Arno boat calamity averted

The 22-foot fiberglass boat Baby-D before the New Year’s Eve accident going into Arno.

GIFF JOHNSON

As darkness descended on the Marshall Islands last Friday, the Majuro block party kicked into gear, people arriving, bands playing, food being bought and eaten. As the New Year’s Eve party got going, in the northwest corner of Arno Atoll, a 22-foot motorboat was making its way into a pass in the coral reef, ultimate destination: Bikarej, a challenging and isolated island to access.

The weather on the ride over from Majuro in the boat laden with New Year’s food and gifts and five passengers last Friday night had been smooth and uneventful with little wind, especially for this time of year when ocean conditions in the Majuro-Arno area can be rough. Moreover, the sturdy fiberglass boat was under the command of a captain who’d been running boats most of his life and particularly to this part of Arno where his family lives.

The boat, the Baby-D, had been loaded with coolers full of meat and loads of candies for a big surprise celebration on Bikarej for the New Year. The small group on board was in a vacation mode heading to Arno for an end-of the-year surprise party. Their holiday mood flipped to survival mode without a moment’s warning when suddenly a wave slammed into the fiberglass boat, flipping it over and dumping all five passengers into the ocean, most of them several feet underwater below the capsized boat.

Two of the passengers were young boys, brothers three and 11 years of age. Also on board was deck hand Mighty Karen. The boat was captained by the boys father, Billson Johnson. The mother, Tonita Andrike, was holding her three-year-old boy Wanne Edni in her arms when the boat capsized. She immediately tried to get him to the surface when a second wave hit them, knocking him loose from her grip.

Floating in the pitch-black darkness of the Arno reef, it was impossible to see anyone, though they had a marine flashlight that was in use for navigating the treacherous reef passage when the waves truck.

Three-year-old Wanne and 11-year-old Tony were underwater somewhere, but then miraculously — or so it would seem — they popped up out of the water, alive. The “popped up out of the water” part is due to Tonita making sure both were outfitted with lifejackets for the trip to Arno. Without the life-preservers, the story might not have had such a happy ending.

Tony held his younger brother as they began making their way to the shore. Tonita said her son, Tony, gave her strength because he didn’t panic and helped to take care of his younger brother while they were floating in the water.

The three adults, meanwhile, had all surfaced. Finally, they made it to the small island close to where the boat had come a cropper. In fact, it wasn’t much of an island: just a few coconut trees on it, a tiny dot in the vast atoll — but it was dry land. As the group struggled out of the water and onto land after the ordeal, Tonita felt a bulge in her pocket. She remembered then that it was her waterproof cell phone she carried on trips to Arno — and it was still working. She called her parents in law on Bikarej to alert them to their situation, a call that set the wheels in motion for a team of Arno people to come out searching for the three adults and two children. The phone went dead after that call. But because they had a flashlight, they were easy to spot by the rescue party from Bikarej that appeared not too much after the call.

The elements of this story keep circling back to a very prepared crew and boat: They had lifejackets and the kids were wearing them; they had a flashlight; they had a waterproof cell phone. The boat had a radio, but it was rendered useless when the vessel flipped over. The cell phone was backup that worked. On top of the ocean safety gear on the boat, Tonita’s husband, Billson Johnson, was a capable captain with much experience. He had taken survival courses at CMI’s Arrak campus and he has been sailing ever since he was young with his father Wanne Johnson, Sr. 

The Baby-D was a regular supply vessel, often running multiple trips to and from Arno in a day. It carried lobsters, fish and other local foods for Misco Market and other Majuro business, and regularly transported people of Arno. The morning of the fateful evening trip, the boat made one trip to Ulien Island in Arno.

Tonita’s mother, long-time Majuro hospital staff member Hellen Nini Jetnil, thanked “the Arno Radio Club for sending out the distress call all around Arno, the Bikarej Full Gospel Church for their donations after the incident, and the Bikarej Local Government boat for helping us with the towing of the boat the same night.”

Jetnil also thanked Minister Jiba Kabua, who represents Arno in Nitijela, for dispatching his boat, Lemwio, to bring the five back from Bikarej.

Because of communication difficulties between Majuro and Arno, Jetnil didn’t learn of the boat drama until the following morning when a report came through that, despite the capsizing of the boat, all five were well.

The boat sustained hull damage from being hammered on the reef after the capsizing. Billson was in Arno this week working to repair the hull so it can be returned to Majuro.

“The main thing is they all survived,” said Jetnil. “It is something for us to learn from. Every time they go on the boat, I tell them to use the lifejackets and make sure the flashlight is on the boat.” She added that local boats in the RMI need to make sure they have the right safety gear on board: “All boats here need to get lifejackets, a waterproof phone, a flashlight.”

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