I’m always fascinated by the experiences of others, set in exotic locations, that are so different from my own. The true story of six Tongan youths, adrift at sea and stranded on an uninhabited island for 15 months, makes for a great read. It is also an example of how we can be more resilient in our own lives.
The Kingdom of Tonga is a sovereign state encompassing over 100 islands in the South Pacific. It is one of the few places that has never been conquered or colonized by western powers. Missionaries brought Christianity to the indigenous population, and this island monarchy boasts one of the highest rates of churches per capita in the world.
It is convenient then, that our story begins with six boys, aged 13-16, who attend a strictly run Christian boarding school in Nuku’alofa, Tonga’s capital. Most people who have attended strict, religious-run schools, do not have fond and warm memories of the experience. For these boys, the food at school was terrible, and the daily misery seemed bad enough that they decided it would be a great idea to “borrow” a fishing boat and try to make it to Fiji or New Zealand – with no compass and little food.
They fell asleep and woke up in darkness – water filled their boat. The sail had been destroyed. For eight days, they floated, seemingly aimlessly, catching what little rain water they could, and dividing it equally. Their meager supply of food quickly ran out.
On the eighth day they spotted land – an island atoll, about one hundred nautical miles from where they started. This island is called ‘Ata, although the boys didn’t know it at the time. It had been uninhabited for over a hundred years. Many of the former residents had been kidnapped and hauled off on a slave ship.
The boys made rules for themselves. To avoid arguments and fights, they would have mandatory time outs. They always worked in pairs to get tasks done. They shared everything equally. They started and ended each day in worship and prayer.
They didn’t know it at the time, but this would be their home for 15 months. They survived by eating fish and birds. There was very little fresh water, and they used hollowed out logs to collect it. They also drank the blood of the birds they captured and ate.
Life got a little cushier for them once they explored up on the rocky cliffs. They found an abandoned settlement near the rim of an ancient volcanic crater. Here the boys gardened taro and seeds. They also found bananas and chickens (who had been living a people-free dream life for over a hundred years – I’m sure they weren’t very excited about being rediscovered).
For entertainment, they made a badminton court, gym equipment, and even fashioned a driftwood and coconut shell guitar. They were also able to care for one of the boys after he fell and broke his leg.
Tropical paradise living came to an end when the boys spotted a fishing ship. They ran into the waves and shouted at the top of their lungs. One of the crew members on the boat thought he heard human voices, amongst the constant cries of the sea birds circling the boat and the island’s cliffs. The captain told him he was hearing things. But then, looking through his binoculars, he spotted a brown, naked body, arms waving violently. The following is from an excerpt of the captain’s memoir, “With no clothes on at all, and hair grown into a huge black top-heavy “gollywog” bush, the healthy youngster swam towards us…..I ordered the crew to load the rifles below and stand by ready to repel boarders because now a few more brown figures were swimming towards us. My first thoughts were, that this place must be some sort of prison island for desperate Tongan thugs and outcasts. Exile was a common practice in Polynesia, sometimes in a leaky canoe. After his Olympic winning swim from the shore, a big pearly white smile from the kid alongside with the exploded hair do, calmed my nerves. We lowered the boarding ladder and the 18 year old heaved himself aboard, stark naked, and announced in perfect aristocratic English, “My name is Steven. There are six of us and we estimate we have been here between one and two years”.
The boys explained that their ordeal began because the food at St. Andrews Anglican High School was so terrible, they decided to “borrow” the boat in order to catch some fish, then got the great idea to sail to another island, but because of the storm and boat damage, found their way to ‘Ata. With all six naked boys on board, they were given clothing and food (which they threw up – after not eating European style food for so long. (Maybe it gave them flash backs from their boarding school days. After eating fresh fish and crops for so long, I might have thrown up too). After radioing a nearby station, the captain was able to substantiate the boys’ claims. Their families had searched for them, but eventually gave up, and held funerals for each one.
How were the boys welcomed back at home, after being presumed dead for almost two years? They were put in jail for theft. Turns out, the boat owner wasn’t a soft-hearted guy who was a sucker for happy endings. The Australian fishing captain who rescued them, Peter Warner, got them out of jail and hired them as crew on his new boat, named Ata. They also made a documentary about their ordeal. He remained close with several of the boys, and as of this writing (May 2020), he is still alive and best friends with one of them, Mano Totau.
The boys really seemed to thrive on their deserted island. They had no supplies. No tools. But they had a genuine care for each other, teamwork, and goals. When they were eventually rescued, they were in great physical condition, along with being emotionally and spiritually well-grounded. Can we say the same thing about ourselves? What can we gain by; spending the majority of time outdoors, doing physical work, having goals, worship and prayer, having friends who care, and eating healthy, wholesome food?
A documentary of the event is going to be released next summer Here is a sneak peek of the trailer.