Tue, Feb 22, 2005 - Page 5 News List

Three men survive 7 weeks adrift in dinghy on open sea

THE GUARDIAN , LONDON

Three men spent almost seven weeks adrift in the South Pacific in a dinghy, surviving on fish, birds and occasional rainwater.

Benjamin Tooki, 22, a dual national of Australia and the tiny Pacific nation of Kiribati, his uncle Koraubara Pebaka, 47, and a friend Taea Matakite, 23, both from Kiribati, had not seen land for 46 days when they were rescued by the New Zealand air force last week.

On Jan. 2, they set out from Kiribati, a remote chain of islands near the equator, in a 6m open aluminum dinghy when rough weather washed them out to sea.

They survived by catching fish and birds, and drinking what little rainwater they could gather.

"I just tried to hang in there, I just thought of my family and loved ones," Tooki said on Sunday.

Ioioeru Tokantetaake, Kiribati's police commissioner, said they had suffered severe dehydration and exposure. He refused to comment on media reports that the men had survived by drinking sharks' blood.

Jurek Juszczyk, Australia's high commissioner to Kiribati, said the men had been in open water all the time.

"The seas were very rough and they got caught up in very strong currents and just started to drift," he said.

"They drifted south of Tarawa [the main island] and south of the island at which they'd originated, Maiana, and were found seven weeks later in the vicinity of another outer island, Tabitaua," he said.

Air and sea searches were launched as soon as they failed to arrive at their destination, and fishing boats in the surrounding regions were placed on alert. Repeated search and rescue missions failed to locate the craft and the men were presumed dead.

But Tooki's mother, Taoati, refused to believe this and spent more than A&25,000 on private searches for her son.

Meanwhile at sea, the three men watched helplessly as international container ships repeatedly passed them.

"One just went past, we thought it would find us but it didn't, it was just a nightmare," Tooki said.

Last Thursday, a New Zealand air force Orion plane, searching for fishing boats missing after Cyclone Olaf, spotted the men and a police patrol boat was sent to collect them.

"It came straight for us, it was a dream," Tooki said. They were taken to Kiribati's central hospital but discharged soon after, having suffered no lasting effects.

Kiribati residents often survive at sea for weeks using skills handed down by their sea-faring ancestors, who colonized the remote islands thousands of years ago.

Tooki said he had had trouble sleeping since being rescued.

"I can't sleep sometimes at night. I keep having flashbacks. I still think I'm in the ocean," he said.

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