A comedy mystery podcast in which two friends discuss a weekly mystery.

MysteriYES- The Sarah Joe

Today we’ve got a swashbuckling mystery that takes place on the high seas. I’m drawn to nautical tales and nautical symbolism, but the idea of being out in the middle of the open ocean is absolutely terrifying, particularly if you’re in a deep sea fishing boat or something like that. Not that I’ve ever been deep sea fishing—the prospect is too unsettling for me. If I fell out of that boat, I’d be done. I mean, I know how to swim, but I’m not very resilient, so as soon as I hit the water I’d just throw my hands up and admit defeat.

My fear of open water is made worse by stories like the one we’re going to talk about today. If you read the book or saw the movie In the Heart of the Sea, today’s story is a little bit like that, but way less triumphant and with no happy ending—just mystery. Today I’m going to tell you the story of the crew of the Sarah Joe.

The Sarah Joe was a Boston Whaler boat that was seventeen feet long, belonging to Robert Malaiakini of Hana, Hawaii. On the morning of February 11, 1979, Robert Malaiakini’s twin brother Ralph asked if he could borrow the boat to go out fishing with his four friends—Peter Hancett, Benjamin Kalana, Scott Moorman, and Patrick Woesner. The five men had been working construction on a house, and figured that fishing on such a nice day would be a great way to relax.

The men packed the Sarah Joe with beer, soda, snacks, and a cooler filled with ice for the fish they planned to catch; and at 10 am, they left the shore and went out fishing.

It was a beautiful morning—but not for long. After a few hours, the wind began to pick up and change direction, indicating a storm rolling in. When the storm arrived, it came with huge winds and torrential downpours. Apparently some residents of the area said it was the worst storm they had seen in fifty years.

As the storm approached, boats began to race back to shore. But the Sarah Joe never arrived. Peter Hanchett’s father, John, became concerned as the weather worsened and yet his son’s boat didn’t show back up. He and a friend went out to look for them, but was unsuccessful. The next day, a marine biologist named John Naughton joined the search for the Sarah Joe, and again, nothing was found. The third day, the US Coast Guard became involved with the search.

Even with the Coast Guard now involved, the search for the Sarah Joe was incredibly difficult. For one thing, no one was quite sure where exactly the Sarah Joe was when the storm rolled in, so it was unclear where to even start the search. After five days and absolutely no trace of the Sarah Joe, the Coast Guard called off the search. By that time, they  had already covered 73,000 square miles, and discovered absolutely nothing.

For weeks after the disappearance, the locals searched for the missing boat and her crew, scouring the beaches for any trace whatsoever as to what had happened to them. But, unsurprisingly, nothing ever showed up. Eventually and understandably, family members began to lose hope that their loved ones would be found. After all, even if the men had somehow made it through the horrible storm, how were they supposed to survive on that boat for so long? And if they didn’t survive the storm, what were the chances that any of trace of them would drift ashore?

A year passed, and still there was absolutely no trace of the five missing men and their boat. A memorial was held for the last crew of the Sarah Joe, to honor them for whatever horror they had experienced during the storm and its aftermath.

Now, at this point, the story isn’t too out of the ordinary or mysterious. I tried to find a statistic for how many people go lost at sea each year but couldn’t find anything, but from what I could find, it seems like getting lost at sea isn’t a super rare phenomenon. It happens. People go out to sea and they don’t come back, especially when there’s a violent storm that is allegedly worse than any in decades. So you might be wondering, why are we talking about this story? What’s so mysteriYES about some guys going off in a boat, getting caught in a terrible storm, and not making it back to shore?

Well, there’s a very bizarre twist in this story, one that would seem contrived and hard to believe if the story were a work of fiction. You remember John Naughton, the marine biologist who helped Peter Hanchett’s father search for the Sarah Joe that second day? Well, in 1988, he was hired by the government of the Marshall Islands to find an appropriate site for a wildlife preserve. On September 9, 1988, he and his crew were traipsing around the Taongi Atoll, a ring-shaped island with a lagoon in the middle of it, and the only way into that lagoon is through a channel that is 66 feet wide. Taongi is little more than a sandbar that barely rises out of the ocean, and has been uninhabited by humans throughout history due to an inability to sustain human life, although it does have a relatively undisturbed flora and fauna.

Anyway, Naughton and his fellows had only been on Taongi for a half-hour when they noticed something curious poking out of the sand. When they uncovered the curious site, they found what appeared to be a Boston whaler boat, seventeen feet in length. Naughton called the US Coast Guard and identified that the boat’s registration was that of none other than the Sarah Joe, over two thousand miles away from where it was last seen in Hana, Hawaii.

A few hundred feet away from the boat, Naughton’s crew found a wooden cross in the sand, and next to the cross was a human jawbone. While Naughton didn’t think the jawbone had anything to do with the boat, he reported it anyway. The crew combed through the rest of the island to see if there were any other traces of people who could have arrived at Taongi on the Sarah Joe—alive or dead. No such traces were found.

