|This case has remained unsolved for 44 years, 9 months, and 24 days.|
It was February 11, 1979 when five local men decided to go for a fishing trip, departing from an isolated town called Hana on the Hawaiian island of Maui. By all accounts, it was the perfect day to go fishing with the shining sun and little wind. The fishermen were also experienced, with over 50 years of marine experience between the lot.
What started out as a perfect day, however, turned into a nightmare. Winds and rain picked up later in the day, resulting in the disappearance of all five men and an enduring mystery decades later. What happened to the fishermen of the Sarah Joe?
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Table of Contents
In order to understand this story better, you need to know a little about Hana (often written as Hāna in the islands). It’s a small town on the island of Maui with a population of approximately 1,500 people in 2020. The community has always been tight-knit, and this was certainly true in the 1970s and 80s.
The only road into Hana for a long time was the Hana Highway (also known as the “Road to Hana”), making the town extremely isolated, even from other towns and cities on Maui. The area surrounding Hana is one of the least-developed places on the island and many admire the lush, untamed landscapes that have been left largely untouched for centuries.
Hana Town today has a variety of modern structures like hotels and restaurants, but the town itself is still very isolated and hard to get to.
The Road to Hana
Hana itself is an isolated town on the northeastern side of Maui, known for the famous “Road to Hana.” This 64.4-mile twisting road is rough on cars and many rental car agreements prohibit driving this path due to potential damage. That being said, if you’re able to drive the Road to Hana, it’s definitely worth taking the trip to see the majestic landscapes and numerous waterfalls along the way.
Because Hana is so isolated, the community there is understandably very close. Everyone in the town either knew one of the victims or knew of the victims, and they want answers, too.
“It’s all speculation. Everyone has their own thoughts on it. The thing is that they didn’t come back. They’re gone.”Michael Woessner (Source: Maui News Now)
Even decades later, the mystery of the Sarah Joe lives on and is discussed often in the community, especially by those family members who still don’t have all the answers.
The Day of the Fishing Trip
February 11, 1979 appeared to be a perfect day to get some fishing in for the five friends. Benjamin Kalama (38), Peter Hanchett (31), Scott Moorman (27), Ralph Malaiakini (27), and Patrick Woessner (26) left the harbor around 10 AM and it was said to be a calm, clear day — a perfect time to get some fishing in.
The men all lived in or near Hana and had gotten to know one another through the local community, either through work or recreation. Moorman and Woessner played on a local softball team for the Hana League, one of their favorite pastimes. Hanchett was the only licensed plumber at the time in Hana, along with being a fisherman and wild pig hunter. Kalama was a tile layer and mason who had five children, and Malaiakini was a professional fisherman.
The Sarah Joe
The group was on Malaiakini’s 17-foot Boston whaler (a type of boat) called the Sarah Joe, so named after his mother, Sarah, and his father, Joe. Even though Malaiakini was the only professional fisherman (and thus very experienced on the water), all were experienced marine men in their own right. When the group headed out, there was nothing to be worried about; the weather was perfect.
It’s been reported that the group was aiming to catch some giant jack crevalle (known locally as Ulua). These massive predatory fish can weigh nearly 300 lbs. and put up the “fight of a lifetime,” according to many anglers. A big catch would be a boon for the anglers as they could sell their catch or distribute the meat among friends and family.
The group headed for the ʻAlenuihāhā channel, a 30-mile wide swathe of water between Maui and the Big Island. These waters can be some of the roughest near the islands, but the crew of the Sarah Joe would have known that and were experienced enough to be careful.
The Winds Picked Up
It wasn’t until later in the day when the winds changed direction that there was any hint of trouble. An island breeze turned into a gusting gale and those who knew the friends were out fishing were instantly concerned about them.
Hanchett’s father, John Hanchett, grew concerned, saying, “I told Dave we better get down the coast to see if we could spot those boys and wave them in.” It started raining and blowing hard and, despite the awful weather, Hanchett went out on his own boat to go look for the missing Sarah Joe. He found no sign of the boat or the missing men and was soon forced back to shore lest he end up in real trouble as well.
While other vessels somehow managed to make it back to shore, the Sarah Joe never did. People waited by the shoreline, hoping and praying that the smaller boat would come trudging in eventually. However, neither the boat nor her passengers ever came back. The boat was reported missing late in the afternoon after failing to return to shore.
The Search for the Sarah Joe
John Hanchett continued to search for the Sarah Joe, grabbing a marine biologist named John Naughton on the day after the disappearance to help in the search. They still found nothing, and on the third day, Hanchett recruited Coast Guard captain Jim Cushman to assist as well. Despite all their efforts, they found no signs of the men or the missing boat.
For about a week, helicopters, boats, and volunteers combed the areas surrounding Hana to look for any sign of the Sarah Joe. They were hoping to find some debris or clothing — anything that would hint at what had happened to the small fishing vessel. Eventually, an area of 73,000 miles had been searched and still there was no trace of the Sarah Joe.
