Their ocean saga started from the largest coral atoll in the world and ended at the world’s smallest.
Kwajalein fishermen Godfrey Capelle, Benjamin Thomas and Junior Joram called for help on the phone when their outboard engine died midway through their fishing trip on April 2. The rough ocean condition that day made it difficult for the initial search to spot the fishermen, who briefly saw the sea patrol boat in the distance before land and the rescue vessel slowly were lost to sight.
The trio was pronounced missing and not heard from for 42 days until news resurfaced on high-frequency radio 1600km (over 1,000 miles) west of RMI in Chuuk State on Namoluk, the smallest atoll in the world.
The Journal interviewed the two survivors of the 42-day drift last Friday, the day they were released from a Covid-19 prevention 14-day quarantine at the US Army Garrison, Kwajalein Atoll to return home to Ebeye.
Nineteen days into the journey, Junior Jarom jumped overboard in an attempt to grab an oar, according to Godfrey and Benjamin.
Junior was sitting on the front end of the boat at the time. The ocean was rough and somehow the paddle was thrown overboard.
“He jumped into the water even before we could’ve stopped him,” Godfrey said in an exclusive interview with the Journal at the US Army Garrison, Kwajalein Atoll base.
Godfrey gave Benjamin a life jacket and a small floating device tied to the boat to fetch Junior.
After a hard swim, Benjamin reached Junior and handed over the life jacket and said Junior was hesitant to swim back to the boat. “Somehow he refused to swim back,” Benjamin said. “He had the paddle in hand and I gave him the life jacket and had to swim back because the line broke and I had only the small floating device,” he said.
Meanwhile, Godfrey tied another life jacket to a line on the boat and threw it in the water for Benjamin.
The last person to see Junior was Benjamin.
Unlike other drifter incidents, the Ebeye fishermen had fishing equipment intact when they found land on Namoluk Atoll. From the beginning of the trip, there were two coolers onboard used for drinking and water storage, a tarp used to catch water, as a sail and for shade, and additional tools that were used to make other tools like the oar that was transformed into a weapon with spike-like arrow mounted on a point used to drag in fish and sharks.
The Apollo 13 space flight was meant to be the third mission to the moon but aborted two days into the mission after an oxygen tank broke down in the service module.
Both the Ebeye fishermen’s drift and Apollo 13 incidents took place on April. Both experienced mechanical issues that prompted survival mode.
Unlike the Apollo 13 crew who had a think tank of rocket scientists back on Earth configuring a solution using items available on the shuttle, Godfrey and Benjamin had themselves and whatever equipment on their small boat.
Apollo crew were able to create a makeshift oxygen system with help from scientists on Earth. Godfrey on the other hand, used skills he learned from Likiep and growing up: he made a sail from the tarp, fishing line and wood he ripped from the boat exterior to hold the sail together.
Godfrey said he sailed towards Pohnpei but the wind changed.
After seeing Chuuk, Godfrey put up the sail again, this time he made it to shore on a nearby island where the two rested, ate coconut and drank coconuts. Next day, they sailed towards Namoluk, the island with the lights.
The two came ashore by what turned out to be a policeman’s house and were taken to the acting mayor of the island. The acting mayor made the call on the HF radio.
According to Godfrey, five fishing vessels saw them floating before sailing away. “One came literally several meters from us, its crew looked at us and left,” Godfrey recalls.
Godfrey and Benjamin admired the royal treatment shown by Namoluk islanders. They were fed well and treated with utmost respect, a level of respect Godfrey says he doesn’t see here at home. Then in Weno, the main island of Chuuk, the two were treated like VIPs, eating out at restaurants and going back to their room filled with goodies provided by locals while they were on the road.
They didn’t even realize their driver was a high official until the time we were getting ready to depart Chuuk, they said.
“We made friends with the Chuukese people,” they said. “We wish our culture and the way people respect each other was like theirs.”