Jan 14, 2016 I Brent Swancer

The Strange High Seas Mystery of the Sarah Joe

The high seas are as mysterious as they are vast. Here history is littered with those who have vanished or been swallowed up by this watery domain to never be heard from again, or to have gone out upon its waters, never to return. This vast realm of ocean waves hold secrets and mysteries that it keeps close, its depths resistant to our attempts to delve into them. In the annals of more modern maritime mysteries, few are as pondered and discussed as one modest boat of friends, which departed from the shores of Hawaii only to venture off into places unknown, to vanish without a trace and then to reappear bringing with it more questions than answers.

It was February 11, 1979, and five friends who worked together in construction on the Hawaiian island of Maui were hard at work building a house on a sunny day. One of the men, a Scott Moorman, 27, had been brought to Hawaii as part of his lifelong dream to live there, which he had finally realized after divorcing his wife in 1975, which had prompted him to finally do what he had always wanted and start his life anew in the quaint town of Nahiku. The other four men were the tile setter, Benjamin Kalam, 38, the plumber Peter Hanchett, 31, carpenter Patrick Woessner, 26, and Ralph Malaiakini, 27, who was in the trucking business. On this day, the weather was just about as good as it could be. The skies were blue and the surface of the nearby ocean was as placid as glass. The weather was so good and the sea so inviting, in fact, that the men, all experienced and avid fishermen, joked that they should take the rest of the day off and go out fishing instead. The joke turned into a reality when Ralph Malaiakini suggested they drive over to the home of his twin brother and borrow his boat to actually do it and go out fishing.

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The missing crew of the Sarah Joe

The five friends drove 7 miles out to Hana Bay and borrowed Ralph’s brother’s 17-foot-long Boston Whaler, the Sarah Joe, which ended up needing new spark plugs for its 85 horsepower engine, but was otherwise in fine seaworthy condition. The group also loaded up on snacks and drinks, as well as a huge ice-filled cooler for any fish they might catch. At this time the friends were all laughing, having a great time, and thoroughly looking forward to a beautiful day out on the water. At 10AM, the men headed out into the bay under blue skies and upon calm waters, a group of friends out for a gorgeous day of fishing. It was the last anyone would see any of them alive, and would mark the beginning of one of one of the sea’s most enduring modern mysteries.

Although the weather was perfect as the group departed, unfortunately no one had bothered to check the weather forecasts for the island. This was actually pretty typical behavior at the time in this area, since Hana had no TV stations and most of the radio forecasts focused on the other, more populated side of the island anyway, and so a lot of fishermen normally just sort of went out without checking, confident in their ability to judge the weather by eye alone. In this case, it would prove to be a terrible mistake. On that day, a low pressure system was sneaking into the region, and by noon the wind had abruptly changed directions and picked up frightening speed until there were roaring gale force gusts shaking froth off of the sea into the air, as well as heavy downpours of torrential rain. The storm became so violent and caused so much flooding and damage in the town of Hana, that it was soon recognized as the worst the region had seen in 50 years. Somewhere out in this torrent of lashing rain and howling wind was the Sarah Joe, and although some of the larger fishing boats out on the water made it back safely to shore, the raging waves, some of which were reportedly enormous swells up to 40 feet high, were considered to be too ferocious for the 17-foot vessel and the prognosis was not good.

Within hours, concerned family members, including Peter’s father, John Hanchett Sr., and Ralph’s twin brother, Robert, began calling the Coast Guard to report the Sarah Joe missing. In the meantime, John, Robert, and some local men went out to do a cursory search of the shoreline and see if they could find any sign of the missing vessel. They were met with some of the fiercest waves and relentlessly bad weather any of them had ever seen, and visibility was next to nothing. When they asked around to some of the nearby residents, it turned out that no one had seen any sign of the missing boat or its crew. The following day, the Coast Guard would begin a search operation in earnest, which would quickly grow into a massive operation involving the use of nearly 50 planes, helicopters, and boats, which scoured more than 73,000 square miles of ocean over the next 5 days. Search efforts were hampered by only a vague idea of exactly where the men had gone fishing, as well as the famously strong currents of the area’s Alenuihaha Channel, which meant that every day they took decreased their chances of ever finding the Sarah Joe as it drifted further away. There was also the fact that the winds were still high and visibility was minimal, with one Coast Guard searcher commenting that the boat could have been 50 feet in front of them and they wouldn’t have known it was there. The Naval Oceans Systems Center in San Diego even went as far as to have several homing pigeons specially trained in spotting international orange or red, the only of their kind, but these plans fell through when the plane carrying them to the area was forced to roughly land due to the foul weather and the birds were lost. After 5 days of relentlessly searching for any sign of the missing boat, not a single trace was found, and it was assumed that the Sarah Joe must have sunk in the storm.


Even with the official search called off, friends, family members, and locals refused to give up. Volunteers, as well as commercial planes and boats hired through a funding campaign, meticulously searched beaches, the remote waters of the south shore of Maui, and the Hamakua coast of the Big Island, yet after a week of this no trace of any wreckage or sign of the Sarah Joe whatsoever could be located. It was as if the ocean had just swallowed the vessel up without a trace. One of the searchers involved with these volunteer efforts would explain what kept everyone going in the face of these grim odds and increasingly frustrated hopelessness, saying:

These were young, strong, healthy guys. They were experienced fishermen and good swimmers. They were all capable and had each other to rely on. If someone had found debris, we would have agreed they didn’t live through the storm, but nothing was found – nothing. And so we felt there was still a chance they were afloat and alive.

