The Insane Disappearance of the Sarah Joe Boat and Its Crew

The Sarah Joe mystery is one of history’s most bizarre maritime conundrums. Over 40 years ago, five friends disappeared while ocean fishing near Hana, Hawaii.

Their disappearance was thought to be an open-and-shut case, as during their excursion, an unexpected storm hit the area.

With no remnants of the friends or their boat, called the Sarah Joe, being found, investigators assumed that they were sadly dragged to the bottom of the ocean.

However, 10 years later, a discovery was made that turned the Sarah Joe mystery on its head.

February 11, 1979: The Sarah Joe and Its Crew Disappear

An aerial view of Hana, Hawaii, the village from which the Sarah Joe and its crew went missing.
Aerial view of Hana, Hawaii
Source: KanoaWithington at the English-language Wikipedia
CC BY-SA 3.0

On February 11, 1979, five close friends Benjamin Kalama, Scott Moorman, Peter Hanchett, Ralph Maliakini, and Patrick Woessner set sail from the shore of Hana, Hawaii.

Manning a 17-foot motorboat called the Sarah Joe, the crew didn’t intend to be out for more than a day. The weather was temperate, and the current was gentle: the perfect conditions for a fishing trip.

Around 1pm, people noticed wind picking up from the mountains. This is a telltale sign of a coming storm. The Sarah Joe’s crew, all being experienced fishermen, would have known this, yet they did not return to shore.

Before long, a storm was raging in Hana. And with no sign of the Sarah Joe or its crew, villagers became worried.

The Initial Searches for the Sarah Joe and Its Crew

After a night of no sleep, John Hanchett—Peter Hanchett’s father—spent all of February 12, 1979 boating around the area, hoping to find some remnants of the crew. In the following weeks, he was joined by the tight-knit community of Hana, local marine biologists, and even the US Coast Guard. 

Eventually, however, even John realized that the search party needed to cut their losses: The Sarah Joe’s crew was most likely gone for good.

10 Years Later, the Sarah Joe Is Found: More Questions Than Answers

A geographic diagram of the Taongi Atoll, where the Sarah Joe and its crew were found in 1988.
The Taongi Atoll
Source: Mr Minton from San Diego, US
CC BY 2.0

On September 9, 1988, marine biologist John Naughton was on an expedition at Taongi Atoll, an uninhabited coral atoll in the Marshall Islands. Located over 2,000 miles west of Hana, it is the last place one would expect to find remnants of the Sarah Joe.

However, on the desolate atoll, he spotted boat wreckage. Unbelievably, the boat’s registration number matched that of the Sarah Joe.

Next to the boat was a makeshift grave, covered with coral rocks and topped with a cross made of sticks.

Underneath the coral rocks were remains later identified as belonging to Scott Moorman. Buried with Scott was a paper booklet containing tin foil squares. None of the other crew members’ remains were found.

It should be noted that John Naughton had been conducting research in Hana 10 years prior. In fact, he was one of the marine biologists who aided in the search for the Sarah Joe and its crew. His finding the boat 2,000 miles west of Hana is a near impossibility.

Unanswered Questions Regarding the Sarah Joe Mystery

In most cases like this one, discovering the remains of the missing person or people will give investigators a clearer understanding of the situation. With regards to the Sarah Joe mystery, however, John Naughton’s discovery only confused authorities more.

How did Sarah Joe end up 2,000 miles from Hana? How did Scott pass, and where were the remains of his friends? Who buried Scott? What was the significance of the paper booklet containing tin foil squares?

To add another twist to an already bizarre case, the Taongi Atoll had been the setting of a geological survey conducted by the US government in 1985. During that time, there were no reports of boat wreckage being seen along the shore. 

This means, that—despite the fact that the Sarah Joe and its crew went missing in 1979—the boat had to have arrived at the Taongi Atoll between 1985 and 1988. Where was it between 1979 and 1985?

A Popular Theory About the Sarah Joe Mystery

Some say that the five men had died of starvation not long after being caught in the storm, which may have pushed them too far off course to be able to make it back to Hana.

To purveyors of this theory, Scott—the last to live—pushed their bodies off the boat and eventually passed away himself, still in the Sarah Joe.

Over the years, the boat floated towards the Marshall Islands, a popular destination for Chinese fishermen.

Some of these fishermen came across the boat containing Scott’s body and decided to give him a proper burial along the shore of the Taongi Atoll. 

This would also explain the paper booklet containing tin foil squares, which was found buried with Scott. Such a booklet could have been a makeshift joss paper, traditionally used in Chinese burial.

Of course, this theory relies almost entirely on speculation. To this day, there is no concrete evidence that solves the Sarah Joe mystery.

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