Two women who were retrieved by the Navy after they were stranded in a damaged sailboat with their two dogs for five months have, at long last, stepped foot on land. Yet, as questions arise about their story, the two admitted Monday they had a functioning rescue beacon on board they did not use.
Jennifer Appel and Tasha Fuiava were taken to the White Base Naval Facility in southern Japan on Monday after the two were picked up by the Navy on October 25, adrift some 900 miles off the coast of Japan. The friends left their homes in Hawaii on May 3 for what was supposed to be about a month-long sailing trip to Tahiti in Appel’s sailing boat, the Sea Nymph, but the two quickly ran into trouble from a storm that flooded their engine, damaged their mast and cut off their communication systems.
“The crew of the USS Ashland saved our lives,” Appel, 48, told press during a briefing on Monday, according to ABC News. “Had they not been able to locate us we would have been dead within 24 hours.”
Appel, who is an experienced sailor, stocked up on a year’s worth of food for the trip in case of an emergency, living off a supply of pasta and oatmeal that was about 90 percent depleted by the time they were rescued. The two-woman crew sent out distress signals for 98 days but did not receive a response, and endured two separate attacks from groups of tiger sharks that rammed their boat.
“When I saw the gray ship on the horizon, I was just shaking,” Fuiava told PEOPLE and other reporters during a conference call on Friday. “I was ready to cry. I was so happy. I knew we were going to live.”
Yet, a Coast Guard spokeswoman told the AP that the women had an EPIRB (Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacon) on board, which could have been used to alert search and rescue services via satellite at any point during their five-month journey. During a conference call with the AP and PEOPLE on Friday, Appel did not include an EPIRB when asked what communication devices she had on board.
“We asked why during this course of time did they not activate the EPIRB. She had stated they never felt like they were truly in distress, like in a 24-hour period they were going to die,” Coast Guard spokeswoman Petty Officer 2nd Clbad Tara Molle said.
Appel and Fuiava’s account has garnered much criticism from the boating community from the start.
“I think most cruising sailors found the story just really odd,” Linus Wilson—an associate professor of finance at the University of Louisiana, who took up sailing in 2010 and has since logged more than 10,000 nautical miles—tells PEOPLE. “My initial thought when I heard the story was that Jennifer was very irresponsible for not checking the weather reports.”
Appel says a Force 11 storm slammed into their boat within days of leaving Hawaii, but Wilson’s suspicions led him to research if any Force 11 storms—which can cause exceptionally high 30- to 50-foot waves and can dramatically reduce visibility—formed around Hawaii at the start of May. The NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) told him they have no record of a storm occurring at that time. PEOPLE followed up with the NOAA and confirmed this information.
Wilson says he is worried their story may scare away people who are interested in sailing.
“To have people afraid they’re going to be lost at sea, or that they’re going to be attacked by sharks, I think it’s a terrible picture for the sailboat cruising community,” he says. “Sailors who have been out on the water and have cruised long distances, their comments about the story are negative—there are so many holes in it that it just doesn’t make any sense.”