SEA NYMPH RESCUE: Two Crazy Ladies and Their Dogs Adrift for Five Months

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Sea Nymph

This story has been getting a ton of play in the mainstream media, plus of course the usual sailing-forum trolls who pounce like hyenas on any abandoned-boat mishap have been happily feasting on it. It does involve an unusual set of facts. Starting with the crew: one woman with 10 years of coastal sailing experience, another with exactly zero sailing experience, and two dogs, rather large ones, presumably with limited experience. Then there’s the fairly mild nature of the equipment failures that led to their drifting across the Pacific aboard their boat Sea Nymph for five months: an engine that got wet and wouldn’t start and a bent mounting bolt that compromised one spreader in their rig. Finally there’s the latest development: they claim to have been making radio distress calls throughout their ordeal, but it turns out they also had an EPIRB they never activated.

Honestly I think one big reason the mainstream media likes the story so much is because the putative skipper of the boat, Jennifer Appel, is very outgoing, loves to talk, and has a real talent for hyperbole, as you can see in the immediate post-rescue video interview aboard USS Ashland, the Navy vessel that rescued the castaways after a Taiwanese fishing vessel found them 900 miles southeast of Japan:

Appel is nothing if not effusive, makes for a great extroverted TV spokesperson, and plays perfectly off her more introverted partner, Tasha Fuiava. As for all the hyperbole–the “Force 11 storm” that beset them their first day out of Honolulu in early May (they were bound for Tahiti); the 10-knot counter-currents; the Devil’s Triangle, where “boats go in, but very rarely come out and if they do there are no people on them”; the terrifying shark attacks; etc., etc.–this of course greatly aggravates the sailing-forum trolls, but also plays very well with opportunistic if-it-bleeds-it-leads non-sailing journalists.

Appel

Jennifer Appel talks to a member of Ashland’s crew

Fuiava

Tasha Fuiava boards USS Ashland after leaving Sea Nymph

For a good sample of the sailing-forum reaction you can check out Sailing Anarchy and the Cruiser’s Forum. The gross exaggerations and inconsistencies in Jennifer Appel’s tale have provided much fodder for these and other skeptical nay-sayers, who are also incited, I would submit, by the fact that these are women, and–even worse–obviously lesbian women at that. 

There are many egregious comments after the many video news clips that have popped up on YouTube. Just one example: “These sicko lesbians were having intercourse with the dogs every night. Wack jobs.” And there are others that are much cruder.

The consensus among many trolls being that this must all be a hoax and these women have hatched a plot to get on TV with Ellen DeGeneres and then get a movie and book deal.

Jaws meme

Courtesy of Sailing Anarchy

I kid you not. Read through the SA and CF threads and the comments to the news videos and you’ll see that the Ellen comment pops up repeatedly.

The king of the must-be-a-hoax promoters is Dr. Linus Wilson, who seemingly wears his Oxford doctorate and his USCG six-pack license on his sleeve and even went to the trouble to produce a 41-minute video debunking Appel’s story. He’s also done some fact-checking and has established that there was no Force 11 storm in Hawaii in May, Appel’s boat is 37 feet long (not 50 feet, as she claims), there was an EPIRB onboard (this is also being reported in mainstream media today), and tiger sharks cannot be as big as Appel claims.

[Photo removed due to threat of lawsuit.]

Dr. Wilson in his video. We can tell from the way he’s dressed that he must be an expert

Different people have asked me what I make of all this, and I have to say first and foremost: I don’t know what happened. I wasn’t there, and clearly the whole story hasn’t come out yet.

With that proviso, I will share the following opinions:

1) The notion of this being a hoax is laughable. You’d have to go to almost as much trouble to appear to have experienced what Appel and Fuiava claim to have experienced as to have actually experienced it.

2) Of course there was no Force 11 storm. But I’m sure it was more wind than Jennifer Appel had seen before, hence her exaggerated view of it. I’m guessing they got caught in a wind-acceleration zone between the Hawaiian islands, where they might easily have seen sustained gusts to 50 knots or so, and weren’t experienced enough to sail out of it promptly.

3) The boat is almost certainly the center-cockpit version of the Starratt & Jenks 45. It is true that the CG registration states it is a Starratt & Jenks-built 37-footer, but no such boat ever existed.

