Sarah Jo Mystery: Disappearing in the Pacific

(ORDO NEWS) — The open sea is as mysterious as it is vast. Here, history is replete with those who disappeared or were swallowed up by this body of water, never to hear from it again, or went into its waters, never to return.

This vast realm of ocean waves holds secrets and mysteries that it holds close, its depths resisting our attempts to penetrate them.

In the annals of modern maritime mysteries, few have provoked as much thought and discussion as one modest boat of friends that set sail from the shores of Hawaii only to go to unknown places, disappear without a trace, and then reappear, bringing with it more questions than answers. .

On February 11, 1979, five friends working together on a construction site on the Hawaiian island of Maui were hard at work building a house on a sunny day.

One of them, 27-year-old Scott Morman, was brought to Hawaii as part of his lifelong dream of living there, which he finally realized after divorcing his wife in 1975, prompting him to finally do what he had always wanted to do and start life anew in the quaint town of Nahiku.

The other four men were tiler Benjamin Kalam, 38; plumber Peter Hunchett, 31; carpenter Patrick Wassner, 26; and Ralph Malayakini, 27, who worked in trucking. The weather was the best that day. The sky was blue and the surface of the nearby ocean was as calm as glass.

The weather was so good and the sea so inviting that the men, all experienced and avid fishermen, joked that they should take the day off and go fishing. The joke turned into reality when Ralph Malayakini suggested that they go to his twin brother’s house and borrow his boat to actually do it and go fishing.

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The crew of the Sarah Joe went missing on February 11, 1979

Five friends drove 7 miles to Hana Bay and borrowed a 17-foot Boston Whaler, Sarah Joe, from Ralph’s brother, who ended up needing new spark plugs for the 85-horsepower engine, but was otherwise in excellent seaworthy condition.

The group also loaded up snacks and drinks, as well as a huge fridge filled with ice for any fish they could catch. At this time, all friends laughed, had fun and looked forward to a wonderful day on the water.

At 10 am, the men went out into the bay under the blue sky and with calm water, a group of friends went on a great fishing trip. It was the last time anyone saw either of them alive and marked the beginning of one of the most enduring modern mysteries of the sea.

Although the weather was perfect when the group set sail, unfortunately no one bothered to check the weather forecast for the island.

This was fairly typical behavior in the area at the time, as there were no television stations on Hana and most of the radio forecasts were for the other, more populated part of the island anyway, and so many fishermen used to just go out to sea without checking, confident in their ability to determine the weather by eye.

In this case, it turned out to be a terrible mistake. That day, a low-pressure system made its way into the region, and by noon the wind abruptly changed direction and gained frightening speed, until gusts of storm force sent foam from the sea into the air, as well as heavy rains.

The storm became so strong and caused such severe flooding and destruction in the city of Hana that it was soon recognized as the strongest in the last 50 years.

Somewhere in this torrent of lashing rain and howling wind was the Sarah Jo yacht, and although some of the big fishing boats on the water made it back safely to shore, the raging waves, some of which reportedly reached 40 feet in height, were too ferocious for a 17-foot vessel, and the prognosis was unfavorable.

Within hours, concerned family members, including Peter’s father, John Hunchett Sr., and Ralph’s twin brother, Robert, began calling the Coast Guard to report the Sarah Jo missing.

Meanwhile, John, Robert, and some local men set out to look for the missing ship to survey the coastline. They were met by the most ferocious waves and terrible weather they had ever seen, and visibility was practically nil.

When they questioned the inhabitants of nearby houses, it turned out that no one had seen any traces of the missing ship or its crew.

The next day, the Coast Guard launched a search operation that quickly grew into a massive operation using nearly 50 aircraft, helicopters and boats that surveyed over 73,000 square miles of ocean over the next 5 days.

The search was hampered only by a vague idea of ​​where exactly the men were fishing, as well as by the known strong currents in the area of ​​​​the Alenuikhakha channel, which meant that each day reduced the chances of finding “Sarah Jo” as she moved further away.

In addition, the wind was strong and visibility was minimal. One Coast Guard searcher said the boat could have been 50 feet ahead of them and they wouldn’t have known it was there.

The Naval Ocean Systems Center in San Diego even took some homing pigeons specially trained to recognize the international orange or red color, the only ones of their kind, but those plans were thwarted when the plane carrying them to the area was forced to make an emergency landing due to bad weather and the birds were lost.

After 5 days of tireless searching for the missing ship, no trace was found and it was decided that the Sarah Jo had sunk in a storm.

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Even when official searches were cancelled, friends, family members and locals refused to give up.

Volunteers, as well as commercial aircraft and boats hired as part of the funding campaign, carefully searched the beaches, the remote waters of the south coast of Maui and the coast of Hamakua on the Big Island, but after a week of searching, no trace of the wreckage or sign of “Sarah Jo” could be found.

It seemed that the ocean simply swallowed the ship without a trace. One of the searchers who participated in this voluntary search explained what made everyone not give up in the face of these grim odds and ever-increasing hopelessness:

“They were young, strong, healthy guys. They were skilled fishermen and good swimmers. They were all capable and could rely on each other. If anyone found the wreckage, we’d agree they didn’t survive the storm, but nothing was found – nothing.”

