"HELP" sign on tiny Pacific island leads to Coast Guard and Navy rescue of 3 mariners stranded for over a week

3 fishermen rescued from remote Pacific island

Three mariners who were stranded on a tiny island in the Pacific were rescued after they spelled out "HELP" with palm leaves on the beach, the Coast Guard said Tuesday, marking the second time in four years that castaways were found on the same island. The sailors were found on Pikelot Atoll after being stuck in the Micronesian archipelago for over a week.

The men — all experienced sailors in their 40s — had embarked on a voyage from Polowat Atoll on Easter Sunday in their 20-foot open skiff, which was equipped with an outboard motor, officials said. But six days later on April 6, the Coast Guard in Guam received a distress call from a relative who reported her three uncles had not returned as expected to their home of Pikelot Atoll, which is about 100 nautical miles northwest of Polowat Atoll. 

A joint search and rescue operation by the U.S. Coast Guard and Navy was immediately launched. Despite poor weather conditions and limited assets in the area, a U.S. Navy P-8 Poseidon aircraft crew based in Japan was deployed and the USCGC Oliver Henry cutter was diverted to the search area, which spanned more than 78,000 square nautical miles. 

That's when the stranded sailors' "act of ingenuity" paid off.

The crew of a Hawaii-based HC-130J Hercules aircraft makes contact with three mariners stranded on Pikelot Atoll, Yap State, Federated States of Micronesia, after dropping them a radio on April 8, 2024.  U.S. Coast Guard photo

"In a remarkable testament to their will to be found, the mariners spelled out 'HELP' on the beach using palm leaves, a crucial factor in their discovery," said Lt. Chelsea Garcia, the search and rescue mission coordinator on the day they were located. "This act of ingenuity was pivotal in guiding rescue efforts directly to their location."

The Poseidon aircraft located the message and the three mariners on the tiny island on Sunday, eight days after they went missing. The aircraft crew dropped survival packages to the men until further assistance could arrive, and the Coast Guard cutter was deployed to conduct the rescue operation.

The next day, a Coast Guard aircraft based in Hawaii overflew the area and dropped a radio to establish communication with the men, who confirmed they were in good health, and had access to food and water. They reported their boat had been damaged and its engine was broken.

USCGC Oliver Henry finally reached the mariners on Pikelot Atoll on Tuesday morning and the ship successfully transported them home to Polowat Atoll. 

The crew of USCGC Oliver Henry (WPC 1140), having rescued three mariners stranded on Pikelot Atoll, Yap State, Federated States of Micronesia, prepare the cutter boat and the mariners to be recovered to the cutter for further transport to Polowat Atoll, Chuuk State, on April 9, 2024.  U.S. Coast Guard photo

"Every life saved, and every mariner returned home is a testament to the enduring partnership and mutual respect that characterizes our relationship, making a profound impact on the lives of individuals and the resilience of communities across the (Federated States of Micronesia)," said Lt. Cmdr. Christine Igisomar, the search and rescue mission coordinator on the day they were rescued.

Remarkably, this wasn't the first time stranded sailors were rescued from the island after spelling out a distress signal on the beach.  In 2020, three men were rescued from Pikelot Atoll after writing a giant "SOS" sign in the sand. They were spotted by Australian and U.S. aircraft and safely returned home.


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