International Team Rescues Boaters from Uninhabited Pacific Island

An SOS message on Pikelot Island (USCG)

Published Aug 3, 2020 8:17 PM by The Maritime Executive

A multinational search team with elements from the U.S. Coast Guard, U.S. Air Force, Royal Australian Navy and Federated States of Micronesia found and rescued three boaters from Chuuk who were stranded on a remote, uninhabited island. 

On July 31, Coast Guard watchstanders in Guam received a report that a boat with three people on board had gone missing on a trip between Puluwat Atoll and Pulap Island, Chuuk, roughly 400 miles southeast of Guam. The boat had set out on its 21-mile journey on July 29, and it had never arrived.

The Coast Guard confirmed the report with officials in Chuuk, then launched a full-scale search and rescue effort. Watchstanders dispatched an HC-130 long range search plane out of Hawaii, some 4,000 miles to the east. They also got in touch with participating AMVER merchant ships in the area to find possible volunteers. In addition, the U.S. Air Force deployed a KC-135 Stratotanker out of Andersen AFB, Guam. 

Other nations' forces also joined the search: the Royal Australian Navy diverted its flagship, the amphib HMAS Canberra, and Micronesia dispatched the patrol boat FSS Independence.

The next day, as one of the USAF KC-135 aircrews was finishing its search, pilot Lt. Col. Jason Palmeira-Yen decided to look more closely at a small island about 120 miles to the west of the missing boat's expected route. The land feature turned out to be Pikelot, a lush but uninhabited coral islet known for its abundant wildlife.

“We were toward the end of our search pattern, we turned to avoid some rain showers and that’s when we looked down and saw an island, so we decide to check it out and that’s when we saw S.O.S and a boat right next to it on the beach,” Palmeira-Yen said. 

HMAS Canberra was nearby, and she delivered supplies to the survivors via helicopter. In consultation with regional partners, her crew opted not to rescue them immediately in order to reduce the risk of COVID-19 transmission. 

Instead, the USCG HC-130 aircrew air-dropped them a radio and a message to let them know that the Micronesian patrol boat FSS Independence would be coming to pick them up and bring them home. Independence arrived on August 3 as promised and brought them aboard in a small boat. 

No injuries were reported; the cause of the stranding is unknown at present, according to the USCG.

“This case highlights the importance of having a plan and making sure your family knows when you are expected to return. Timely activation of the Search and Rescue System by the mariners’ families allowed us to quickly respond with surface and aviation resources. We greatly appreciate the support of the Air Force, Royal Australian Navy, and FSM," said Capt. Christopher Chase, commander of Coast Guard Sector Guam.