Many critics have cast doubt on Jennifer Appel and Tasha Fuiava’s story of being lost at sea for five months and encountering sharks during an ill-fated sailing trip to Tahiti. But the women are standing by their account of the “absolutely terrifying” ordeal.
Appel and Fuiava set off from their Hawaii homes on a 2,700-mile journey on May 3, but ran into trouble when a powerful storm rendered their boat nearly useless, according to the women. Alongside the technical problems, they said they endured two separate tiger shark encounters — a claim that has prompted many to ask why the women didn’t use their emergency distress beacon to call for help.
“The sharks were six inches away,” Appel said during a Wednesday interview with Matt Lauer on the Today show. “Using [the signal] means that, in the location that we were, it’s probably four hours to a day that the coast guard would have found us in a fly-over.”
She added: “So, we took our chances with the man upstairs who gave us grace and allowed us to still be here today.”
Appel described the sharks circling their boat as “absolutely terrifying,” noting that the women “were too ignorant to realize what was going on.”
“The sharks had been telling us, ‘You’re in our living room and you’re not leaving fast enough,’ ” she continued. “And we didn’t realize that was what we were being told until too late.”
The two friends, along with their dogs, Valentine and Zeus, were rescued by the Navy in October after five months at sea in what was supposed to be a month-long journey to Tahiti.
The women said they hit a Force 11 storm just days after setting off in their sailing boat, Sea Nymph. However, when contacted by PEOPLE, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration had no record of any Force 11 storm happening around Hawaii at the beginning of May.
“I’m actually a heavy sleeper,” Fuiava said before referring to the storm. “I knocked out, like, dead. It didn’t phase me.”
Appel added that although she is used to sailing in troubled waters, she never expected such a storm to hit.
“I said, ‘Tasha, if I make a mistake doing this, we’re going to die tonight.’ And she said, ‘Oh I trust you. Go ahead and have fun.’ “
Despite their ordeal, they said they plan to set sail again.
“We still never got to see the 20,000 islands, so I think that would be the most fantastic trip for May of next spring,” Appel said during a news conference at a U.S. Navy base in Japan. She announced plans to build an “unsinkable and unbreakable boat” for the new voyage.