The six survivors of a 20-day ordeal lost at sea in the remote Western Pacific lived on sun-dried turtle meat, fish, wild birds, coconut meat and rainwater as they revealed their miraculous survival story to Solomons Business Online this week.
They believed they were able to stay alive and eventually step on land again because of the power of their ceaseless daily prayers in the middle of the wild ocean.
The islanders from Tuwo village of the Reef Islands – David Teveko, Elsie Lopabe, Jane Menubir, Godfrey Wale and Brown Meba – landed safely on Ulawa Island on July 31 after what supposed to be a 50km boat trip taking just a few hours on July 11.
But after a rogue wave knocked out their outboard motor, the short interisland trip turned into a three-week long saga of desperation for the six, as well as their worried relatives and friends.
After landing safely on Ulawa – after drifting west for 500km – on Friday last week, the six arrived in Honiara on Tuesday and, after a medical checkup at the National Referral Hospital, they were taken to a rest house in the city where they are currently staying.
Speaking exclusively to SBM Online, Godfrey Wale said they set off their journey from Fenualoa around 8am on the morning of July 11 and just when they began to see the Reef Islands on the horizon– a huge wave raced towards them – hit the boat and swept everything into the sea.
“I quickly decided and we agreed to throw the 40hp outboard motor into the ocean. I told them that if we wanted to survive we must throw the engine into the ocean and stick to the canoe. And that’s exactly what we did,” he recalled.
Another survivor, the youngest in the group, Brown Meba, said they started to float and headed towards Tinakula Island where they managed to stay close to for around two days.
“We filled containers with sea water and succeeded to paddle against the current hoping to stay around Tinakula for rescuers to find us.
“At one stage we were like 100 meters away from Tinakula and we all agreed to swim to the island – but one of us, the oldest male, told us that he was unable to swim that distance – so we all agree to stay on board and after sometime we drifted far away from Tinakula and into the unknown,” he recalled.
That completed their first five days in the wild ocean.
“We had not eaten anything in the first five days. We lived on prayer only,” he said.
As they drifted into the ocean one morning a small turtle swam towards their canoe and they managed to catch it with ease. They killed the turtle and chopped it into small pieces which they put in the sun to dry.
They also caught fish and wild birds which they also put in the sun for drying. The only other food they ate with the protein was dried coconut meat.
Meba said they collected coconuts that floated in the ocean – and those they could not reach, he would swim to retrieve them. He said he then used his teeth to husk them.
He said at one stage they had no water at all so they prayed – and there was a huge rain storm that filled the entire boat. They loaded their drinking containers and even had enough for a shower that day.
Meba said as they drifted into the fifteenth day they could see lights during the night and those probably came from Makira Island.
“We were so close at night but in the day time it was very hard for us again to see any islands. We could not do anything but just purely follow the current and where it was taking us to.
“We saw ships but we could not stop them,” he said.
Meba said in the last few days of their ordeal they were floating around Ulawa and South Malaita.
“It was three days before we could land on Ulawa, I woke everybody and told them that soon we would land. But the day went by and the current carried us away from Ulawa and out towards South Malaita.
“We could have paddled but our bodies were too tired and we didn’t have the energy so we basically sat helplessly as the current carried us. We moved closer to Malaita but then the current took us back close to Ulawa again,” he said.
Meba said on the morning of July 31 they drifted towards Ulawa again and very close to the point where they landed an old man appeared and showed them the passage through the reef.
“That was it. That morning was fine and there was no current so we paddled towards Ulawa and safely landed,” he said.
“We were all exhausted. If we had floated for two more days I would be the first to die as I was the one doing most of the work like paddling and husking coconut with my teeth,” he said.
Asked what was their weapon for survival, he replied: “Prayer, prayer and prayer.”
He said one of the things they experienced was they never got hungry as there was always food but fatigue was starting to claim them just before they landed safely on Ulawa.