Off the coast of Tonga, a group of boys set out for what they thought would be a couple of days of fun. In reality, their reckless joyride turned into a nightmare that would last for over a year. Lost and alone, they were forced to find a way to survive on a deserted island by themselves — until a mysterious fishing boat happened to appear on the shore.
The start of an adventure
This really happened back in 1965. In June of that year, the boys set out from Tongatapu – the main island in the sprawling Tongan archipelago.
Aged between 13 and 16 years old, Fatai Latui, Sione Fataua, Kolo Fekitoa, Tevita Fifita Sioloa, Luke Veikoso, and Mano Totau had their hearts set on a wild adventure. But they would end up getting far more than they bargained for.
A crazy idea
The boys had one major thing in common: they were bored and tired of their bland school meals. Their solution was to go fishing, so they planned to sail to Fiji.
However, being teens, none of them had transportation. They needed a boat. Luckily, local fisherman Taniela Uhila had a few, so — already disliking him — they snuck down to the waterfront and “borrowed” one of his 24-foot craft.
Failure to prepare
With Fiji around 500 miles away, it was not a voyage to be taken lightly. Surely, then, the boys — being from a seafaring community — would have packed accordingly?
Apparently not. If reports are to be believed, they set off with just a gas burner, some coconuts, and a pile of bananas to sustain them — nothing more, not even a map or compass.
A doomed trip
Late in the evening, they made their getaway from Nuku‘alofa’s harbor, not telling anyone where they were going. And at first, things went well: no one saw them leave, and the weather was clear.
They then drifted out into the Pacific Ocean, leaving their island home far behind. However, in the wee hours of the morning, they made a huge mistake.
Eye of the storm
After dropping anchor off the coast of Tongatapu, the boys fell asleep — leaving no one awake on watch. When they awoke hours later the sun had set — and they were in the grip of a violent storm.
As waves smashed down on the tiny boat, the group struggled to raise the sail — only for it to be quickly torn apart by the vicious wind. And that wasn't the end of it.
Lost and alone at sea
The rudder then broke, leaving the boys unable to plot a course across the raging seas. With no other option, they could do nothing as the currents carried them even further from home.
For the next week, the boat drifted aimlessly. They had no water or food, except for a few raw fish. They collected rain in coconut shells, but the water was so limited that each boy got only two sips per day.
Eventually, it seems, their prayers were answered. After eight days at sea, the boys spotted a tiny island looming on the horizon.
Unlike the desert islands of Hollywood movies, this was a jagged, brooding rock, its high cliffs soaring hundreds of feet above the Pacific Ocean. But compared to their ailing boat, it must have seemed a welcome paradise.
What the boys could not have known at the time, of course, is that they had arrived at ‘Ata in the extreme south of the Tongan archipelago. Home, on Tongatapu, was almost 100 miles away – but it may as well have been another world.
And if the castaways had been hoping for rescue on this remote island, they were about to be disappointed.
A ghost island
By the time that the boys arrived, you see, ‘Ata had been completely deserted for a century. In the mid-19th century, the island had supported a population of hundreds — until a slave ship tricked almost 150 natives into a life of servitude.
Their population was decimated, and those remaining on ‘Ata lived in fear of the slave traders, until King George Tupou I of Tonga ordered an evacuation to the neighboring ‘Eua. So it was now a ghost island.
The boys needed a plan
The boys didn’t know this, of course. All they knew is that they needed ground rules if they were going to survive.
And unlike the boys in William Golding's Lord of the Flies, they promised not to argue on the island, because fights would likely escalate and become life-threatening. If things got heated, they separated until they calmed down, and then reconvened to apologize.
Forming a society
The boys also created a schedule. They did everything in pairs so that in case of danger, nobody was ever alone. They set up a garden, kitchen, and watch posts and then made a roster to assign rotating duties.
Every morning and evening they sang and had a group prayer, too. And whenever the boys encountered a problem, they would gather around the fire and attempt to find a solution.
