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Sharks, squalls and a Navy rescue: How two American women survived months on a broken boat in the Pacific

Sailors from the USS Ashland rescued Jennifer Appel and Tasha Fuiava 900 miles off the coast of Japan on Oct. 25. (Video: U.S. Navy/YouTube)

The moment the two women and their two dogs were finally rescued is captured on video, taken from the deck of a Navy boat.

The camera wobbles as the motorboat cuts across the ocean, some 900 miles southeast of Japan, toward the lone sailboat that had been sending distress signals for months after its engine died.

One of the women is on the deck, her arms outstretched, feverishly blowing kisses toward the rescue boat. This is the reaction of someone who had been marooned at sea for months with a broken engine and a dwindling food supply.

“Relief and elation and joy,” rescued sailor Jennifer Appel said later, in an interview with the Navy aboard the USS Ashland, which had come to save her and Tasha Fuiava. “When we saw you guys, coming over the horizon, it was like, ‘Oh god we’ve been saved.’ It was the most amazing feeling because we honestly did not believe we would survive another 24 hours in the current situation.”

Appel and Fuiava, both from Honolulu, had set sail for the Polynesian island of Tahiti at the beginning of May. The boat’s engine died at the end of the month, and the two had been lost at sea for the majority of the time since. In a lengthy interview aboard the Ashland, they appeared to be in good spirits as they recounted their perilous journey.

The two had set off on May 3, expecting an 18-day trip to French Polynesia, where they would spend the next six months traveling around thousands of small islands in the South Pacific. They planned to head back to Hawaii by October to avoid the hurricanes that would come in November.

The voyage went south quickly. They encountered what they said was a Force 11 storm — a classification for a violent storm with 37-52 foot waves — on their first night, which lasted for three days. They decided against returning to Hawaii.

“When we were through with that we were empowered to know we could withstand the forces of nature, the boat could withstand the forces of nature,” Appel said. “We decided not to return to Hawaii but to continue on in our journey because we believed that everything ‘shook out’ and we’d be all right.”

Next came problems with the boat. The bolt holding the spreader to the mast was bent, Appel said. The two decided to push on, to the island of Kiribati, a small island more than 1,000 miles south of Hawaii, to fix the issue, only to find the boat was too big to fit in its lagoon. So they continued south, now hundreds of miles off their planned course.

Eventually they found themselves in what Appel said was a “white squall,” a particularly violent and sudden storm, which flooded the boat’s cockpit and ignition. They were less than a month into their journey, and they no longer had the ability to use the boat’s motor.

Then came the packs of tiger sharks, ramming into the side of their boat.

“They decided to use our vessel to teach their young how to hunt,” Appel said on a call with reporters. “It was lucky our hull was strong enough to withstand the onslaught.”

Appel told NBC’s “Today” show she took the dogs downstairs, and “we basically laid huddled on the floor, and I told them not to bark because the sharks could hear us breathing. They could smell us.”

Fuiava told “Today” she kept watch at night, sending distress calls and flares when other vessels were within sight. “And when they would turn or keep going,” she said. “Yeah, it was kind of sad.”

Their distress signals went unanswered for months. The Navy said “they were not close enough to other vessels or shore stations to receive them.”

Luckily the pair had prepared for a long trip; they had water purifiers and what they hoped would be a year’s worth of food on board, mostly dry goods including oatmeal, pasta, nuts, dried fruit and rice. By the time they were rescued they had eaten about 90 percent of their food, Appel said. The food for their dogs, Zeus and Valentine, had been completely consumed.

In the conference call with reporters from the Ashland, Appel said the pair sent a distress signal for 98 days.

“It was very depressing and very hopeless, but it’s the only thing you can do, so you do what you can do,” she told reporters, according to the Associated Press.

When asked whether she thought they might die, Appel responded it was only human to believe that.

“There is a true humility to wondering if today is your last day, if tonight is your last night,” she told reporters.

On Tuesday, a Taiwanese fishing vessel came across their sailboat, “well off its original course.”

The fishermen had difficulty trying to tow the pair and alerted the U.S. Coast Guard. On Wednesday, the USS Ashland, a warship operating out of Sasebo, Japan, tracked them down and dispatched the rescue boat.

The two sailors and their two dogs were brought safely aboard after the Navy determined their boat was no longer seaworthy.

The two said they were overjoyed to be rescued but a little sad to leave the sailboat, the Sea Nymph.

“Utter sadness cause that was our life for the last two and a half years,” Fuiava said. Appel, the president of a company that builds green roofs, according to the Honolulu Star-Advertiserhad spent two and a half years working on the boat to ready it for the journey, Fuiava said.

Once aboard the Ashland, they were assessed by medical staff and given food and lodging arrangements. The Navy said they will remain on the ship until its next port of call.

Photos distributed by the Navy show the women smiling aboard the warship. Zeus the dog appears in good spirits, if a bit skinny.

Appel said she was reminded of a conversation about sailing she had with an acquaintance some 10 years ago.

“I was joking with someone,” she said. “And they said what happens when you go out to sea and you get broken? I said, ‘Oh, the Navy will come save me.’”

This story has been updated.

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