Sailors use ‘HELP’ sign made of palm trees to escape stranding on remote Pacific island

Trio of stranded sailors managed to attract attention of passing US Navy plane

Josh Marcus
San Francisco
Friday 12 April 2024 01:03 BST
Sailors rescued by palm leaf SOS in Pacific

A trio of sailors who spent more than a week stranded on a remote, uninhabited atoll in the Pacific were rescued by the US Coast Guard after a search and rescue team spotted a giant sign spelling ‘HELP’ the men had constructed from palm fronds on the beach.

The sailors, identified as three men in their 40s with sailing experience, set out from Polowat Atoll, southeast of Guam, on 31 March. Their boat, a 20-foot open skiff with an outboard motor, sustained damage and the men were stranded on Pikelot Atoll.

Nearly a week later, on 6 April, the US Joint Rescue Sub-Center in Guam got a distress call from a relative of the sailors, saying they hadn’t returned from Pikelot.

The call prompted US officials to begin a rescue operation spanning an area of over 78,000 nautical miles.

The following day, a US Navy P-8 Poseidon aircraft operating out of Kadena Air Force Base in Japan spotted the mariners, along with a crude shelter they’d erected on the beach and dropped them survival packages.

The sailors were stuck on Pikelot Atoll, an uninhabited island, for over a week
The sailors were stuck on Pikelot Atoll, an uninhabited island, for over a week (US Coast Guard)

“In a remarkable testament to their will to be found, the mariners spelt out ‘HELP’ on the beach using palm leaves, a crucial factor in their discovery. This act of ingenuity was pivotal in guiding rescue efforts directly to their location,” one of the operation’s search and rescue coordinators, Lieutenant Chelsea Garcia of the US Coast Guard, said in a news release.

On 8 April, a US Coast Guard HC-130J Hercules aircraft flew over the stranded men, dropping a radio to the missing sailors.

The men radioed back that they were “in good health” and “had access to food and water,” according to the Coast Guard. They had been surviving by eating coconuts.

The next day, a Coast Guard ship, the USCGC Oliver Henry, which had been diverted from its original course to join the rescue, picked up the sailors.

In another twist, one of the Coast Guard personnel involved in the rescue, Petty Officer 2nd Class Eugene Halishlius, was related to the missing men.

One of the Coast Guard rescuers was actually related to the missing men
One of the Coast Guard rescuers was actually related to the missing men (US Coast Guard)

“I could see on their faces, ‘Whoa! Who’s this guy pulling up that can speak our language?’” he told CNN on Thursday.

“It’s a crazy world, I actually found out I’m related to them!” he added, describing the missing men as third and fourth cousins.

The men have now been safely returned to their departing point of Polowat Atoll.

The Coast Guard urged all sailors to equip their vessels with emergency position indicating radio beacons.

The remote atoll was the site of a similar rescue in 2020 when another group of three washed up on Pikelot when their boat ran out of fuel.

They spelt out ‘SOS’ on the beach and were later rescued by a multi-country team.

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