Two Women Rescued at Sea After Five Months Face Criticism After Doubts Are Raised About Their Story

Jennifer Appel and Tasha Fuiava story of being lost at sea for fives months has been the target of criticism

Jennifer Appel and Tasha Fuiava, the two women who claim to have been lost at sea for five months after things went awry during their sailing trip to Tahiti, are now facing questions about the veracity of their story.

The two friends left their homes in Hawaii on May 3 for what was supposed to be about a month-long sailing trip to Tahiti in Appel’s sailing boat, the Sea Nymph, but they said they ran into trouble after a powerful storm flooded their engine, broke their mast and cut off their link to emergency services. But inconsistencies have cast doubt on their account of the five-month journey, which came to an end when they were rescued by the Navy last week.

USS Ashland arrives in Okinawa with Mariners
Jonathan Clay/U.S. Navy

They Had an Emergency Beacon They Could Have Used to Get Immediate Help

On Friday during a conference call, Appel did not disclose to PEOPLE and the AP that she was in possession of an EPIRB (Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacon) that could have been used to alert emergency services.

“We had two different Garmin GPSes. One failed, and the handheld is the one that we used for the majority of the trip,” Appel said, listing off the forms of communication and emergency supplies she brought with her. “We had two live springs, 20 flares, 10 of which we actually used trying to get attention from other vessels. We had onboard a brand new VHF, an SSB, an Icom SSB, ham radio, weather sat, and a radiotelephone.”

Yet, because their boat’s antennae failed, none of the devices worked, Appel said, implying they were left without any options to reach emergency services through technology.

“We had certain ways to communicate and multiple backups, and none of them actually functioned correctly,” she continued, adding she also had an Iridium satellite phone that “never seemed to connect.”

The US Coast Guard announced Monday that Appel did not use the EPIRB because she says she believed their lives were not in immediate danger, and did not want to distract from other hypothetical emergencies.

Hawaii Mariners Rescued - 25 Oct 2017

They Detailed a Powerful Storm That Was Not Recorded by Weather Agencies

The entire ordeal, they claimed, began when they hit a Force 11 storm just days after they set sail from Hawaii. A Force 11 storm can cause waves dozens of feet high due to powerful winds, and would typically be recorded by the NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration). When contacted by PEOPLE, the administration had no account of any Force 11 storm—or anything close to a storm that powerful—happening around Hawaii at the beginning of May.

Hawaii Mariners Rescued, XSE - 25 Oct 2017

Parts of Their Tiger Shark Attack Account Does Match With Typical Shark Behavior

One of the most thrilling parts of the women’s survival story was their detailed account of two separate attacks from groups of tiger sharks.

“I was absolutely astonished and down on my knees praying to a higher power that we would hold together,” Appel told PEOPLE, describing the way the tiger sharks rammed themselves into her boat in an attempt to knock them over. “I’ve never been so scared in my whole life… It was like an earthquake going off. There was a boom and then everything shakes, even the teeth in my head. There is nothing you can do at that point… they would make waves, and they would try to knock down the boat.”

In different descriptions, Appel described the sharks as being at least 50-feet long. Though she told PEOPLE they were 20- to 30-feet in length, tiger sharks only grow about 16-feet long on average.

According to George Burgess, director of the International Shark Attack File at the Florida Museum of Natural History at the University of Florida, an instance of sharks jumping out of the ocean to capsize a vessel has never been recorded by other sailors.

“Tiger sharks are solitary animals, though they are found in the open sea, they are usually found mostly near some land mass,” he says. “There has never been a documented case of the kind of behavior you’re seeing described, in a shark of any species. Without calling names to these survivors, I would say perhaps hallucinations had set in.”

Burgess does say that sharks will slam into the hull of a boat, especially one that has been adrift at sea, since a collection of small animals could have attached themselves to the ship, attracting other fish which the sharks will feast on.

Tasha Fuiava, Jennifer Appel
Koji Ueda/AP

The Women May Have Been in Contact With the Coast Guard Within a Month of Their Ordeal

The US Coast Guard told the AP they made contact with a vessel named the Sea Nymph in June when it was in the waters near Tahiti. A Coast Guard spokesperson said the captain told them they were not in distress and expected to make land the next day. According to Appel and Fuiava’s original story, their engine and mast were vastly damaged by then.

USS Ashland Arrives in Okinawa with Mariners
Sarah Villegas/U.S. Navy

An Area They Claim Was Uninhabited Is Home to Thousands of People

After their boat was allegedly adrift with no working engine, Appel said they reached the island nation of Kiribati, but turned away after they feared they would damage their boat further.

“One whole half of the island is called Shipwreck Beach for a reason, and it is uninhabited,” she told PEOPLE. “They only have habitation on the northwest corner, and their reef was too shallow for us to cross in order to get into the lagoon, and there are no protected waters on the outside of the lagoon.””

Yet, Christmas Island in Kiribati is home to more than 2,000 people and includes a port that can fit commercial ships, and the women could have used their 20 flares to alert residents and get help. There is also no “Shipwreck Beach” on the island, but an area on the northeast side of the island is called the Bay of Wrecks.

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