The food and water had run out days ago. The sun beat down relentlessly, burning skin that was already covered in agonizing rashes. There was no relief on the horizon, just the deep blue ocean stretching out endlessly in every direction. Incredibly, this was the situation that three young teenagers found themselves in. Against all the odds, though, somehow they survived.
It was an impulse, fueled by vodka and tales of similar exploits, that led 15-year-old Filo Filo, his cousin and best friend Samu Tonuia, also 15, and another cousin, 14-year-old Etueni Nasau, to set out to sea that day. The trio had been drinking and smoking, hanging out in their local clubhouse on the Pacific island of Atafu, when Samu had the idea of stealing his uncle’s boat and heading for the next atoll. Atafu is one of three islands that make up the isolated New Zealand territory of Tokelau.
There were rumors that the boys set off looking for love, but they themselves claim a much more down to earth motive. “We were drunk,” Etueni later confessed to The Daily Telegraph, “we were drinking.” According to the boys it was as simple as that. The atoll they were purportedly headed for, Nukunonu, was 62 miles away.
A quick glance at a map shows how foolhardy the boys’ plan was. Atafu is a tiny atoll, measuring just a single square mile, surrounded by a whole lot of wild and unpredictable ocean. The open sea’s inherent dangers are the reason why most Tokelauans don’t sail far from the shore unless accompanied by a seasoned fisherman, or “tautai.”
These hazards didn’t seem to trouble the teens, though, when they loaded the small, engine-powered boat with stolen fuel and provisions. Their stash comprised some 30 coconuts, two bottles of milk, a jar of water, a sealed container of vodka and some cigarettes. It was a somewhat paltry stockpile, and one that clearly showed they weren’t expecting their trip to last for more than a few days at the most.
The three would-be sailors didn’t even carry any fishing gear, despite Atafu being a fishing village. Fortunately, Filo had had the presence of mind to grab a tarpaulin before they left, something that would prove invaluable during their ordeal. It was to be their only means of collecting water and providing cover when it rained.
It was well after midnight when Samu piloted the boat out into the open ocean. The teens were in high spirits, drinking vodka and taunting the islanders they left behind. Although they’d blamed their escapade on alcohol, Etueni later told GQ magazine that the boys had in fact had the romantic notion of simply following a star to see where it lead them. They were excited to begin what they saw as a fun, but short, adventure.
That first night was cold. The boys were dressed for warm days on the island, not chilly nights at sea. Their wardrobe of shorts and T-shirts was sadly inadequate. What’s more, the sea spray that gradually puddled in the bottom of the boat didn’t help either. Despite this, and aided by all the vodka they’d consumed, the teens managed to fall asleep after turning off the engine. Their boat drifted on the water.
Fewer than 600 people live on Atafu, so it’s not surprising that the boys’ disappearance was noticed the following morning. An emergency meeting was held for all the island’s inhabitants. Kuresa Nasau, the leader of Tokelau at the time, called for a search of the surrounding islands and the large lagoon at the atoll’s center.
Village men from the three atolls went out to look for the missing teens. Torrid weather was expected, heightening fears for the boys’ safety. Less than a year earlier, three men from the island had been killed when their barge capsized during a storm.
Meanwhile, on their drifting boat, the boys woke up the next morning hungover and thirsty. Nevertheless, at this stage, their stock of coconuts seemed more than ample for their journey. Consequently, they cracked a few open and drank the water, before polishing off the two bottles of milk.
Another soggy night wasn’t yet enough to discourage the three teenagers. In fact when they saw a plane fly overhead, only Etueni bothered waving at it, even though they guessed it was looking for them. After all, they reasoned, they hadn’t been gone long, there’d be other chances for rescue.
The airplane that the boys spotted was indeed most likely looking for them. The day after they were reported missing, the New Zealand Air Force scrambled a surveillance plane to aid in the search. But, even though the plane was equipped with sophisticated radar, and despite it searching over 8,000 square miles of ocean, its efforts proved fruitless.
Meanwhile, the coconuts didn’t last long, and neither did their optimistic outlooks. Ordinarily, the average male teenager needs to consume about a dozen cups of water a day. By the sixth day at sea, then, the boys were so thirsty that they began to drink seawater, something they knew was a very bad idea.
At this point, the weather brought Filo, Samu and Etueni a lucky break. They were able to collect water in their tarpaulin during a short but heavy rain shower. Unfortunately, though, the water didn’t last long, and they were still without food. The situation was becoming dire and would only get worse.
Day after day the boys’ condition deteriorated. By this time they were sleeping sitting up, to stay out of the puddle of filthy water in the bottom of the boat. The days soon turned into weeks. Luck did bring the boys a little food: on four occasions, waves breaking over the boat brought them a fish, and once they caught a sea bird that landed within reach. Another time they ate some barnacles from beneath the hull. But that was it. They were gradually wasting away.
Going for long periods with no nourishment took its toll on the teenage boys. To make matters even worse, they also had to endure blazing hot days followed by cold wet nights with only the tarpaulin for shelter. As their bodies weakened so did their state of mind. Once they spotted a ship, but it sailed on without seeing them. They gradually lost hope of ever seeing their island again. Then, 50 days after that fateful night of drinking, rescue finally came.
That the San Nikunau tuna boat was in those particular waters was extremely fortunate, as it was not taking its usual route that day. That it actually sailed close enough to see the tiny dinghy bobbing in the huge ocean is nothing short of astonishing. It is impossible to even imagine the relief the boys must have felt when the much bigger vessel pulled alongside.
Back on Atafu, Filo’s father Tanu Filo described the boys’ rescue as a miracle. Indeed, the community had held a memorial only weeks earlier, after authorities had declared the boys dead. Incredibly, the three friends had spent 50 days at sea in a small boat with barely any food, fresh water or shelter, only to be discovered by chance by a passing fishing boat. So perhaps miracle is the correct word.
The boys were greeted like celebrities on their return to Atafu. Moreover, a feast was held and mourning turned into rejoicing. However, perhaps wanting to completely leave their ordeal behind them, all three have since left Tokelau. Samu and Filo moved to Australia where they have relatives, and Etueni and his family relocated to Hawaii. It’s safe to assume they’ll not be taking any impromptu boating trips anytime soon.