After so much effort and nothing to show for it, the search was suspended. Even so, residents of Hana continued to look for debris along the beaches, hoping that something would turn up and shed some light on what happened. Some residents on the Big Island also heard about the disappearance and combed the beaches near the ʻAlenuihāhā channel in case anything washed up. Nothing did.
Where Did the Sarah Joe Go?
Days turned to weeks, weeks into months, months into years, and still nothing of the Sarah Joe was ever found. Families of the fisherman waited a whole year after the boat’s disappearance to hold any sort of memorial for them. They were still hanging onto hope that one day, they’d have an answer for what happened to the Sarah Joe and their loved ones.
Nine Years Later: A Break in the Case
Although the families of the missing men never gave up hope of learning what had happened on February 11, 1979, they also understood that it was highly unlikely that any of the men were still alive. Despite extensive searches by authorities and the public, no sign of the boat or the crew was found. That is, until 1988.
A Research Team in the Taongi Atoll
In September 1988, a research team was studying some areas of the Taongi atoll, an atoll in the northern Marshall Islands. This atoll is about 2,300 miles from the Hawaiian Islands, which makes it slightly further away than Hawaii is from the mainland United States.
The Taongi atoll is the first speck of land in the southwestern direction from Hawaii, and the area is uninhabited due to low rainfall and poor fishing conditions, making life there difficult.
Marine biologist John Naughton was conducting some research on the atoll, namely in search of sea turtles and nesting birds. He was on Sibylla Island (although some sources say that Sibylla Island is located in the Bokak atoll) when he spotted something that was out of place: a boat that was washed ashore.
Researchers Found More Than Just Sea Turtles
You’ll recall that Naughton was one of the men who had initially helped in the search for the missing Sarah Joe back in 1979. Now, over a decade later, he was at the Taongi atoll trying to conduct research on wildlife when he encountered the banged-up boat.
Curiously, Naughton approached the boat and recognized that it had to have been from Hawaii due to the registration number. He continued his inspection and saw some letters still emblazoned on the hull, with “S-A-H” and “J” still legible.
It could only be the Sarah Joe.
But Where Was the Crew?
The initial excitement of finding the Sarah Joe soon faded. The question now was what had happened to her crew? There had been five men aboard, after all, so where were they?
Leading a search of the island, Naughton and the other researchers unfortunately located a crudely-dug gravesite with a cross marking it. Near the boat site, litter was located that had originated from Hawaii, confirming that the southwestern currents had carried the Sarah Joe all the way from the Hawaiian Islands to Taongi atoll, a journey of over 2,300 miles.
The Body on Sibylla Island
Beneath the driftwood cross and in the grave was a body, likely of one of the men aboard the Sarah Joe. But who was it? And who buried him? No one else was found on Sibylla Island, dead or alive, and it appeared that the body had been there for some time.
Who Was Buried?
Naughton alerted the Coast Guard who came and retrieved the remains, then brought them to the U.S. Army Central Identification Laboratory in Hawaii. The body was confirmed to be that of Scott Moorman, one of the men who’d been on the Sarah Joe when she vanished.
Memorials were held both in Hana and in California, where Moorman was from. The discovery also rekindled the idea that the remains of the other crewmen might be out there somewhere, too.
“I used to worry so much when it rained that Scott was wet and cold. I’m relieved to know he’s not lost in the ocean someplace, but I hurt so much for the other families”Patricia Moorman (Source: Los Angeles Times)
Who Buried Him?
Because of the remoteness and the inhospitable nature of the Taongi atoll, it’s believed that Moorman’s remains were discovered by illegal fisherman who then buried him. Paper and thin tin foil was also reported to be found in the grave. It’s thought that the papers and foil were placed there to follow a local custom for respect for the dead.
It’s thought that a Taiwanese fishing boat found the remains and buried them, but didn’t report the discovery to authorities because they were fishing illegally in the Marshall Island waters. In order to avoid legal trouble, they just buried the body, placed the papers and tin foil, and moved on.
Some claim that the missing Sarah Joe incident isn’t mysterious at all. Clearly, the boat got swept up in a storm, the men either succumbed to the elements or drowned, and the Sarah Joe ended up beached in the Taongi atoll some time later. But are all the questions really answered?
Experts estimate that it would have taken anywhere from two to three months for the Sarah Joe to drift from the Hawaiian Islands all the way over to Sibylla Island. Although it’s possible for people to survive that long on the open seas, it’s extremely difficult — and even tougher if there are more mouths to feed and water.
What’s Really Odd
What makes this case more mysterious than it otherwise might be is the fact that there were a few surveys conducted by the US Government and some photographs taken of the Taongi atoll in the Marshall Islands between the 1979 disappearance of the Sarah Joe and its 1988 discovery. If the boat was there on Sibylla Island, it should’ve been found during these expeditions.