In the end, finding no evidence of what happened to the missing Sarah Joe, everyone was forced to accept the fact that they were doomed to never find out what became of the ship, and to hold memorial services in memory of the missing men.

The families went on with their lives without any real information but forced to assume the worst.

As far as the whole world is concerned, the crew of the Sarah Jo has sailed into oblivion. And so it remained for the next decade, until an accidental discovery simultaneously shed light on the case and plunged it into an abyss of strangeness.

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Wreckage of Sarah Jo

On September 10, 1988, a National Marine Fisheries Service biologist named John Naughton, who incidentally had also taken part in the original search ten years earlier, was on a completely non-wildlife expedition 3,000 miles from the Marshall Islands when he made strange and chilling discovery.

While doing field work inspecting the nests of sea turtles and birds on a remote uninhabited piece of land in Taongi Atoll, he came across a weathered, battered old fiberglass boat lying gloomily on the sand.

Upon closer inspection, it turned out that it had the registration numbers of a Hawaiian vessel, which was strange, since this place was not far from the Hawaiian Islands.

Soon, after excavation of the sand, it became clear that these were the remains of the missing ship “Sarah Joe”.

It was, of course, an amazing find, but there were no other clues at the site of the boat, no bodies, no clothes, no records of any kind, and Naughton, along with his four colleagues who were with him at the time, decided to more thoroughly search terrain.

About 100 yards from the shipwreck, they found a simple makeshift wooden cross stuck into a shallow grave in the form of a church made of scattered flattened coral tiles, on top of which stuck out a terrible-looking human lower jaw bone.

When some of the coral was removed, several strange sheets of unmarked paper were found that appeared to have been lightly burned and interspersed with pieces of what appeared to be foil.

About this strange stack of papers, Naughton said: “It was a sheaf of paper, and I would say – a book, only it was not bound.

Probably three inches by three inches and maybe 3/4 inches thick. But between each of those sheets of paper was a very small square piece of foil. We have not been able to determine who placed it there or what purpose it serves.”

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In addition to these strange sheets of paper and foil, other human bones were visible in the church, but not wanting to disturb the ritual burial or desecrate the grave, the team decided not to dig further. When the jawbone was sent for examination, it was identified as that of one of the Sarah Joe’s crew, Scott Moorman.

The remains of the other four people on board were not found on the tiny island, nor was there any other evidence of what might have happened to them. To this day, it remains a mystery what happened to these people.

Later expeditions to the island, frantically looking for clues, discovered that the outboard engine of the Sarah Joe yacht was stuck in an underwater coral outcrop, and several more bones were found on the sandy bottom, which also turned out to be the bones of Scott Moorman.

The disappearance and subsequent discovery of “Sarah Jo” thousands of miles from the atoll raises many questions, the answers to which have not yet been found. One of them is how the Sarah Jo managed to survive a raging storm at all, and then sail all the way to the Marshall Islands.

Although experts agree that the boat could have landed here within 3 months, just 6 years before the boat was discovered, a thorough government survey of the island was carried out, which did not reveal any signs of a sunken boat or grave.

This means that the boat must have been floating in the ocean for at least more than four years before reaching the island, so where has it been all this time and why has no one seen any tracks?

In addition, the entrance to the lagoon where the boat was found is very narrow, and it seems unlikely that it could have simply drifted aimlessly there and gently landed on the sand without first being torn to pieces by rocks.

Questions remain about what happened to the other four men on the boat, whether they were alive when they got to the atoll, and who buried Scott Moorman’s body, why his jawbone was placed in the grave, and what is the significance of the mysterious sheets of paper.

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Although none of these questions have been satisfactorily answered, one of the most popular theories is that a Chinese fishing boat found the boat drifting at sea along with the body of Murman, who may have tied himself to the vessel to avoid being thrown out during a storm.

The fishermen then may have steered the boat into the lagoon and then, out of respect, buried the body they found.

Supporting this theory is the fact that the mysterious papers and foils are reminiscent of a Chinese funeral rite in which papers, as well as gold and silver foil, are given to the dead as currency and a source of good luck in the next life.

As to why the find was not officially reported, it is believed that this may be due to the fact that the Chinese vessel was engaged in illegal fishing in these waters and therefore chose to remain silent.

This theory still does not answer the question of what happened to the other four people, how they managed to survive the storm, where the boat was all the years before it was found, and whether Morman was alive or dead when he arrived here.

Since no traces of the other four crew members have been found, it is likely that we will never know for sure.

The Sarah Jo mystery was much discussed in later years, and was even featured on an episode of the TV show Unsolved Mysteries in 1989, in hopes of drawing attention to the case and possibly getting new versions. No new information was obtained, and the case remained largely as mysterious as it had always been.

In subsequent years, a plaque was erected on Taongi Atoll, as well as another in Hahn, Hawaii. They remain evidence of one of the most mysterious unsolved marine disappearances in history.

What happened to this boat full of friends who just went fishing and then sailed away to become one of the most mysterious cases of the cold ocean?

There’s a good chance we’ll never know for sure, their fate lost to the ebb and flow and the relentless hungry beast that is the sea itself.


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