July 06, 2019

Hawaii: The Phantoms of Sarah Joe

By William Starr Moake

Sunday morning Hana Bay was as flat as a pond with a gentle southerly breeze under a clear sky. These were unusual weather conditions for the windward coast of Maui. Normally, the ocean churned with white water and gusty tradewinds produced cloudiness and frequent rain. It was the perfect day to go fishing offshore since the fish always hit best when the water was calm and the sun shining.

Each of the five men planned to work that day, even though it was a scheduled day off from their regular jobs. On weekends a lot of work got done in Hana -- car repairs, carpentry projects, helping a neighbour, digging a luau fire pit, feeding livestock, weeding the vegetable garden. It was a way to preserve the traditional homesteading lifestyle while working for wages.

Hasegawa General Store

When Ralph saw how calm Hana Bay was, he couldn't resist the temptation to go fishing. He had the use of a 17-foot Boston Whaler named the Sarah Joe and he contacted Peter, the son of the Hana Ranch manager, and their friend Benny. Ralph also called Pat and Scott, two long-haired haoles who played in the Hana softball league.

The five men met at Hasegawa General Store to buy gasoline, beer, bait, ice and snacks. Hasegawa's was a small country store that offered an amazing variety of goods. The owner was Harry Hasegawa, a short jovial man who called his customers by their first names. He laughed and politely declined when one of the men asked if he wanted to go fishing that morning. Since he wasn't a good swimmer, Hasegawa had a strong fear of drowning and he was in the habit of warning people never to go fishing alone.

Hana Bay

After they loaded the fishing gear and supplies, Ralph started the 85-horsepower outboard engine and pointed the Sarah Joe toward the mouth of Hana Bay. He turned right after passing a rocky islet and headed south toward a spot where he had enjoyed good fishing luck in the past. The main goal was catching ulua, giant jack cravelle that grew up to 300 pounds and was considered the holy grail of fishing by Hana anglers. Some of the catch might be sold to the two stores in town, but most would be eaten at home and given to friends.

Hasegawa was the last person to ever see the five men alive.

At age 23, Pat looked like a young street fighter: wiry muscular build, dirty blond hair, rugged face with high cheekbones and narrow eyes that gave him a mean expression. But his appearance was entirely deceiving. In his heart, Mike was Mr. Mellow. Pat lived in lower Nahiku was his brother, Mike, a handsome "surfer boy" all the girls were crazy about.

Pat cultivated a pungent form of marijuana called pakalolo or Mowie Wowie in secret rainforest spots. He smoked as much of it as he was able to and gave the rest to his brother and friends. At bush house parties, Pat was usually higher than anyone else. He would sit in a corner with a Buddha-like smile plastered on his face, sipping a beer and nodding silently when people spoke to him.

Lost crew of the Sarah Joe 

Pat was one of the few hippie newcomers who made a sincere effort to get along with the conservative locals. He helped form a softball team to play in the Hana league. It was called the Nahiku Gorillas, perhaps in reference to the long hair, full beards and bushy moustaches that most members wore.

A local Hana fireman who headed the softball league liked Pat's enthusiasm on the field. "He was an unbelievable softball player. He played with no shoes, no shirt and he was always diving and scraping after the ball. He played like he had a contract to fulfil. When you play ball with a bunch of guys and drink beer with them afterwards, you can't help but get to know them. Pretty soon we were all pretty close-knit."

Pat also learned to speak the pidgin dialect and worked shoulder to shoulder with locals on construction jobs in the area. One of his co-workers was Ralph, the native Hawaiian man several years older than him who skippered the Sarah Joe.

At one point Pat fell madly in love with a French girl named Gabrielle. She was traveling around the world and stopped in Hana to visit friends. Gabrielle was a small girl with short dark hair, bright eyes and a thick Parisian accent. She was a few years younger than Pat and they went around holding hands a sneaking kisses like shy teenagers. Eventually, she left for Guatemala to live in an Indian village before she resumed her world travels. She wrote letters to Pat, asking him to join her, but he couldn't bear to abandon the paradise he had found on Maui. He kept her letters and re-read them from time to time to remember the pretty French girl who stole his heart.

At 24 Scott was built like an athlete, tall and muscular with California beach boy good looks. In fact, he had been a high school football and track star in the San Fernando Valley near Los Angeles. He had grown up watching the TV series “Adventures In Paradise” and dreamed of living in Hawaii some day.

Scott was married for a while and had a young son back in California. After the divorce, he left the Mainland to go traveling. “When he got to Hana, he quit traveling,” his father recalled. “That was it. He came back to California once for his son’s birthday and he kept saying he missed softball in Hana. Both his mother and I were impressed at how much more loving and easy Scott was when he came back from Hana. He and I had had our differences in the past, but in recent years it had been really good. We’d gotten real close.”

