Survival of the Fittest 87 Days Adrift-1,855 Miles-No Stowed Provisions by Capt. Michael McCredy Baker Master of F/V American Victory
As professional mariners, all of us have contemplated how we would manage survival for our crew and ourselves while adrift in the open ocean in a survival craft. We assume for starters that our survival craft will be equipped with the necessary survival provisions, such as water, high caloric food, medical supplies, an EPIRB, etc. We further assume that a major search-and-rescue effort will be launched on our behalf. We are trained to manage our current situation, use our resources judiciously and wait for the anticipated rescue.
Now imagine that you are adrift in an open 17-foot wooden skiff with two other men. Further, there are no stowed supplies for you to manage â€” no water, no food, no medical supplies â€” and no major search-and-rescue effort to hope for. What will you do now to survive? How will you manage your crew? These are the questions that were faced by Capt. Roitam Taakiro, a 37-year-old AB from the island nation of Kiribati, and this is how he and his two-man crew survived 87 days adrift in a non-provisioned open 17-foot wooden skiff in the tropical heat.
Dec. 2, 2009. Position: Tarawa, Kiribati. 01_ 23′ N 172_ 57′ E
This morning started out like many before it for Roitam Taakiro (captain/owner), Nanoaa Mareweata (crewmember and Roitam’s brother-in-law) and Ekeimua Biriboo (crewmember). The three men departed their island atoll at sunrise for another day of trolling 15 to 20 miles offshore. On a good day they would return to the lagoon in the early afternoon with 200 to 250 pounds of yellow fin, skip jack, and mahi mahi. Today though would prove not to be a good day. The time is now 1100 and Roitam has made the decision to head for home as the wind has picked up to 25 knots of south westerly, creating a steep 6′ swell.
As he accelerates turning his beam to the swell to begin the slow buck to windward home, the 40 horse outboard sputters and dies, leaving the small skiff abeam to the steep 6′ swell. For three hours the crew works to repair the outboard, but with limited tools and very few spare parts, they are not successful. Meanwhile the seas have continued to build and are now beginning to break over the heavily laden transom. The decision is made to scuttle the engine, which allows the stern to gain more freeboard thus preventing a broach, but also eliminating all hope of returning home, as they have no oars or sails to aid them.
Roitam now directs the crew to dump the gas out of the six gallon plastic gas tank; this will become their water tank. Half a dozen split coconut shells are used to bail out the skiff and the fishing gear is carefully stowed. All three men have been schooled by the London Missionary Society, and now they apply that education to help maintain hope. A prayer schedule is established at 0600, 1200, 1800 and 2400. This schedule is rigidly adhered to throughout their 87 day ordeal, regardless of the current sea condition.
Dec 18th 2009. Position: 01-30′ N 179-08′ E Days Adrift: 17
For the first seven days of the drift rain continued, allowing the men to maintain their water tank at 50% to 80% of capacity. Yet there has been no rain now for the last ten days and despite the men’s strict rationing of 6 ounces of water each, their water supply is now dangerously low; an unknown result of evaporation since the last rainfall. They have been able to catch one mahi mahi and two small skip jack and have trapped three booby birds on deck. The fish eye balls are eaten immediately for their moisture content and the flesh of the fish and the birds is dried in the sun to preserve it.
Today a large commercial vessel steamed to within one mile of their position. It is hard to imagine that the boat did not see the three desperately waving men in the yellow skiff, yet the unidentified vessel abruptly turned hard to starboard, abandoning the men to their fate and disregarding the most basic law of the sea.
Jan 1st 2010 Position: 01-40′ N 173-14′ W Days Adrift: 31 Waypoint of Eastern Drift, 850 Miles East
Yesterday was the first day of rain since Dec 8th and it was a torrential downpour allowing the men to fill their water tank. The men had previously reduced their water ration to only 4 ounces per day, barely keeping them alive. More fish and birds had been caught and dried in the sun over the last two weeks and today marks the end of their easterly drift, as the westerly wind has been replaced by a SE trade wind.
The men have today jury rigged a plywood floor board into a sail that has been wedged between a hull frame and the transom, allowing the skiff to sail backwards, and so take advantage of the light SE trade wind, (it had proven impossible to rig the sail forward).
Jan 14th 2010 Position: 03-33′ N 175-34′ W Days Adrift: 44
The men have been able to make headway to the NW with their jury rigged sail yet today the SE trade wind has picked up to 25, gusting 35 knots. The crew manages to collapse the plywood sail, thereby preventing a broach, but are now lying dangerously abeam 6′ to 7′ steep seas. What can be done?
Over the last 44 days the crew has salvaged floating debris from the ocean and now Roitam makes use of that gear. Three plastic gallon jugs had been salvaged and are now rigged into a sea anchor. This is done by filling the jugs with sea water, capping them, and lashing the three together. They then secure 80′ of rode to their handles; the bitter end of the rode is secured to the bow, and the jugs are eased off the windward side, as the skiff drifts downwind. Suddenly the line loads up yanking the skiff’s bow to windward allowing the small vessel to now drift downwind with its bow facing the steep seas. The sea anchor is a success!
Jan 21st 2010 Position: 04-00′ N 178-09′ W Days Adrift: 51
Yesterday the crew awoke to find a large green sea turtle drifting along their portside. Roitam grabbing both sides of the turtle’s shell quickly hoists him aboard where he lands on his back, all four flippers flapping frantically. The turtle is quickly cut from his shell while alive, his heart now exposed. The heart is slashed allowing the blood to pump into the now empty shell. The men pass the shell from one to another, each savoring the life sustaining fluid.
Later that same day three large sharks have appeared and continually slam into the topsides and bottom of the skiff, trying to capsize it. The men lay huddled together amidships in an attempt to stabilize the small skiff. Further there has been no rain since Dec 31st and water rations have again been cut to 4 ounces per man.
