A survival story for the season

By Bruce Stambaugh

The story didn’t get much play in the mainstream media of the United States. But I found it incredibly noteworthy if not uplifting, especially during this Advent season.

If you missed it, here’s what happened.

Sometime in late September, three teenage boys slipped into a 12-foot boat and headed to one small Pacific island from another. Unfortunately, their outboard motor ran out of fuel before they could reach their destination, the atoll island of Tokelau.

If you have never heard of it, don’t feel bad. I hadn’t either. Curious though, I looked it up. It’s part of an archipelago many miles northwest of Samoa.

Samoa I had heard of. As a child, I perused the many shiny black and white photographs that my late father had taken when he had visited Samoa and surrounding islands during his stint on the U.S.S. San Diego during World War II. The water buffalo and the thatched roof huts of the Polynesian island natives fascinated me.

Maybe it was that bit of sentimentality that drew me to the story initially. Once I read the first few sentences, however, I had to know the full story.

With no oars and no fuel, the boys and their tiny boat drifted far away from any land. Soon they were deep in the expansive Pacific, adrift with only a handful of coconuts they had thrown into the “tinnie,” the colloquial tag for their vessel.

The blazing sun beat down on them, and they parceled out the coconuts, the only food they had. The boys floated aimlessly for days, parched without vital drinking water.

Day after day they sat helpless in the tropical sun searching the horizon for signs of land or other boats. A series of fierce storms cropped up at night, nearly capsizing the boat. The boys hit the boat’s bottom and clung to the sides to steady their small vessel.

The storms provided an upside, however. The boys lapped at puddles of the fresh rainwater left by the downpours. Once, at night, a ship passed close to them, but because they had no light of their own, the boys could only watched in despair as the big ship glided by.

Once the coconuts were gone, their only food came in the form of small, flying fish that happened to jump into their boat. Another time, a bird landed on their boat and one of the boys managed to grab it. They devoured it raw.

Again desperate for water, the boys began drinking small amounts of seawater. Near the end of November and some 50 days after they had left their little atoll, a deep sea fishing boat approached them. This time it was during the day, and they and their little boat were rescued 800 miles from where they had originally launched.

The boys spent a few days in the hospital to regain nourishment and strength, but it would be more than two weeks until a boat would take them back to their small country of 1,500 residents.

Fascinated by this amazing story, I typed in Tokelau into Google Earth. I wanted to get a visual on their tropical homeland in the middle of the Pacific.

Sure enough, the program took me right to it. I zoomed in to see the series of small islands, all formed from volcanoes. The residents lived on the rims of the inactive craters. Amazingly, picture icons were posted. I clicked on them, and shots of a tropical paradise emerged. Swaying palm trees, pristine beaches, and deep blue bays beckoned.

I mentally kept connecting this joyous, improbable survival story with the one on which the Advent season is based. Like the Bethlehem account from long ago, with its unlikely cast of characters, this miraculous tale had to be shared, too.

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Filed under Christmas, column, holidays

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