When Scott's father visited Hana, he liked what he saw and understood why his son loved the place. “It’s old-time small town America at its best.”

The last time Scott saw his mother, he wanted to set her mind at ease before he returned to Hana. “Mom, I hope you understand I’m going home."

In Hana Scott had a cute surfer girlfriend named Judy who had once visited the highlands of Papua New Guinea. When she returned, all her clothes smelled like smoke from wood fires used to heat the native huts at night. He trusted Judy to go traveling by herself if she wanted to. "If you can't trust your old lady," he would say, "who the hell can you trust?"

Peter was one of the sons of the Hana Ranch manager and the only licensed plumber in town. He was an avid fisherman and wild pig hunter like most local men in the area.
Benny, another native Hawaiian, was a mason and tile layer who had five children ranging in age from six to sixteen.

Ralph's twin brother, Robert, owned the Sarah Joe. The boat was named after their mother, Sarah, and their father, Joe. Robert was happy to loan the vessel to his twin whenever Ralph wanted it. "We were very close," he said.

Aside from its main engine, the Sarah Joe had a 7.5-horsepower backup engine known as a kicker. The manufacturer advertised the Boston Whaler as unsinkable and ran TV commercials showing how pieces remained afloat after the boat had been sawed apart. Some experienced sailors believed this claim, but the U.S. Coast Guard did not.

The Alenuihaha channel between Maui and the Big Island was considered the roughest waters in Hawaii. It swirled adjacent to Mauna Loa, the largest mountain in the world if measured from its base on the sea floor. The channel was 17,000 feet deep and swept by strong surface currents moving to the southwest.

Weather in the channel was always dicey. Even on a calm day, storms could form with frightening speed. For small boaters, it was often a matter of trying to outrun a sudden storm to return safely to shore.

Less than two hours after the Sarah Joe left Hana the wind shifted to the north and picked up speed rapidly. By early afternoon a maelstrom had erupted over the Alenuihaha channel. Gale-force winds generated massive waves and the sky opened up, dumping a torrent of heavy rain on the area. It was worse than the storm a month earlier that had sunk the Holo Holo, an 80-foot steel hull research ship, with the loss of two crewmen. Some older Hana residents said it was the worst storm they had seen in 50 years.

Three other Hana boats ventured into the channel that day and made it back to port intact. The skipper of one of the vessels said “it was like a rushing river out there.”

The Sarah Joe was reported missing late in the afternoon. To begin the search, the U.S. Coast Guard dispatched a helicopter and diverted a C-130 fixed-wing aircraft from another mission. Visibility was very poor since the storm was still raging and nightfall was closing in.

Sunday night dozens of cars were parked at Hana bay, waiting for the first two search boats to return from an area to the south. On one boat was Peter’s father, who reported the weather in the channel was “the worst I’ve ever been in. The swells were so large, if we had been 50 yards from them, we wouldn’t have seen them. When it got dark, we couldn’t see ten feet.”

There were conflicting reports as to whether the Sarah Joe had radioed a distress call. One CB operator thought he received a message from the Sarah Joe claiming it was awash in huge seas without power, but this was later discounted as inaccurate along with a second reported message. No one knew for sure if the crew had ever used their CB radio to ask for help or report their position.

The search for the Sarah Joe was one of the largest sea searches in the history of Hawaii. The Coast Guard searched for five days. Forty-four planes covered 56,000 square miles and logged nearly 330 hours flying time. No trace of the Sarah Joe or its occupants was found and the Coast Guard called off the official search over the angry objections of relatives and friends of the missing men.

Some Hana residents contended the Coast Guard began the search too close to Maui and the Big Island when prevailing currents and strong northerly winds would have quickly pushed the Sarah Joe far to the southwest. They also questioned why the Coast Guard search peaked during two days of poor visibility and then tapered off after weather conditions cleared.

Peter's father admitted the Sarah Joe may have been ill-equipped to deal with such a massive storm. “But these were young strong healthy guys. They were experienced fisherman and good swimmers. They were capable and had each other to rely on. If someone had found debris, we would have agreed they didn’t live through the storm. But nothing was found - nothing. And so we felt there was still a chance they were afloat and alive.”

A private search continued for another week. The few friends who owned boats used them to keep looking. The families, other friends and even some strangers donated a total of $50,000 to hire commercial boats and private planes to join the extended search. Nothing was found except a life jacket that didn’t come from the Sarah Joe.

But hope died hard in Hana. It was a full year before family members, friends and other Hana residents held a memorial service for the five men who vanished so mysteriously it seemed like they had been swallowed by a black hole.