Survival of the fittest
In the beginning, the group ate fish, coconuts, and any seabirds they could catch. As they explored further inland, though, they discovered an old volcano where the former 'Ata civilization had been.
There, they found wild taro, bananas, and chickens descended from those kept by former inhabitants. They also discovered an abandoned settlement where the people of ‘Ata had once lived.
Getting on with it
Over time, the boys developed a system for growing food and built pens to domesticate the semi-feral chickens. To keep a steady supply of drinking water, they collected rain inside hollowed-out trees.
And they even had a rudimentary badminton court to help them stay fit. If that weren’t enough, they also constructed a gym complete with weights.
The secret life of boys
Working in groups of two, the boys shared out the various responsibilities that came with running their camp, including standing guard, kitchen duty, and tending to the fire. And in the mornings and evenings, they gathered together to pray.
Fekitoa also used repurposed steel wires to fashion a coconut-shell guitar that he played to keep them entertained.
But despite the successes of their makeshift camp, the castaways never lost sight of their ultimate goal: to return home. In fact, at one point, they even managed to build a raft, although it broke up before they could set sail.
Then, one day, Latui suffered a bad fall, breaking his leg as he tumbled from a cliff.
Hope springs eternal
As weeks and months passed with no word from the outside world, the boys no doubt gave up hope of being rescued. But then, on September 11, 1966, a sea captain by the name of Peter Warner was sailing past ‘Ata when he noticed something strange.
There, on the supposedly uninhabited island, he spotted the signs of a fire.
An unlikely rescue
Knowing that such blazes do not usually start spontaneously in this part of the world, Warner took a closer look. And that’s when he saw it: a boy, wild hair flowing to his shoulders, standing at the top of a cliff.
All of a sudden, the figure threw himself from the rock, landed in the water, and began swimming toward the boat.
The not-so-triumphant return
Fatai was the first to reach the boat and reportedly said, “There are six of us, and we reckon we’ve been here 15 months.” Warner was initially unconvinced about their real identities.
So, he radioed Nuku‘alofa, informing the operator that he had picked up six alleged castaways. And after a tense 20-minute wait, their incredible tale was confirmed. But first, there was another obstacle for the courageous survivors to overcome.
A bad omen
On their return to Nuku’alofa they were promptly arrested and charged with the theft of the boat that they had borrowed all those months ago. Eventually, Warner was able to sell the rights to the boys’ story, using the money to pay back the disgruntled fisherman and secure their release.
And as a thank you for his actions, Warner was awarded a license to fish for lobster and run a business in the archipelago.
Seeing the world
Purchasing a fishing boat, he hired all six castaways as his crew – finally granting them their wish to see the wider world. Over time, the incredible story of the six castaways was largely forgotten.
But in September 2019, Bregman included the tale in his book Humankind, catapulting the boys, now men in their 60s and 70s, into the spotlight once more.
The fateful trip
Tales of people getting lost at sea are as compelling as any Hollywood drama. Just take ask the passengers who boarded the Pacific Princess cruise ship.
The boat sailed through the North Sea and stopped in the British Isles during the eight-day-long excursion. The 670 guests on board the vessel were nearing the end of their trip as they headed back to port in Dover, England. But rough waters were ahead.
Change of plans
As you can imagine, passengers were confused and startled when all of a sudden the cruise ship changed course while they were winding down from the day and enjoying dinner.
Meanwhile, the crew was working in a frenzy.
The best-laid plans
Normally, cruise ships have a set course and don't deviate from it. If they do, because of a storm or rough seas, it is carefully planned out and executed.
So, this sudden change could only mean one thing — something was very wrong.
The captain of the Pacific Princess made a gut decision to change course immediately after seeing something alarming in the sky — a burst of light!
He notified his crew members and set his new destination toward the bright light he'd seen.
The sky on fire
As the boat drew closer to the location of the strange light, it became clear that the captain was correct in trusting his instincts.