The Coast Guard sent two forensic experts from the US Army to investigate the jawbone and the crudely-marked grave. When the shallow grave was excavated, other parts of human remains were found, but not a complete skeleton. Also found in the grave was a stack of slightly burnt, unbound papers, about three inches by three inches, and ¾ of an inch tall. Inserted between the papers were small pieces of tin foil. It is suspected that this could be part of a Chinese burial ritual involving what’s called Joss paper, which are sheets of paper which are burned as offerings to ensure good fortune for the deceased in the next life.

The bones that were found in the shallow grave were taken back to Hawaii, where dental records and DNA confirmed that the bones belonged to none other than Scott Moorman, one of the five men lost at sea aboard the Sarah Joe. Unfortunately, the experts examining the bones were unable to determine the cause or time of Scott’s death, although one source I read claimed that the bones must have been recently buried due to a lack of bleaching.

Family members of the four men whose bodies hadn’t been fiound hired a private investigator, who went to Taongi and scoured the island and lagoon it for any more trace of the other men. The private investigator found the outboard engine of the Sarah Joe as well as a few more human bones in the lagoon, although these were determined to also be Moorman’s bones. Nothing else was found on Taongi to suggest the four other men had ever been there.

Nautical experts determined that the trip from Hawaii to Taongi would have taken three months, however most people figure that the Sarah Joe couldn’t have possibly landed on Taongi until at least three years after her disappearance, because a 1982 survey of the island sanctioned by the Marshallese government had turned up absolutely no evidence of the Sarah Joe.

But then, what on earth happened to the Sarah Joe and her crew? The theories are pretty few, and each of them have their issues.

The theory put out by the private investigator who searched island postulated that, somehow, Scott Moorman had found himself the last person left, potentially tying himself in the boat to keep from falling out. The PI assumed the boat must have been led into the lagoon, since the only opening was only 66 feet across. His theory stated that Scott died in the boat, which was then found near Taongi by some Chinese fishermen. The fishermen then led the boat into the lagoon and buried Scott in the sand, leaving Joss paper to honor him. The PI also believed the reason they never reported the body was because they were fishing at Taongi illegally.

There are a couple problems with this theory, though. For instance, if Scott were actually buried by Chinese fishermen who felt compelled to leave Joss paper, why would they also mark his grave with a cross, a distinctly Christian symbol? This is a rather small issue, though, since I guess it’s possible to have done both a cross and Joss paper. The more convincing issue for me is the fact that Moorman’s bones were found both on the island and in the lagoon. I would assume that if Scott were dead in the boat, his body would still be in one piece, and therefore these fishermen would have probably buried him in one piece as well. Therefore, this theory doesn’t really explain why his bones were found in multiple places.

Another theory is that perhaps all five men did survive and rode the Sarah Joe all the way to Taongi, miraculously making its way through the 66 foot wide opening and into the lagoon. Instead of being the last to die, this theory suggests that Scott Moorman was one of, if not the first to die, and that the other four (or however many were left) buried his body in a shallow grave. Before they died, however, (which they inevitably would have in a place like Taongi), they could have been rescued and taken somewhere without coming forward to let their families know that they’re alive.

This theory has more issues than the first one. It’s a pretty big stretch to believe that more than one of the men had survived for the three years the Sarah Joe would have had to be at sea before landing on Taongi. And if these men had buried Scott, how and why would they have had Joss paper to put in the grave with his body? And then, of course, assuming they were rescued before dying on the island, why in the world would they not let people know that they’re alive and well?

My theory is somewhere in the middle, I think. I know it’s not perfect, but this case is so bizarre that I don’t think it’s possible to have a perfect theory, because something sensational must have happened for it to unfold the way it did, but it’s really hard to guess a sensational happenstance.

What I think happened is that, once the boat was lost at sea, the men who survived the storm stretched the provisions they had with them to survive as long as possible. I’m not sure how long they could survive, even if they severely rationed all of the provisions. At some point, though, some of the men must have died off, and I’m wondering if Scott Moorman might have cannibalized the others to stay alive. I don’t mean to speculate in such a way that makes Scott look bad, but I think it would certainly be understandable—if horrific—for him to eat his friends. If he didn’t eat his friends—which, I admit, he probably didn’t—he must have thrown them overboard or something, otherwise we might have found their remains along with Scott. I do think that during the at least three years of drifting at sea, Scott died in the boat. And while I typically tend to disbelieve the sensational, but I’m willing to accept that the Sarah Joe made it through the 66 feet of opening into the lagoon, and once the boat reached the shore, Scott got tossed out, perhaps with his feet and legs partially in the lagoon, and the rest of his body on the sand. As his body decomposed, this could explain why some of his bones were found in the lagoon. At some point, I think someone must have stumbled upon the decomposed body and given it a burial. I suppose it could have been Chinese fishermen and that could explain the Joss paper, but I think whoever buried the body was not supposed to be there, hence the reason the body was never reported.

There’s issues with my theory, I know, and a lot of it probably isn’t likely. But the problem with this story is that there’s really no way to explain everything in a way that seems likely, or even possible. But that’s why we’re talking about this story on mysteriYES, because it wouldn’t be worth talking about if it wasn’t a mystery. What are your thoughts on this story?