Analysis: Hawaii Sailors’ GPS Track Does NOT Prove “we were no-where near Tahiti” as asserted by Jennifer Appel on the Today Show

by Linus Wilson

The GPS track that Jennifer Appel told the Today Show would prove they never were near Tahiti had less than 48 hours of tracks right before they were rescued by the US Navy.  Former Today Show host Matt Lauer questioned the skipper who said they were at sea for over five months before being rescued on October 25, 2017.  Mr. Lauer asked about their boat being hailed by the Coast Guard on June 15, 2017, within a day of Tahiti. Ms. Appel waved her GPSMAP Garmin 76cx in front of Mr. Lauer in the video below at about 2:58 and said, “I have no idea, but Garmin makes a great product. This is one of the GPS’s on the Sea–our Sea Nymph–and it shows we were no-where near Tahiti.”

She gave the Garmin GPSMAP unit to Alan Block after her in-person interview on his Sailing Anarchy Podcast. Slow Boat Sailing spoke to Mr. Block over the phone prior to his interview with Ms. Appel.  Slow Boat Sailing encouraged Mr. Block to look at her GPS tracks prior to his 8-hour interview with Mr. Appel and her crew member Tasha Fuiava in a Today Show-paid-for hotel in Long Island, New York. He posted a link to the GPX file on January 9, 2018, over a month after the interview, which Slow Boat Sailing has analyzed below.

GPSnew

Of course, the track does not go back to June 15, 2017, when the “Sea Nymph” responded to a VHF hail by a USCG plane near Tahiti. Thus, this is just another fib Ms. Appel has been caught in on national TV. Ms. Appel’s accounts of giant sharks and a force 11 storm among other things have been questioned in many news outlets. For a summary, watch our video below:

Slow Boat Sailing obtained Ms. Appel’s reported positions to the USCG in her survivor debrief. There was a large gap of reported positions to where the boat speed slowed to about 1 knot sailing downwind in the trades.

20MapGPS

The 48 hours of GPS track shows the Sea Nymph drifting slowly west (downwind) from points 1 to 2. From points 2 to 3, they sail less than one knot north, possibly to intercept the Taiwanese fishing vessel. This slow speed is in line with the very slow speeds the SV Sea Nymph skipper reported to the US Coast Guard in her survivor debrief Ms. Appel was interviewed in October. A boat with any sails up should have made better than one knot downwind in the opinion of Slow Boat Sailing. Thus, her reported speeds were more consistent with a sailboat “adrift” contrary to Ms. Appel’s assertions on her GoFundMe page. An other explanation for the slow speeds from June 26, 2017, until their tow on October 24, 2017, was that the SV Sea Nymph visited an island on the way, but Ms. Appel has always denied that too.

From point 3 to 4, the speed averages 4.5 knots upwind. That is well below the SV Sea Nymph’s 7.6 knot maximum hull speed. This is could be when the Sea Nymph was towed. This seems to dispute speculation by Slow Boat Sailing and others that perhaps the distress Ms. Appel and Ms. Fuiava felt was from a too fast tow. Motoring upwind in a mild to moderate ocean swell is definitely less comfortable than sailing or drifting downwind at a slow speed. By their accounts, Ms. Appel and Ms. Fuiava had been sailing downwind for 120 days at that point. Their distress at the tow, may reflect their inexperience motoring upwind in mild to moderate ocean swells. That was something the Slow Boat Sailing crew struggled with on their way to Ecuador.

The fishing vessel was in all likelihood towing the sailboat at a reasonable speed. This upwind course only lasted about 15 hours until the boat speed slowed down to less than a knot between points 4 and 5. That may be when they dropped the tow. This seems consistent with a boat largely adrift and a reasonable towing speed far below the Sea Nymph’s hull speed. There was less than 105 nautical miles traveled on the GPS track.

The local time was 10 hours ahead of GMT (London) plotted on the first figure. For a timeline of the last two days, the US Navy press release is a reasonable guide:

“On Oct. 24, they were discovered 900 miles southeast of Japan by a Taiwanese fishing vessel. The fishing vessel contacted Coast Guard Sector Guam who then coordinated with Taipei Rescue Coordination Center, the Japan Coordination Center, and the Joint Coordination Center in Honolulu to render assistance. 

Operating near the area on a routine deployment, Ashland made best speed to the location of the vessel in the early morning on Oct. 25 and arrived on scene at 10:30 a.m. that morning. Ashland dispatched a small team of Sailors to provide aid and attempt to fix the mariners failed engine. Ashland’s boat engineer was unable to fix the engine due primarily to a lack of requisite parts. Given the inoperable engine, combined with other equipment degradations expressed by the mariners, Ashland’s commanding officer chose to take the mariners and their two dogs on board. The mariners and their two dogs were safely aboard the ship at 1:18 p.m.”

The Navy account and GPS tracks line up with the first contact and tow happening in the daylight hours of GMT+10 at points 2 to 4. The USS Ashland arrived at the scene between points 4 and 5 of the GPS track. Ms. Appel must have turned off her GPS shortly after coming aboard the USS Ashland at 13:18 local time (GMT+10) or 3:18 GMT. The last track reading on that day was at 3:23 GMT or 13:23 GMT+10.

It seems likely that the Sea Nymph was towed upwind after Ms. Appel called for the Navy rescue from the satellite phone aboard the fishing vessel. The distress call was made on the 24th but the Sea Nymph stopped moving east at 7:13 local time (GMT+10) on October 25, 2017. Thus, Ms. Appel called (with a satellite phone on the fishing boat) to be rescued from the Taiwanese fisherman on October 24, 2017.  She told NBC, “They tried to kill us during the night”. Nevertheless, it seems likely that she did not drop the tow until at least seven hours after she made the distress call. The Taiwanese government has disputed Ms. Appel’s allegations that the fishing vessel posed any danger to the women or their boat.

As an aside, Ms. Appel told the USCG that they signaled for rescue since June 26, 2017, that is 22 days longer that they signaled for rescue by VHF, flares, and hand signals then they reported to the media. They told reporters in their conference call on the USS Ashland in October 2017 that they signaled for rescue for only 98 days prior to October 24, 2017, when they got the fishing vessel’s tow. It is not clear why there is this discrepancy in the number of days that Ms. Appel reported signalling for rescue, but not using her EPIRB. USCG interviewers criticized Ms. Appel’s decision to not use an EPIRB in their phone conversation with her on the USS Ashland.

Dr. Linus Wilson, is the creator of the Slow Boat Sailing Podcast and YouTube channel.  He has written three books about sailing including How to Sail Around the World Part-Time. He sails out of New Orleans and his 31-foot Island Packet sailboat at the time of writing was awaiting the next leg of the Pacific crossing in Tahiti. Dr. Wilson holds a six-pack captain’s license.

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