This wasn't an optical illusion; instead, someone in need of help had lit an emergency flare!
The captain knew that whoever fired it must have been in desperate need of help, but he was unsure just how badly off they were. There was no mayday signal heard over the radio, and there were no other vessels for as far as the eye could see.
It was ominous, to say the least, but the captain kept up his speed all the same.
Time was of the essence
Normally the Coast Guard would handle a search mission like this, but the captain knew his vessel was closest to the scene. He feared that the people in need would soon get even more lost at sea, and he couldn't let that happen on his watch.
Off in the distance
Not long after the captain ordered the ship's new heading, he spotted something floating in the ocean. He wasn't sure what it was at first, as there was nothing else around it.
Was it just a piece of floating refuse, or was it something more?
At this point, the passengers on the ship began to crowd the railings on every deck and balcony that the cruise ship had.
They were curious, fearful, and anxious to see what had caused the captain to abruptly change course...
Clinging to life
As they got closer, the captain realized that there was a life raft floating adrift on the open sea! Things looked grim from far away, and it looked like he might have arrived too late.
However, once the captain saw some movement from the raft, the flicker of hope was restored.
There were three men floating aboard, and all three of them were alive! The men poked their heads out, relieved to see another ship.
They had been floating for hours just hoping there was a soul out there who saw their flare. It was a desperate gamble.
A tricky maneuver
Rather than wait hours for the Coast Guard to arrive on the scene, the captain wanted to attempt a rescue mission so that the men didn't have to suffer anymore.
The logistics of the rescue presented quite a challenge because the life raft and cruise ship were so different in size.
"Everybody was anxious"
"Originally they didn’t think we were going to be able to rescue them," Teena Dowd, a passenger on the Pacific Princess, said. "We were on the very top deck, and people were just sort of holding their breath, everybody was anxious."
Still, the ship's officers weren't willing to wait for outside assistance.
A slippery climb
Moving ever so carefully, the cruise ship was able to get close enough to the stranded sailors to throw down a rope. Then, it would be up to the survivors to summon the willpower to climb up the side of the ship.
However, this plan proved to be more complicated than the crew anticipated.
Back into the water
The first man attempted to climb up the makeshift ladder to safety, but he ended up slipping and plummeting back down into the water! Luckily, the sailors were able to retrieve him and pull him back aboard the life raft.
They could only hope he wasn't too badly injured.
A second attempt
The captain went back to the drawing board and had his crew construct a sturdier ladder. It took over an hour, but eventually, they were able to successfully get all three men out of the water and safely on the cruise ship.
But the worst wasn't over.
Round of applause
"Everybody clapped when they came on the ship," Teena explained. "But we didn’t know until a while later when the captain announced that there were actually two more and we were still searching for them."
So who were these mystery men floating in the middle of the sea?
The captain soon learned that they were five ordinary fishermen whose ship had gone under. Unfortunately, the three survivors aboard the Pacific Princess had no idea where their comrades had ended up.
With every second that passed, the odds of rescuing the other two grew smaller and smaller.
In comes the Coast Guard
Rather than head back to port right away, the cruise ship stayed in the area. The crew hoped to find the remaining two sailors while they waited for the Coast Guard to show up.
An hour later, rescuers arrived on the scene to provide medical attention to the three men and to take over the search.
Searching far and wide
The military sent out helicopters and patrol boats to scour the area, along with a few local ships that were requisitioned for the mission.
They had reason to believe that the missing men ended up in the open water after their ship sank in a freak accident, so the authorities needed to cover as much ground as possible.
A grim discovery
The Coast Guard scanned through the night until about 3:30 in the morning when they called off the search. Giving it one more try, they returned to the area at first light.
Sadly, they discovered the bodies of two men who were later identified as the two missing sailors. It wasn't the outcome they wanted, but if not for the quick action by the Captain of the Pacific Princess, there could have been more casualties.