Mwoakillese fishermen self-rescue by chance after 11 days adrift

By Bill Jaynes

The Kaselehlie Press 

February 23, 2021

IMG 0148 copyFSM—On February 9, Gretzki Albert and Raven Riddick Luhda set out from the shores of Mwoakilloa, an outer island of Pohnpei, for an afternoon of trolling. They could not have known that the journey would end up being one that could kill them.

They said that at about five miles off shore, their engine died and would not restart.  The distance was too far to paddle back. Onboard they had two tanks of fuel that were worthless with a non-functioning engine, two 500 milliliter bottles of water, a tarp, and the few fish they had caught before their engine died.  They spent the next 10 days drifting further and further away from their home battling the elements and the needs of their bodies.

For the first two days they ate the fish they had caught, but by the third day the remaining fish had spoiled. Their small supply of water ran out by the second day.  They survived the sun’s strong ultraviolet rays by taking shelter beneath the tarp and swimming when it got too hot.  They would only last a maximum of three more days after their water ran out.  They cleaned out the under-seat storage as best they could. Rain filled the compartment giving them at least some hope for survival, though their food was well gone by then.

On the seventh day they found what Pohnpeians call a “dipwap”, a small nut, floating in the water. They eagerly shared the finger tipped sized nut. It gave them hope, even if small.

The sighting of three planes overhead also gave them a small amount of hope, though they later admitted regretting that the inside of their boat was painted blue, which made it incredibly difficult to spot in the vast expanse of blue ocean.  On the second day they saw a drone. On the third day they saw a Coast Guard plane. On the fourth day they saw what they said looked like a US Navy airplane.  But still they continued to drift, buoyed both by their small boat and the sighting of the planes.

The US Embassy to the FSM said that the crew of the U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Oliver Henry (WPC 1140) and aircrews aboard multiple HC-130 aircraft from Barbers Point, HI, joined the search for two missing boaters.

“The Coast Guard appreciates the support of the FSM National and Pohnpei State COVID Task Forces,” said Commander Allison Cox, response department head, Coast Guard Sector Guam. “Allowing our aircraft and cutter to conduct no-contact fueling, load stores, and lodging, vastly increased on scene search time by hours for the HC-130’s, and days for the Oliver Henry, which is a game changer for search and rescue and law enforcement effectiveness and support of FSM.”

The effort put in to locate the two men was massive in scale but significantly hampered by the boat’s top facing color of blue.  Albert and Luhda continued to drift, but on the 19th of February, nearly at the end of their strength they drifted within sight of Sapwuahfik, another of Pohnpei’s outer islands and one of the closest to Pohnpei’s main island, approximately 105 miles from where they started in Mwoakilloa.  Using the last of their strength, the two men paddled their boat to an uninhabited island in Sapwuahfik.  Fortunately, Carter Sehpen saw them drifting in and then paddling to the island and rushed to meet them there.  Local police officers took the two men to Pohnpei’s main island where they had family.

Carter Sehpen is now the owner of a small fishing boat, given to him by two grateful young men who never want to see the boat again.

Five days later, sitting in the office of The Kaselehlie Press and telling their story in breathless terms, they were in excellent spirits. Having been fed and housed, their only visual residual damage was dark and pealing skin from sun damage.

As a result of Albert and Luhda’s ordeal, all of the seven boat owners in Mwokilloa will receive EPIRBs (Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacon).  If the two men had one of the devices onboard, they could have been rescued within hours rather than essentially rescuing themselves by chance 10 days later. Donald David, the President of a Mwoakillese non-governmental organization called Urmwka, Inc. organized a fund raiser to provide the EPIRBs, along with life jackets and stencils to be used to paint the names of each of the boats on the individual vessels.  He said the organization was able to raise $4000 in just a few days from donors both in Pohnpei and living in the United States.

David said that several months ago, his organization and the Pohnpei Fishing Club solicited the Pohnpei State Government to provide 300 EPIRBs to the 300 boat owners throughout Pohnpei’s main and outer islands. He said that SPC has committed to provide 40 of the life saving rescue devices as a match to Pohnpei’s efforts but that the government has yet to respond to the request. “We hope that the boys’ experience will motivate the government to make a decision to help,” he said.

Albert and Luhda freely admit that they made crucial safety mistakes, including having their boat painted blue, and they hope that others will learn from their mistakes.

James Wichman of the Pohnpei Fishing Club provided a boat safety graphic developed and published by SPC and asked us to publish it along with this article in hopes that boaters will take heed.