POSTED: 07:44 a.m. HST, Nov 27, 2010
LAST UPDATED: 04:05 p.m. HST, Nov 27, 2010
SUVA, Fiji — For more than 50 days, the three boys slurped rainwater that puddled in the bottom of their tiny boat, gobbled flying fish that leaped aboard and prayed for salvation.
Etueni Nasau and his two cousins almost gave up hope they would survive as they bobbed in their aluminum dinghy across the South Pacific for more than seven weeks, before a fishing trawler spotted them by chance and brought an end to their extraordinary ordeal.
"I thank God for keeping us alive all this while, while were drifting out in open sea," Nasau, 14, told The Associated Press. "We prayed every day that someone will find us and rescue us. We thought we would die."
In a shy, quiet voice, Nasau spoke Saturday from his hospital bed in Fiji, where the trio were brought a day earlier and quickly treated for dehydration, bad sunburn and malnourishment.
Nasau, also known as Edward, and his two 15-year-old cousins, Samuel Pelesa and Filo Filo, jumped into the 12-foot-boat, known locally as a "tinnie," sometime in late September — Nasau couldn't remember the date — to make what they thought was a short journey between islands in their archipelago home of Tokelau.
But they ran out of fuel for their outboard motor and began drifting out to sea. As land retreated from sight, they contemplated the handful of coconuts they had brought with them to snack on — and the little else in the boat.
Day after day, the teens sat helpless in the open craft under a beating tropical sun, scouring the horizon for signs of land or a passing boat.
On many nights, rainstorms churned the sea and lashed the boat. The boys threw themselves to the bottom of the boat, clutching the sides and trying to keep it from capsizing. Though terrifying, the storms also brought a lifeline: puddles of rainwater for them to sip.
They ran out of food all too quickly, and increasingly feared starvation. The sea provided meager pickings in the form of fish that leaped out of the water and sometimes landed in the boat.
"We ate flying fish, very small ones that jump into our boat, about five inches," said Nasau, looking thin and weak, but relieved. "The last time we ate one was last week if I recall."
Once, a bird perched on the boat and Pelesa managed to snatch it with his bare hands. The hungry boys tore at the bird and shared the meat, raw.
"The bird came to our punt and my cousin Sam grabbed it," Nasau said. "We ate it."
In the days before their rescue, the nighttime storms stopped and the boys became desperately thirsty. They began drinking small amounts of sea water.
One night, the boys' hopes for rescue soared when they spotted lights they thought must be a ship, then plunged again when they realized that they had no light and that those on board would never see them in the dark.
"We saw one big ship at night time but it's too far, we couldn't do anything," Nasau said. "So we just sat down and looked at it" as it passed by.
Last Wednesday, at least 55 days into the boys' ordeal, the deep-sea tuna boat San Nikuna came into view on its way to its home port in New Zealand — this time during the day.
First mate Tai Fredricsen said the crew were amazed to see a small boat out so far and in a region rarely used by any vessels. They were even more stunned to see the bedraggled boys frantically waving for help.
They had drifted more than 800 miles from Tokelau.
Fredricsen took the boys and their little boat on board the trawler, and tried to give them fluids and small pieces of fruit. Officials in Fiji said the boys had so little food and water during their ordeal they would be unable to keep down solid food until their bodies recovered.
The boys have responded quickly to rehydration treatment. Twenty-four hours after arriving in Fiji, Pelesa and Filo had been released from hospital and were staying the consular staff from New Zealand, which administers Tokelau as a territory.
Only Nasau remained in hospital. New Zealand officials declined to give media access to the boys.
"The doctor told me to drink a lot of fluid and take a rest because we are so dehydrated," Nasau said. "He hasn't told me when I will be released, but I guess when I'm strong enough."
The three are expected to be flown to Samoa on Monday. They would then have to wait two weeks for a boat to take them back to their homeland, New Zealand's TV3 reported on Saturday.
News of the boys' survival was greeted as a miracle in Tokelau, a deeply Christian archipelago north of Samoa.
New Zealand maritime authorities began an official search Oct. 5 after worried family members reported them missing. Spotters in air force planes scoured thousands of square miles (kilometers) with no success.
The search was eventually called off, the boys given up for dead. The tight-knit community of 500 or so residents in their village held traditional grieving services.
One of the boys called their home village by satellite phone from the San Nikuna — with some trepidation because they thought they would get into trouble because they borrowed the boat from a relative without permission. Instead, they were greeted with jubilation.
"I'm glad and happy that we were rescued by the fishing boat," Nasau said. "I'm looking forward to see my family back in Tokelau."
The boys come from the atoll of Atafu, one of three that comprise the tiny Tokelau island group where 1,500 people live.
Atafu, Nukunonu and Fakaofo, picture-perfect South Pacific islets, lie 300 miles north of Samoa, surrounded by 128 mostly uninhabited coconut palm-covered islets. The territory has a total land area of just 4.7 square miles.