Two Ebeye men who washed up in the Federated States of Micronesia after six weeks adrift on a powerless boat have made it back to Kwajalein Atoll.
Stepping off Air Marshall Islands’ Dash 8 airliner May 28 on Kwajalein, Godfrey Capelle and Benjamin Thomas became the first people to re-enter the RMI since the imposition of a COVID-19-related RMI.
For nearly 1.5 months, the men’s boat drifted 1,000 miles (880 nautical miles) on a west-southwest heading, passing tantalizingly close to Pohnpei, before luckily washing up May 14 on the remote Namoluk Atoll, 130 miles southeast of Chuuk. Two weeks later, following the RMI government’s decision to repatriate the men, FSM authorities transported Capelle and Thomas to Pohnpei via a patrol vessel, after which the Air Marshall Islands flight brought them to Kwajalein May 28.
But after coming so far, they cannot go home quite yet. Because the two men washed up in the FSM, one of the few nations along with the RMI to remain free of the coronavirus, Marshall Islands officials allowed the men back into the country, provided they undergo testing for the virus before and after travel from Pohnpei, FSM and also endure a strict 14-day quarantine on Kwajalein. Only after they complete their quarantine can they return to their homes and families on Ebeye.
The risk the fishermen contracted COVID-19 had been low, the RMI Office of the President affirmed in a May 28 statement. But the repatriation of Capelle and Thomas, along with five other RMI citizens who were permitted to take advantage of the AMI flight from the FSM, has provided the Marshall Islands government a rare cohort of people needed to test the quarantine protocols and facilities established on Majuro and Kwajalein. For the time being, these re-entries will be limited exceptions to the ongoing re-entry ban, which was extended on June 5 for another 30 days. The quarantine facilities and the medical and support staff operating them will be essential in prohibiting the transmission of the virus into the atolls of Kwajalein and Majuro and beyond.
Following a protocol developed by USAG-KA and contractor leadership, on May 28 medical staff in full protective gear greeted Capelle, Thomas and fellow Ebeye resident Connielynn Paul, who had also been stranded in Pohnpei. After taking the travelers’ temperatures, the hospital personnel gathered mucus samples for COVID-19 analysis at the hospital’s laboratory, all results of which came back negative. The visitors then began their 14-day isolation period in empty homes set aside as quarantine facilities on Kwajalein.
The threat of contracting the coronavirus has been the least of the men’s worries, however. Having survived nearly 1.5 months in the open Pacific Ocean in a small, powerless skiff, Capelle and Thomas have certainly put the worst behind them. They can endure another two weeks together, on dry land a stone’s throw from their homes and families.
Capelle took a few minutes Thursday to tell a bit of the harrowing story.
It was a routine fishing trip April 2. Capelle, Thomas and a third man on the boat, Junior Joram, who did not survive the ordeal, had punched through SAR Pass and were working their fishing lines when the carburetor in Capelle’s 40-horsepower outboard motor jammed, he said. It was about 3 or 4 p.m., and they were already three miles off the west reef between Kwajalein and Eneobuj. The motor would not restart.
Capelle called for help via his radio at about 5:30 p.m., and within an hour a pair of RMI search and rescue vessels set out to retrieve the men and the 20-foot boat, RMI authorities stated. But by early evening, ushered west by winds gusting between 25 and 35 mph, the men were quickly losing sight of Eneobuj and Kwajalein. When the rescue group on the search vessels finally spotted Capelle’s boat shortly before sundown, the small skiff was already six miles outside SAR Pass, Giff Johnson of the Marshall Islands Journal had reported in April.
But “I saw the federal boat come close to me,” Capelle said Thursday. “But they never see my light.” The rescuers had actually decided against pursuing the fishermen in the rough seas at night, hoping to resume a wider search the next day in safer conditions. By the next morning, well outside of working range of Capelle’s very high frequency radio, the fishermen were firmly on their way to nowhere in particular.
In the coming days, a crew aboard one of the garrison’s Fairchild Metroliners initiated a search effort west and southwest of Kwajalein. And, per request from the RMI Embassy in Washington, D.C., a U.S. Coast Guard search and rescue team flew out a C-130 from Hawaii to aid in the search effort. But all attempts to locate the blue-and-white-painted 20-foot skiff, and the three Ebeye residents aboard, turned up nothing.
