Stranded on a Remote Pacific Island, Three Men Spelled ‘HELP’ With Palm Fronds and Got Rescued

The experienced sailors lived on coconut meat and well water for more than a week, after their boat became damaged

HELP spelled out on beach
Crew aboard a U.S. Navy P-8 Poseidon aircraft spotted the men's "HELP" sign from the air. U.S. Coast Guard

Three men were rescued after spending more than a week on a tiny, uninhabited island in the Pacific Ocean, after they used palm fronds to spell out the word “HELP” on the beach.

The stranded men are safe and back home, thanks to responders with the U.S. Coast Guard and the U.S. Navy, who were able to locate them in a search area that initially spanned more than 78,000 square nautical miles. The men’s “act of ingenuity” was critical to their successful rescue, says Coast Guard Lieutenant Chelsea Garcia in a statement.

The saga began on March 31—Easter Sunday—when the three men departed from Polowat Atoll in a 20-foot open skiff with an outboard motor. The experienced mariners, who are all in their 40s, were heading toward Pikelot Atoll, an island about 100 nautical miles away. Both islands are part of the Federated States of Micronesia.

The trio had planned to do some fishing around Pikelot, but their vessel became damaged “due to the swells surging on the island and surrounding shoal,” says Sara Muir, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Coast Guard, to NBC News’ Patrick Smith.

As a result, their fishing trip quickly turned into a survival mission. The men were able to land on the island, where they lived off coconut meat and drank freshwater from a small well.

After the men did not return on time from their trip, a relative reported them missing to the U.S. Coast Guard in Guam on April 6. The Coast Guard and the Navy sprang into action, deploying a U.S. Navy P-8 Poseidon aircraft based in Japan and a Coast Guard cutter ship called the Oliver Henry.

U.S. Coast Guard boat with men in it
Crew from the U.S. Coast Guard's cutter ship Oliver Henry rescued the men. U.S. Coast Guard

Crew members aboard the Poseidon spotted the men’s “HELP” message from the air on April 7 and airdropped survival kits to them. The next day, a U.S. Coast Guard HC-130J Hercules aircraft based in Hawaii flew over the island and dropped off a radio. The men told their story—that their vessel’s motor was broken, but they had access to food and water and were in good health.

“They expressed a desire for assistance in returning to Polowat,” according to the statement.

The Oliver Henry reached the island on the morning of April 9. One of the first responders to hit the beach was Petty Officer 2nd Class Eugene Halishlius, who is Micronesian and can speak the local language. Once he started chatting with the lost men, Halishlius realized he was related to them—one was his third cousin, while the others were his fourth cousins, per CNN’s Brad Lendon.

After the brief family reunion, the ship safely transported the men and their beleaguered boat back to Polowat Atoll.

“We’re not just visitors—we’re members of this vibrant maritime community that connects all these islands,” says Lieutenant Ray Cerrato, commanding officer of the Oliver Henry, in the statement. “It’s about more than just performing a duty; it’s about the real human connections we forge and the lives we touch.”

This month’s rescue marks the second time responders have saved stranded sailors from Pikelot Atoll. In 2020, three men got stuck there for nearly three days after their boat ran out of fuel. Airborne rescuers spotted the “SOS” the men had written in the sand.

“The people of Micronesia frequently travel island to island and do so with a great deal of skill and experience,” Muir tells CNN. The two recent rescues at the same spot, she adds, seem to be just a coincidence.

In 2016, three men were rescued from the island of Fanadik after similarly spelling out “HELP” in the sand with palm fronds. They swam nearly two miles at night to reach the remote island, also in Micronesia, after their boat was capsized by a wave.

In the wake of this week’s rescue, the U.S. Coast Guard “strongly recommends” that all mariners bring emergency position indicating radio beacons (EPIRB) with them, which can alert responders to their exact location in an emergency.

“A growing number of maritime communities offer loaner programs for these devices, making it easier for everyone to access this critical safety tool,” according to the statement.

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