It’s a Wednesday in early May, 2017. Jennifer Appel, Tasha Fuiava and two dogs – Valentine and Zeus – set sail from Honolulu on their yacht, Sea Nymph. They’re heading for Tahiti on a trip that should take a little under three weeks. But they’re quickly caught in a severe storm that damages the boat. The two women are now adrift in the vast expanse of the Pacific Ocean.
Appel, 47 when the adventure started, and Fuiava, who was 27, had first encountered each other just months before they embarked on their sea voyage. Appel had some sailing experience, experience, although that included wrecking an earlier yacht, the FSOW, off the coast of Hawaii. Fuiava’s sailing experience could be summed up in one word: zero.
In fact, Appel, from Texas and once a landscape gardener, and Fuiava, a security guard from Samoa, and had decided to sail to Tahiti together mere days after their first meeting. Appel apparently had plans to move into organic farming on one of the islands of French Polynesia. Fuiava, meanwhile, was simply looking for some adventure.
Nonetheless, the pair had actually made some extensive preparations for the trip. They’d packed the boat with plenty of food for both themselves and their dogs, for example. Their supplies included eggs (omelets were a favorite of Fuiava’s), oatmeal, beef jerky and noodles. In fact, they had a 12-month supply of food. For drinks they had iced tea and Gatorade, as well as a water purifier.
And it was just as well that they’d provisioned their vessel so generously. After the storm that had hit them just hours after they’d set off on May 3, 2017, their ship was effectively crippled. They consequently started to drift across the ocean, unable to keep to a course.
Their time adrift stretched from days into weeks and then into months. People ashore became anxious after the two women failed to make contact with friends and family. Indeed, Appel’s mother was concerned enough to get in touch with the Coast Guard around ten days after her daughter had set sail.
After more than five months, however, still nobody had heard from the two women aboard the Sea Nymph. Then, at last, news came through in late October 2017. As the yacht drifted on the ocean almost 1,000 miles from Japan, the crew of a Taiwanese fishing vessel saw Appel and Fuiava’s boat.
The fishing boat’s crew contacted the U.S. Coast Guard base on Guam, and a U.S. Navy vessel, USS Ashland, was dispatched to pick up the two women and their pets from the stricken yacht. Speaking to Vice, Appel described her feelings when she was rescued. “They saved our lives. The pride and smiles we had when we saw [the Navy ship] on the horizon was pure relief,” she told Vice in October 2017.
And the two mariners had some truly hair-raising stories to tell about their time drifting across the Pacific. Appel described an encounter with five tiger sharks up to 30 feet long. She said that the creatures were demonstrating some hunting skills to a pair of young sharks.
“We were slowly maneuvering through their living room,” Appel explained to Vice. “They came by to slap their tails and tell us we needed to move along. [The sharks] decided to use our vessel to teach their children how to hunt. They attacked at night.” And she told the Chicago Tribune, “We were just incredibly lucky that our hull was strong enough to withstand the onslaught.”
Now, however, some commentators began to cast doubt on the tales that Appel and Fuiava were recounting. The shark tale came in for particular scrutiny, for example. George Burgess, a shark expert from the Florida Museum of Natural History, was especially blunt in an interview with The New York Times.
“It sounds like something a four-year-old would tell you. No. No, no and no and no. There’s not an iota of accuracy relative to our knowledge of the shark in any of that,” Burgess asserted. He pointed out that tiger sharks are not social animals.
Burgess subsequently added that tiger sharks don’t grow to 30 feet and don’t teach young sharks how to hunt. And he very much doubted that the sharks had been from another species. “The only one that fits that pattern was the star of the movie Jaws,’” he concluded.
Others came forward to cast doubt on the women’s account of their five months at sea. For starters, there was the storm at the beginning of their journey that had damaged their boat. Associated Press reported that Appel had said that “we got into a Force 11 storm, and it lasted for two nights and three days.”
Yet despite Appel’s description of this terrible tempest with 30-foot waves and 60mph winds, the National Weather Service said that there had not been any major storms on May 3 or on the subsequent days, according to Associated Press. In addition, satellite images from NASA backed up what the National Weather Service was saying.
Nonetheless, Appel wasn’t one to take these challenges to her story lying down. She subsequently revealed an email from the Coast Guard with a forecast of waves up to 10 feet. Appel had previously said it had been a force 11 storm, however, which can be expected to produce waves of between 37 and 52 feet.
And then there was the question of why Appel and Fuiava had never properly raised the alarm if they’d been in such dire straits. They could have done so, since their yacht was equipped with a working Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacon. If activated, this device would then have broadcast the Sea Nymph’s position to potential rescuers.
It seems that the women actually never felt that they were in enough danger to activate their emergency beacon. The New York Times reported the words of Coast Guard spokesman Lieutenant Commander Scott Carr. “They stated that while they felt distressed, they did not feel that they were going to perish in the next 24 hours,” Carr said. Which does rather call into question how much peril the women were really in.
Not long after the dramatic rescue, the tabloids started to get their teeth into the story. The Daily Mail dug into Appel’s past and discovered that she had at one time been what it described as a “professional dominatrix and exotic dancer.” And the paper gleefully printed some heavily pixelated nude shots that it had uncovered. You can be the judge of the relevance of that particular revelation.
So what’s the truth about Jennifer Appel and Tasha Fuiava? Were they really helplessly lost at sea for five months? If they weren’t, what was their motivation for the stories they told? Perhaps we’ll never know unless one of them decides to write a book. In fact, back in 2017 some of Appel’s friends said that she planned to do just that, although none has yet been published.