In the end, with not even a scrap of evidence to indicate what had happened to the missing Sarah Joe, everyone was forced to face the unsettling prospect that they were doomed to never know what became of the vessel, and memorial services were held honoring the missing men. Families went about their lives, not having any real closure but forced to assume the worst. As far as the world was concerned, the crew of the Sarah Joe had sailed off into oblivion. This was the way things would remain for the next decade until a chance discovery simultaneously shed light on the case and steep it in strangeness.

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The remains of the Sarah Joe

On September 10, 1988, a biologist with the National Marine Fisheries Service by the name of John Naughton, who had also incidentally been involved in the initial search a full decade earlier, was on a totally unrelated wildlife expedition over 3,000 miles away in the Marshall Islands, when he made a strange and chilling discovery. While doing field work inspecting sea turtle and bird’s nests on a remote, uninhabited speck of land in the Taongi atoll, he came across a weathered, battered old fiberglass boat laying forlornly in the sand. Upon closer inspection, it proved to bear registry numbers from a Hawaiian vessel, which was odd since the location was no where near the Hawaiian Islands. It soon became apparent after digging away some of the sand that this was the remnants of the missing Sarah Joe. It was a startling find to be sure, yet the husk of the boat held no other clues, no bodies, clothing, or notes of any kind, and Naughton, along with his four colleagues with him at the time, decided to search the area more thoroughly.

Around 100 yards away from the site of the wreck, they discovered a simple, makeshift wooden cross shoved into a shallow grave in the form of a cairn of scattered, flattened coral shingles, atop which protruded the gruesome sight of the bone of a human mandible. When some of the coral was removed, there was found to be some odd sheets of unbound paper with no writing on them, which appeared to have been slightly burned and which were interspersed with slips of what appeared to be tinfoil. Naughton would say of this odd stack of papers thus:

It was a sheaf of paper, and I’d say a book, except it was not bound. Probably three inches by three inches by maybe 3/4 of an inch thick. But between each one of these pieces of paper, there was a very small square piece of tin foil material. We have not been able to determine who placed that there or, what purpose it serves.


In addition to these strange pieces of paper and their foil, other human bones could be seen within the cairn, but not wanting to upset what had obviously been a ritual burial or to defile the grave, the team opted not to dig any further. When the jawbone was sent in for forensics examination, it was positively identified as that of one of the crew members of the Sarah Joe, Scott Moorman. No remains of any of the other four people who had been aboard could be found anywhere on the tiny island, nor could any further evidence of what might have become of them. To this day it remains a mystery as to what happened to these men. Later expeditions to the island desperately looking for clues would uncover the outboard of the Sarah Joe lodged within an outcropping of submerged coral, and some further bones were found on the sandy bottom that also turned out to be those of Scott Moorman. No other trace of anything else could be found.

The disappearance and subsequent discovery of the Sarah Joe thousands of miles away on this atoll poses numerous questions, the answers of which have remained elusive. One is just how the Sarah Joe managed to survive the raging storm in the first place, and then drift all the way to the Marshall Islands. While experts have agreed that the boat could have feasibly drifted here within 3 months, there had been a thorough government survey of the island just 6 years prior to the boat's discovery which had turned up no sign of a wrecked boat or grave. This means that the boat would have had to have floated about in the ocean for at least over four years before finding its way to the island, so where was it all of that time and why hadn’t anyone seen any sign of it? On top of this, the entrance to the lagoon where the boat was found is exceptionally narrow, and it seems unlikely that it could have just aimlessly drifted in there to cast itself gently upon the sand without first being torn to shreds by rocks. Then there are the questions of what happened to the other four men who had been on the boat, if they had been alive when they reached the atoll, and who buried the body of Scott Moorman, as well as why his jawbone had been placed on the grave and what the significance of the mysterious sheets of paper was.


Although none of these questions have ever been satisfactorily answered, one of the most popular theories seems to be that a Chinese fishing ship had found the boat drifting at sea along with the body of Moorman, who just may have lashed himself to the vessel to keep from being thrown off in the storm. The fishermen then may have guided the boat into the lagoon and then buried the one body they’d found out of respect. This theory is somewhat supported by the fact that the cryptic papers and the tinfoil resemble a Chinese burial rite in which papers, as well as gold and silver foil, are provided to the dead as currency and a source of fortune in the next life. As to why the finding was never officially reported, it is thought that this may be because the Chinese ship had been fishing the waters illegally, and therefore chose to remain silent. This theory still does not answer the question of what happened to the other four men, how they managed to survive the storm, where the boat had been in all the intervening years until it was found, and whether Moorman had been alive or dead when he arrived here. Since no trace of the other four crew members has ever been found, it is likely we will never know for sure.

The mystery of the Sarah Joe has been discussed a great deal in the ensuing years, and it was even featured on an episode of the TV show Unsolved Mysteries back in 1989, in the hopes of generating awareness of the case and possibly producing more leads. No new information was forthcoming, and the case remains largely as impenetrable as it has always been. In later years, a memorial plaque has been erected on Taongi atoll, as well as another at Hana, Hawaii. They remain a testament to one of the most baffling unsolved sea disappearances in history. What happened to this boat full of friends who went out for merely a nice day of fishing and sailed off to become one of the most mysterious ocean cold cases? There is a good chance we will never no for sure, their fate lost to the tides and the inexorable churning, hungry beast that is the sea itself.

Brent Swancer

Brent Swancer is an author and crypto expert living in Japan. Biology, nature, and cryptozoology still remain Brent Swancer’s first intellectual loves. He's written articles for MU and Daily Grail and has been a guest on Coast to Coast AM and Binnal of America.

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