Southwest of Hawaii the Pacific is an empty expanse of ocean stretching for 2,300 miles. The first land in that direction is Taongi Atoll, a group of tiny islands encircling a 30-square-mile lagoon.
Part of the Republic of the Marshall Islands, the atoll was uninhabited for several reasons. The area was considered poor fishing grounds by the Marshallese. The islands were semi-arid due to minimal rainfall and had no surface fresh water. The atoll had once been subject to a religious taboo. In modern times the only residents were a handful of Japanese soldiers who were bombed out in 1944. A decade later the atoll was under consideration as a site for nuclear bomb testing.

The surrounding reef had only one break where a boat could enter the lagoon safely. Sibylla Island was one of the narrow strips of land at the edge of the lagoon. It was little more than a sand bar three miles long, a hundred yards at its widest point and a mere several feet above sea level. A handful of migratory birds were the only animals that occupied Sibylla from time to time. There were nine species of plants on the island-mangrove, scrub bushes and grasses, none of them palatable or nutritious for humans to eat. The climate was hot year-round, occasionally reaching as high as 98 degrees. Almost all of the scant rainfall occurred in the four-month period from July to November. The rest of the year was dry.

The nearest inhabited island was 200 miles away-a very long voyage for the small Marshallese boats that rarely if ever visited. It also lay far beyond commercial shipping lanes, making Sibylla Island one of the loneliest spots in the vast Pacific. This was no tropical paradise by any stretch of the imagination. It was much more like the desert islands made infamous in books about shipwrecked sailors who never returned home.

Nine years later it was a blazing hot September day when American marine biologist John Naughton went ashore on Sibylla Island with four other scientists looking for green sea turtles and nesting birds. They had been commissioned by the East-West Center and the government of the Marshall Islands to seek a site for a wildlife sanctuary.

The team was on land only a short time when they stumbled across something partially buried in the sand. It was the fibreglass hull of a battered boat that looked like a Boston Whaler. Naughton noticed the large letters “HA” imprinted on the wood. He knew the letters meant the boat was registered in Hawaii, but something else stirred in his memory when he saw parts of the letters "S-a-h" and "J "still legible on the hull.

By sheer coincidence, Naughton had been involved in the search for the Sarah Joe in Hawaii nearly a decade earlier. Astounded by his discovery, he led a search of the island. About a hundred yards from the boat wreckage the scientists found a crude wooden cross marking a shallow grave.
Naughton also found some meaningful flotsam on the ocean side of the island. Litter from Hawaii-pieces of styrofoam beer coolers, glass balls and other debris-had been washing ashore for a very long time. The island was directly downstream in the southwest current that had obviously carried the Sarah Joe from Hawaii.

Later the remains found on Sibylla Island were determined to be those of Scott, based on teeth X-rays and other dental records from California. The exact cause of Scott's death could not be ascertained from the recovered bones. No trace of the other four men was found in a thorough search of all the islands in Taongi Atoll.

A Honolulu private investigator hired by the families of the five men pieced together a probable scenario using weather data, information from interviews with officials of three governments and his personal search of Sybilla Island.

Before the Sarah Joe swung southwest, the storm carried it northwest “tantalizingly close” to the island of Kauai. At that point, some of the men may have tried to swim ashore and drowned in heavy seas. It took the boat two full months to drift to Taongi Atoll. Along the way, Scott was the last man to die from dehydration or starvation. If any of the other men died on the boat, their bodies must have been buried at sea to explain why no other remains were found on Taongi Atoll. Scott's body was the only one left aboard when the Sarah Joe crashed over the reef at Sybilla Island.

Some years later a crewman from a Taiwanese fishing boat found Scott’s remains on the island and buried them. He failed to notify Marshallese authorities in order to avoid trouble for his vessel, which was fishing illegally in Marshallese waters.

Memorial plaque at Hana Bay - "Hana remembers her sons" [The Maui News / KEHAULANI CERIZO photo]

In a sense, the five men aboard the Sarah Joe disappeared twice -- once when the original Hawaii search failed to find them and then later when they were all but forgotten except by a small number of family members and friends.

Modern physics has re-discovered the ancient mystical truth that time is a circle and straight lines don't exist in a curved universe. We simply go round and round like phantoms on a ghost ship desperately seeking the shelter of a safe harbour.

Perhaps Pat, Scott, Ralph, Peter and Benny are not really gone at all, just lost between two worlds like a crew on the legendary ship Flying Dutchman, sailing somewhere on invisible stormy seas, searching eternally for the long-lost home they will never find.

Modern physics has re-discovered the ancient mystical truth that time is a circle and straight lines don't exist in a curved universe. We simply go round and round like phantoms on a ghost ship desperately seeking the shelter of a safe harbour.


William Starr Moake is a former newspaper reporter and travel writer. Author of three published fiction books, two novels and a short story collection. Winner of first-place award from Society of Professional Journalists for magazine article published in 2004. Retired in Hawaii, where he has lived since 1972.

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