Note: Rain Log. Dec 2nd to Dec 8th rain. Dec 18th, day 17 mentions no rain for 10 days, Dec 8th to and including Dec 18th. Jan 1st, day 31, now reads “no rain since Dec 8th. (still 3 weeks). Jan 21, day 51 mentions no rain since Dec 31st, confirming the Jan 1st mention, (day 31) of “yesterday was the first day of rain since Dec 8th.
Today the sharks continue their deadly harassment, making fishing impossible. Finally that afternoon they depart to be replaced by a huge manta ray. The ray ghosts along behind the skiff on his 10′ wingspan. Suddenly the blue ocean surface is ripped open as a 600 lb blue marlin explodes from the deep mortally wounding a large skip jack tuna. The tuna is bleeding and flapping wildly on its side just off the port beam of the skiff.
Roitam seeing an opportunity to increase their food supply lunges out trying to grab the struggling fish. Just as he is about to grab the tuna the marlin again explodes from the water, this time from underneath the skiff. As the fish breaks the surface its back slams into the bottom of the skiff throwing the boat on its beam end and pinning the men against the starboard gunnels. A capsize is barely averted, further the marlin has disappeared with the prize skip jack.
Jan 24th 2010 Position: 04-13′ N 178-26′ W Days Adrift: 54 Waypoint of North Western Drift, 410 Miles NW.
Today the small vessel has reached the NE trades, allowing the men to make headway to the SW, back toward home! For the last three weeks rainfall has been minimal and the men have returned to four ounce rations of water each, barely keeping them alive.
Feb 20th 2010 Position: 00-30′ N 174-04′ E Days Adrift: 81
Back Through the Gilbert Islands, South of Tarawa. Mercifully on Feb 14th the men were pounded by a torrential downpour, allowing them to replenish their water supply. The NE trade wind has persisted, at times gusting 35 knots, and so again requiring the deployment of the sea anchor.
Sunrise today brings great excitement to the crew. Low lying clouds on the horizon have a greenish tint, signaling land and nesting sea birds are spotted out for the day foraging from their land base. Roitam rallies his nearly incoherent crew to split one of the large bamboo poles that had been salvaged earlier and fashion two crude paddles. With a man paddling on each side of the skiff, slowly they make progress toward the greenish clouds. For seven hours the weakened men work toward their goal, only to finally fall exhausted into the bilge, only three miles from their goal. Roitam, unable to make headway paddling alone, watches helplessly as the skiff drifts past the Kiribati island of Nanouti and back into the open sea.
Feb 23rd. 2010 Position: 00-37′ S 172-54′ E Days Adrift: 84
The men were awakened yesterday, the night of Feb 22nd to their old terror, sharks slamming into the topsides and bottom of the skiff, making sleep impossible. Today the sharks continue, again forcing the men to huddle together amidships to prevent a capsize.
The afternoon passes and the sharks have momentarily departed to be replaced by the sight of what Roitam believes to be a huge 900 pound marlin ripping apart the surface of the sea as he hunts his prey, fish that are seeking shelter under the drifting skiff. Suddenly the skiff is thrown on its beam ends as the marlins three foot sword is driven through the bottom of the skiff, barely missing one of the crew. The skiff is shaken violently from side to side and then the marlins sword slides out and the huge fish slips away.
The skiff is now sinking, the resulting hole in the bilge measures 1º inches long and 3/8 of an inch wide. Roitam quickly fashions a long tapered plug from one of the salvaged tuna seine corks, ties a piece of fishing line to the tapered end and jumps over the side. He passes the line through the hole to the waiting hands of Nanoaa, and as Nanoaa gently pulls the line upward, Roitam pushes the plug into the hole from below thus successfully plugging the hole.
Feb 25th 2010 Position: 00-41′ S 171-54′ E Days Adrift: 86
Today a large 10′ shark has appeared and begins slamming into the bottom of the skiff. If he were to dislodge the plug, all would be lost. Roitam decides he must kill the shark or be killed by the shark. He lashes his large barbed gaff hook to the end of one of the salvaged 6′ bamboo poles and then secures four corks to a short line on the other end. A 50′ painter line is now secured to the corks and then the bitter end is tied to the gunnels.
Night comes and he waits with the large gaff held three feet below the surface and the shaft pinned against the starboard side of the skiff, ready for the upward pull. Again the shark slams into the topside. As he does, Roitam pulls upward with all his might thrusting the barbed gaff deep into the chest of the shark.
Feb 26th 2010 Position: 00-45′ S 170-30′ E Days Adrift: 87 595 Miles of SW Drift. Total Drift: 1,855 Miles. Rescue Point.
Daylight comes to display the dead body of the shark. Still tethered by the painter line and unable to dive because of the corks, the 10′ shark had suffocated. Later that afternoon F/V American Victory, one of four American flagged tuna seiners owned by Tradition Mariner of Tampa Florida, sights the drifters. All are taken aboard and given first aid care, their ordeal is now over.
HOW THEY SURVIVED.
How is it that they survived 87 days adrift? Clearly their seamanship is without question and their resourcefulness unmatched. It is my belief though that the last 30 days were sustained by sheer will alone, a will that was generated through the unfailing leadership of Captain Roitam Taakiro. Post Log: For the past fifty years American flagged tuna vessels have been involved in numerous rescues such as the one reported here. Most often the rescue is not noted, and no credit afforded to the selfless efforts of the fishermen. For them it has just been another day of work at sea. Capt. Baker has established a fund to aid the men he helped rescue. The aim is to raise enough money so they can buy a replacement boat and motor and return to fishing to support their families. For more information, he can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org