“What I do is just pray,” Capelle said. For weeks, the men held on as aggressive trade winds kicked the boat through 10-foot seas broiling atop five miles of endless blue water. “Sometimes I was scared,” Capelle said. “Sometimes big waves. Big waves. Rain.”
The men still had their fishing gear and were able to catch fish attracted to the boat—the only landmark on the surface for hundreds of miles. They took advantage of seabirds landing on the boat, as well, lunging at them and trapping them with their hands. A quick whack with an oar usually did the trick too, Capelle said. Preparing the birds was unappealing, but they did their best to dry the meat out using the sun’s heat. “After maybe three hours, eat,” he said.
Long days and long nights lied ahead. Passover went by. Then Good Friday and then Easter. “Oh yeah, we pray. Prayed a lot. Every day,” Capelle said, adding that it was his faith in God and his love for his family that kept him going. He also knew if they waited long enough, the trade winds were bound to push them into one of the islands or atolls peppering the ocean surface throughout Micronesia. “I know there is an island,” he said he told himself, Thomas and Joram. “I know plenty island to the southwest.”
On April 19, 2.5 weeks into the odyssey, tragedy struck. It was at about 1 p.m. when a large wave knocked one of the boat paddles into the water, or caused it to fall out of one of the men’s hands, Capelle said. Joram knew it was dangerous to get in the water and leave the boat, but he also knew how important that oar might be to them if they sighted land. “I tell him already if something drops, do not jump into the water,” Capelle said. Joram went after it anyway. He made it to the paddle, “and so he tried to swim the paddle back but can’t. There’s too much waves, wind. We tried to help him, but cannot.”
As the boat drifted away, so did Joram’s chance of surviving. He would never make it back to the boat. “I do not know what happened to him,” Capelle said.
Four days later, around April 23, Capelle and Thomas spotted Pohnpei. The mountainous island was heartbreakingly close—about the distance Ebeye is from Carlos, said Capelle. But the trade winds had nudged his boat just south of its fringing reef, and there was no chance the men could fight the wind and close the distance with only paddle. “I saw Pohnpei. I tried to go to it, but the wind coming northeast, so I cannot.”
Another 2.5 weeks of survival at the mercy of the Pacific lied ahead for Capelle and Thomas. The two men sustained themselves on whatever fish, birds and rainwater they could collect. Their friend was gone, and they prayed day in and day out. At night, they looked up at the glittering arms of the Milky Way as the ocean’s black rollers slid them farther from home and hoped to make it off the boat alive.
And then, one day, they did.
On May 12, Capelle and Thomas spotted a couple of low-lying islands in their path. And as if answering their prayers, the wind blew the boat right into the reef’s embrace at about 5 p.m. It was Namoluk Atoll, a pint-sized atoll measuring only three miles long at its widest point and located 130 miles southeast of Chuuk. Only five islands comprise the atoll, and Capelle and Thomas had landed on the reef next to one of the smallest, likely Lukan, on the atoll’s northern periphery.
Asked how he felt Thursday when setting foot on the beach, Capelle was reserved. “I just thanked God and pray,” Capelle said. “I was happy.”
That night on the small island he noticed lights on the larger island, Namoluk, to the west just about a mile away. “I saw the light on the Namoluk. So I said, ‘Oh there’s people there. Tomorrow we go there.’” After sleeping on solid ground for the first time in six weeks, Capelle and Thomas got up and paddled all the way to Namoluk Island, meeting the villagers who would take them in and radio authorities in Chuuk for help.
Capelle and Thomas spent the next two weeks in Chuuk. While the governments of the FSM and RMI figured out how to possibly repatriate the fishermen under the ongoing COVID-19-related travel restrictions and re-entry bans, the men had time to reflect on how fortunate they were to wash up on Namoluk. Had they missed the little atoll, the next possible body of land on Capelle’s and Thomas’ heading—barring currents—would have been a northern province of Indonesia: an additional 1,700 miles of travel and approximately another nine weeks of survival in Capelle’s small boat.
At the time of the publication of this story, Capelle and Thomas are on day nine of their quarantine on Kwajalein. Capelle said he’s pleased with the quality of care he’s receiving from the medical and support staff tasked with monitoring his health and delivering hot meals and other supplies to the men three times per day.
But 62 days after setting out on that ill-fated fishing trip, he can’t wait to get home to Ebeye to see the people he cares about the most.
“I want to see my family and my friends,” he said.
After that? Well, Capelle’s got to provide, he said: “Back to fishing. I will look for another boat.”