island – along with finding a water source and building a shelter. For these survivors, it was a tactic that surely saved their lives.