Two American women rescued after five months at sea

With a broken mast rigging, a disabled engine and with distress calls out of range, two American women have been rescued after being at sea for five months, the U.S. Navy and the lucky mariners said Thursday.

Jennifer Appel, 48, and her friend Tasha Fuiava were found by a Taiwanese fishing vessel around 900 miles southeast of Japan, and a U.S. Navy ship based out of Sasebo, Japan, rescued them on Wednesday morning Japan time, the Navy said.

"It was incredibly emotional, and it was so satisfying to know the men and women that serve our country would come and assist us — it was actually quite mind blowing and incredibly humbling," Appel said in a conference call from aboard the USS Ashland after their rescue.

The women set off from Oahu bound for Tahiti on May 3, but problems arose. First, a piece of the mast called a spreader failed, Appel said, limiting the sailboat’s maneuverability, and on May 30 a storm flooded the engine. Communications were also impacted.

Appel and Fuiava described a sense of despair at times after making daily distress calls for 98 days straight, but the calls were out of range. They spotted other ships that did not or could not respond, and fired at least 10 flares. Twice the ship was attacked by Tiger sharks, they said.

"It was very depressing and it was very hopeless but it’s the only thing you can do, so you do what you can with what you have,” Appel said. "You have no other choice."

On the 99th day of distress calls, a Taiwanese fishing vessel found them, they said. It began towing the sailboat but by that time Appel said the ship was in such poor condition she estimates it wouldn’t have lasted another 24 hours.

The Taiwanese ship's crew contacted the Coast Guard in Guam and the USS Ashland, an amphibious dock landing ship, sped toward the area and reached the sailboat at around 10:30 a.m. Wednesday Japan local time (9:30 p.m. Tuesday ET), the Navy said.

Video released by the Navy showed Appel blowing kisses to an approaching U.S. vessel as the two dogs, Zeus and Valentine, barked and scampered about.

They had water purifiers and a year's worth of food aboard — mostly dry goods like oatmeal, pasta and rice — and used those supplies to survive, the Navy said. Sailing experts in Honolulu had advised that for the trip to Tahiti they should pack the boat with as much food as possible in case of emergency, Appel said. The rescued women also said the dogs were an immense source of comfort during the ordeal.

Appel and Fuiava were taken aboard the USS Ashland and will remain until the ship’s next port of call, the Navy said.

The sailboat the pair was on lost its engine during a storm on May 30, and they believed they could make it to land by sail, according to the Navy. But by two months after leaving Hawaii, they began making distress calls every day, but were out of range for any stations or ships, the Navy said.

When they were found they were far off course — closer to Japan while Tahiti is around 2,500 miles south of Hawaii. The sailboat was found more than 5,000 miles away from Tahiti.

Jennifer Appel’s mother, Marie Appel, said in a phone interview Thursday that she doesn’t know when she will be reunited with her daughter, who is from Texas and has been living in Hawaii for around eight years.

"Jennifer's a very strong-willed person, and very curious, and very creative, so consequently when things would break she would try to fix them," Marie Appel said. "And so I was sure that if it was any possibility, she would pull it out, she would make it."

The elder Appel said with a laugh that she would advise her daughter that "four wheels on the solid ground is preferable to sailing," but doesn’t think the experience will land lock Jennifer.

"She loved the water, she loved going to Galveston, she’s always enjoyed the water," Marie Appel said. "So I doubt that she’ll stop, I doubt that she’ll stop sailing."

Jennifer Appel said the experience has not tempered her love of sailing. The sailboat is currently adrift, and the pair hopes that it is found by another ship and can be repaired.

"Well, you gotta die sometime," Appel said. "You may as well be doing something you enjoy when you’re doing it." 

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