CG data

Sea Nymph’s CG data. The size data is simply wrong, which means the first owner to document the boat probably misreported it to the Coast Guard, perhaps to save money on slip fees

S&J 45

A center-cockpit Starratt & Jenks 45 that is currently listed for sale. (There was also an aft-cockpit version.) All details match the photos of Sea Nymph, except the wooden rubstrake, which might easily be removed, and the portlights along the topsides. If you check other photos of S&J 45s you’ll see the portlight configurations are variable. The boat has a cutaway full keel and is reportedly an able bluewater cruiser. The same molds that produced this boat also produced the Morgan 45 and the Explorer 46

4) The growth pattern on the hull above the waterline, despite what many are saying, is perfectly consistent with a boat having been at sea for a long period of time.

5) Appel’s stories about shark attacks seem to be among her greatest, and most heart-felt, exaggerations. She and Fuiava were obviously frightened by the sharks they saw and both over-estimated their size and anthropomorphized them. Appel in one interview, for example, claims that “the sharks decided to use our vessel to teach their children how to hunt.” That said, it is perfectly creditable that there were sharks whumping against the boat. Drifting objects, particularly those with growth underneath them, are very attractive to fish in the open ocean. The fish, in turn, are attractive to sharks.

5) There may have been a sat phone onboard that was accidentally lost. In one interview there is a reference to a phone, type unspecified, being dropped overboard.

6) The fact that Appel and Fuiava never set off their EPIRB is to their credit. Though they did spend 5 months adrift, their lives were never immediately in danger. They had plenty of healthy food to eat (though they were running low when rescued) and they had water, as they were able to keep one of their two watermakers operational and evidently got enough power from their solar panels and wind generator to run it a bit. They obviously did not want to abandon Sea Nymph. As you can see in their first long interview aboard Ashland, at 10:57 minutes, they tear up and almost break down when describing their sorrow at leaving the boat.

Sea Nymph rig climb

Sea Nymph with a Navy launch from Ashland standing by. Note the figure climbing the mast

My guess is they always hoped they would somehow be able to repair their compromised spreader and continue their voyage. They did try at least once to make landfall to effect repairs, somewhere in Kiribati, but failed. They also hoped to land somewhere in the Cook Islands, but had trouble with counter-currents. Evidently they did not feel capable of sailing the boat with the compromised spreader, or, more importantly, of climbing the rig at sea to fix it (in spite of the steps on their mast). But it may be that in trying to raise other vessels on the radio (they claim they saw several vessels that did not answer hails) they hoped to get someone to help with this. Per the photo above, it seems a member of Ashland’s crew did in fact climb Sea Nymph’s rig before the boat was abandoned. And it has been reported that Ashland’s crew explicitly determined that “the boat was no longer seaworthy.”

Perhaps Ashland’s crew either did determine that the spreader could not be repaired, or told Appel and Fuiava that it could not be repaired so as to get them to leave the boat.

Given the great interest in this story, it does seem likely more hard information will emerge. Indeed, the fact that the mainstream media is biting hard on the EPIRB angle and is now turning this into a “gotcha” story almost guarantees it. So maybe we will eventually, for a change, find out what really happened here.

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20 Responses
  1. Clare Allcard

    Thanks. Sounds like a very balanced assessment, Charlie, on all counts. When you’re new to sailing and you’re scared everything looks bigger: a five foot wave looks eight feet and a six foot shark looks nine feet. I am very impressed by their catering. They’re both looking remarkably healthy despite their ordeal.

  2. Andy Schell

    Maybe a stupid question: why couldn’t they use their jib?

    If the spreader was damaged, any sail area, jib included, would have strained it.

  3. Larry

    In one of the general media write-ups, they were quoted as having said that they felt the EPIRB was only for life or death situations, which they didn’t feel they were in… I’m sure the facts will drift in over the next months, and then be debated for a period, but I have to laud their sense of emotional discipline if that “quote” is accurate…

  4. Linda Gunn

    I have been a licensed commercial Captain for 20 years (200 ton near coastal), and live aboard my 47 foot schooner. I still say hoax, or plain stupidity, with over-exaggeration. You don’t leave port in a storm (did they listen to the weather report at all before leaving?). Anyone with any sailing experience should have been able to jury rig some kind of sail, even with a compromised spreader. If not, you don’t belong out there making a long voyage. Engine got wet and wont start? really?? If everything fails, I can hand crank mine to start. Giant boat eating sharks? Seriously? teaching their young to hunt? Sharks do not care for their young or teach them anything (BTW, I have a degree in Marine Biology). And, they look far to healthy and cheerful to have been through so much of an “ordeal”. And, how could they possibly survive on pasta and rice and other dry goods? no protein? I am a vegetarian, and have to be careful that I get enough protein. But, if I had no other option, I would at least try fishing….