The Sarah Joe Wasn’t On Sibylla Island from 1979–1986
Some sources state that there was a survey conducted in 1985, but I could only verify two surveys done in 1986.
In 1986, one US Geological Survey was published titled The 1983 Drought in the Western Pacific. The other was conducted by the US Department of the Interior, titled Geochemistry and Petrology of Basaltic Rocks from the Marshall Islands.
Neither of these surveys mention any boats or shipwrecks anywhere in the documents, which are otherwise quite detailed and precise. It doesn’t seem likely that there would be no mention of any found wreckage, although, as I’ll always admit, it is possible.
The Mystery Endures
If the Sarah Joe wasn’t in the Marshall Islands from 1979–1986, where was it? Was it adrift for over half a decade? If so, how long did Moorman manage to survive on the boat? What happened to the other crewman? How long did they manage to survive? Unfortunately, we’ll probably never know the answers to these questions.
What Do I Think Happened?
In this case, I think the fishermen got unlucky and got caught in a huge storm that no one saw coming. The weather went from “like a lake” to a churning maelstrom very quickly, making it impossible for the Sarah Joe to make it back to shore.
“I’m in the ocean all the time, and that was the roughest I have ever seen it [during that storm]. Plus the Alenuihaha is one of the roughest channels in the world.”Robert Malaiakini (Source: Maui News Now)
If their equipment failed, as some have suggested, they wouldn’t have been able to radio for help in time. If their motor went out, they would have had no way to power through the rough waves. Caught in the gale-force winds, they would have been pushed wherever the tide wanted them to go. It’s possible one or more men were tossed overboard, or even tried to swim for the shore when they realized the boat was dead in the water.
The Hawaiian Islands are beautiful but treacherous, especially when the winds start howling and waves start pumping. Even experienced marine men and fishermen can get caught in a sudden storm; it’s happened to thousands of boats before.
The Rule of Threes
If you’re ever in a survival situation, remember the rule of threes. You can survive:
- 3 minutes without oxygen
- 3 days without water
- 3 weeks without food
Of course, these are rough numbers and there have been cases of people going for longer than these suggestions, but it’s a good rule of thumb to be aware of if you ever find yourself in trouble.
Did the Men Survive?
If the men on the Sarah Joe managed to survive the initial storm (and didn’t get thrown overboard and drown), they’d still have to find ways to get food and water for months at sea. Even taking the fastest estimate of time it would take to reach the Taongi atoll — two months — that’s still a lot of food and water that would need to be procured even for one man, let alone five.
In addition to the lack of food and water, the men would be beaten down by the hot sun day in and day out, with no respite. Heat stroke or heat sickness can be fatal, especially for people already weakened by thirst and hunger. It seems unlikely that anyone could have survived for much longer than a month or two on the Sarah Joe, although it is possible and people have done it in the past.
Moorman’s Survival (For a Time)
At the very least, Moorman was able to stay in the boat despite the storm, and it’s unclear how long he was able to survive onboard. The medical examiner could not rule a cause of death for Moorman, making it difficult to determine just how long he survived.
Since Moorman was the only body found, it’s likely that he outlasted all of the others, perhaps subsisting on what he could catch from the sea. However, even if the storm hadn’t thrown all of the fishing gear overboard, it would have been very difficult to survive on just what he managed to catch.
People think of the oceans as teeming with life everywhere, but the truth of the matter is that there are vast pelagic zones where little to nothing lives, sort of like deserts on land. Every once in a while, there might be an oasis— a bait ball of small fish, attracting predators for miles around — but those would be few and far between. Catching enough food to survive in such an area would be nearly impossible.
The Disappearing Boat
Even if we acknowledge that all of the men likely succumbed to dehydration, starvation, or the elements, that doesn’t explain the fact that the Sarah Joe was missing for over a decade.
If the Sarah Joe took the two months to drift across the sea to the Marshall Islands, it probably would have been discovered sooner, either by researchers or fishermen who visited the islands. At the very least, it should have been found during one of the two government surveys carried out in 1986. Again, it’s possible that all of these entities missed the Sarah Joe, but it’s unlikely.
From what I can gather during my research and looking over the evidence presented, the only answer seems to be that the Sarah Joe, after being damaged and/or disabled during the storm, ended up adrift for not only months, but years.
I can’t say how long the crewmen were alive, but it’s clear that Moorman managed to survive for at least a while before succumbing to the elements, dehydration, or starvation.
The biggest tragedy about this story, in my opinion, is the fact that so many families and loved ones will never know the truth about what happened after the Sarah Joe was caught in that freak storm. They don’t have bodies to bury (with the exception of Moorman) and they likely never will. I can only hope that the loved ones someday find peace, despite the fact that there are still so few answers.
Cold Case Questions
- How long do you think Scott Moorman survived?
- Do you think that the other men aboard the Sarah Joe survived the storm? If so, for how long?
- Where was the Sarah Joe from 1979-1986?
Let me know your thoughts below!
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