Three men and a teenage boy from Kiribati are thanking their luck that in today’s commercial fishery, many purse seiners employ helicopters to spot schools of tuna. Last week, a helicopter pilot from the vessel Kwila 888 made the astounding discovery not of a school of fish, but instead of two small boats floating within a few miles of each other, leading to a rescue of the four from Kiribati.
The four people in the two boats drifted separately, one for a month, the other for 11 days, and knew nothing of each other until the Kwila 888 picked them up.
Fishing Master and Captain Yuan Tsai Chen reported that the fishing vessel’s helicopter was searching for fish when it spotted two speed boats drifting about 25 miles away from Kwila 888, a Papua New Guinea-registered purse seiners. The two boats were about five miles apart. Chen ordered a rescued mission that took place in a southwest area of RMI waters.
Arawatau Miito, 57, Toatu Tiwai, 40, and Tenanora Taiki, 22, drifted for at least 28 days in a 15-foot wood boat. Meanwhile, 14-year-old Bwanikatang Tebuanna drifted for about 11 days in a 15-foot fiberglass type boat after an incoming tide washed his boat away from Tarawa.
After so many days without food and water, the Kwila 888 crew started the four on warm water, milk, and rice gruel before they started eating regular food again. The fishing vessel, which was in the middle of a fishing trip, headed immediately to port Majuro after loading the men onboard and arrived Saturday morning. The four I-Kiribati nationals were taken to the hospital for health checkups while Immigration officials worked with them. Miito was admitted overnight for severe dehydration. He said it was due to having nothing but salt water to drink during the drift.
Chen told the Journal he was happy to help out despite the rescue interrupting his purse seiner’s fishing trip by coming to Majuro with only a half load of fish. This is Chen’s third rescue of I-Kiribati. The previous two rescues were about six years ago on different fishing vessels. The first involved three people who were lost at sea for one month, and the latter was two people who drifted for about 20 days.
Miito was released by the hospital on Sunday and he joined the other three in the care of the local Kiribati Community President Karotu Tiba at his home in Mieco. Miito, Tiwai, and Taiki all make a living from fishing. They departed Betio, located in the south of Tarawa Atoll, on a fishing trip on the morning of January 18. A while later, the engine broke down but the repair tools had been left on land. They started drifting while trying to fix the engine with nothing but their hands. It was night time the first day when the engine started running again. They motored back, aiming at lights on land, but ran out of fuel. Fishing gear was used to catch tuna and shark for food. They drank fish blood, along with salt water, and rain that sometimes they licked from off the boat’s surface.
Tiwai is a husband and father of two. Miito is also a husband and father of six boys and one girl, all of whom are in school. It was Miito’s second time drifting and he didn’t think he would be rescued but he tried to stay calm.
Miito said he’s been to Majuro a couple of times in the past having worked on a fishing vessel from Kiribati called the Arintetong. After that he stayed home looking after his land where he gets income as a landlord. He saved up $10,000 and built his boat and bought a 40hp outboard motor three years ago.
Meanwhile, the little guy Tebuanna, was an unwitting victim. He was playing afternoon volleyball in his hometown in north Tarawa on February 5 when his uncle, a Catholic group chairman, called him to bring in the church boat because the tide was rising. The boat was anchored at the end of the reef during low tide to prevent damaging the bottom. Tebuanna used the tide to help him pull the boat. On his direct path to shore there was a sand berm, so he went around it trying to beat the tide but then he fell into a deep area and the tide pulled him away from shore so he jumped on the boat. And because he was tired he lay down and fell asleep. When he woke up he didn’t see land. There was an engine, fuel tank, and paddle. He tried the engine but didn’t not know how to start it. So he kicked it. There’s no use to paddling against a strong tide. He had no food or water for the 11 days he drifted, only drinking salt water and bathing every now and then.
Tebuanna is the fourth of five siblings in his family. He’s in form two (middle school) at the Junior Secondary School and is happy to return. His school started the day after he began his drifting journey.
Tiba and his wife Perma who oversee hospitality for the four men said arrangements with Kiribati Foreign Affairs are expecting to have the group return Sunday.
Read more about this in the February 24, 2017 edition of the Marshall Islands Journal.