  5. Brett Davis

    With a broken spreader, you can absolutely sail on one the tack where the broken spreader is to leeward. I used to think this was a hoax and now I convinced that two insanely stupid people had a comedy of errors and no clue how to fix anything on a boat. Obviously should never have left the dock.

    Three non-sailor buddies sailed from San Diego to Hawaii without dying so it is theoretically possible. One guy did try to commit suicide and had to be duct taped to his bunk for a week but otherwise, uneventful. 😉

  6. Duke

    Why wouldn’t they use the job.? Hell they must be blonds , because they had a working satellite beacon on board in working order……..
    They are either incompetent or stupid or both.!

  7. William Wallace

    Be nice to know what antifouling they used because I’ve never seen anything that stayed so clean after 5 months drifting around. The muck on the topsides is not consistent with the cleanliness below the waterline. That boat has been antifouled recently.

  8. Charlie

    @William Wallace: To point out the obvious, the bottom has antifouling paint on it, the topsides don’t. Hence the bottom is cleaner. Even lame antifouling will keep your bottom more or less clean for five months.

  9. Linus T Wilson

    Mr. Doane stole copyrighted material from my video. Take it down. You can’t snip screen shots without my permission. Only an embedded link to the video is permitted. He has also made untrue statements about what I have said regarding whether or not the story is a “hoax”. This is a shameful piece of theft.

  10. Linus T Wilson

    Another thing which shows what a blatant violation of copyright is Mr. Doane snipped around my channel branding on the video. Mr. Douane, you need to be brought to justice.

  11. Charlie

    @Linus: Take a chill pill, mate. This use of your material obviously falls within the fair-use doctrine. But I will defer and take down the photo.

  12. Pliny

    I have been sailing all my life and have read several accounts of ocean sailors jury-rigging a sail when completely demasted, and sailing thousands of miles. They would have had to be pretty stupid to not use their sails with the forestay and backstay and all the shrouds in place (you can see them in the photos). The inconsistencies in their story are quite overwhelming. It is not plausible to any experienced ocean sailor.

  13. Charlie

    @Pliny: No, they are obviously not experienced. Though they have more experience now than they did before. And the inconsistiencies and exaggerations in their story are manifest. Though I suspect they may have used their sails more than the mangled news accounts reveal. And they did rebuild their watermaker. And they didn’t light off their EPIRB simply because they were scared. Which is more than some would-be sailors I know can say. They do not deserve to be reviled and hated.

  14. John S

    They exaggerated. They were inexperienced and made decisions others claim they themselves would not make. OK. God bless’em for not activating that EPIRB. But, they were out there which is a lot more than most people, many of whom claim all kinds of things but don’t in real life do much. Reviling and hating someone for such a “crime”seems way too strong a reaction to me. It’s the same attitude I see on SA which is why I seldom visit that site. In the Marines we have a saying. ‘You know what the difference is between a sea-story and a fairy tail? The sea story begins with “No sh#%, there I was, thought I was gonna die. And, the fairy tail begins with “Once upon a time….”‘

    I’m glad they are OK and still have smiles on their faces.

  15. Alaska Rich

    WOW – I am definitely favoriting this sailing site so so refreshing to read a majority of rational reasonable comments; even the negative one’s are not that bad; with the one exception of Linus – hey guy your making yourself look like the one who is the mental case – it from was your youtube that I discovered this whole thing as I ditched the MSM years ago – for my excuse of not before hearing about this; it was your facial expressions and voice inflections that made me want to research the other side of this story and thus find THIS GREAT SITE. BUT Linus I also saw and heard voice inflections that led me to believe you so appear to be an otherwise decent and likely kind guy, the kind that would be the first to risk his life to help others – lighten up and quit your insecurities from betraying who you REALLY are. My best wishes to both ladies and especially to LINUS – cheers!

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