3 men marooned in the Pacific are rescued after writing SOS in the sand

Elian Peltier, The New York Times

Posted at Aug 05 2020 11:49 PM

3 men marooned in the Pacific are rescued after writing SOS in the sand 1
A photo provided by the Australian Defense Force shows an Australian Army helicopter landing on Sunday, Aug. 2, 2020, on the tiny island of Pikolet, Micronesia, where 3 stranded sailors were found. Australian Defense Force/The New York Times

Here’s a useful tip: If you ever find yourself stuck on an uninhabited island in the Pacific, it turns out that writing SOS in giant letters on the sand works.

At least, it did this past weekend for 3 men whose small boat had run out of fuel and drifted off course among the hundreds of islands and atolls of Micronesia.

The men, said to be mariners from the Micronesian island of Pulap, were reported missing Friday after setting off for home from the Puluwat atoll, about 25 miles away, a day earlier. 

In a joint operation, aircraft dispatched by US authorities in Guam and a ship sent by the Australian military combed the area in a search for the sailors, the US Coast Guard said.

On Sunday afternoon, one of the US aircraft was finishing the final leg of the day’s patrol when crew members saw the scrawled letters and a blue-and-white vessel on the sand of a tiny uninhabited atoll called Pikelot. 

Lt. Col. Jason Palmeira-Yen, the pilot of the aircraft, said he was reaching the end of the planned search grid when he turned the plane to avoid a rain shower.

“That’s when we looked down and saw an island, so we decide to check it out and that’s when we saw SOS and a boat right next to it on the beach,” he said.

An Australian reconnaissance helicopter later delivered food and water to the marooned men, before a Micronesian vessel picked them up Monday and took them back home to Pulap.

Authorities said that the men’s 23-foot-long boat had drifted off course after it ran out of fuel, and they eventually reached Pikelot, about 118 miles west of their departure point on Puluwat.

Capt. Terry Morrison, the commanding officer of the Canberra, the Australian military ship that helped search for the men, said, “I am proud of the response and professionalism of all on board as we fulfill our obligation to contribute to the safety of life at sea wherever we are in the world,” according to a statement from the Australian Defense Ministry.

Writing huge letters in the sand has proved helpful to travelers stranded in the Pacific in the past. In 2016, 3 men whose boat was overturned in Micronesian waters swam 2 miles to reach a tiny island, from which they were rescued by the US Coast Guard after writing “HELP” in the sand.

“This isn’t the set of Castaway…” the US Coast Guard Hawaii Pacific wrote at the time, a reference to the movie in which Tom Hanks plays a man stranded on an uninhabited island after a plane crash.

Later that year, 2 other people who had been missing for a week were rescued from a Micronesian island after they wrote SOS in the sand.

US and Australian authorities said cooperation had been crucial to the weekend rescue.

“Through coordination with multiple response organizations, we were able to save 3 members of our community and bring them back home to their families,” said Capt. Christopher Chase, commander of the US Coast Guard Sector Guam.