Unsolved Mystery of the The Sarah Joe

Scott Moorman
Scott Moorman was born in 1952 and grew up in the San Fernando Valley. He watched the TV series Adventures in Paradise as a child and started telling his parents that one day he was going to move to Hawaii. He married young and had a son, but his dream of living in Hawaii never left so when Scott and his young wife called it quits in 1975, he fulfilled his dream by moving to the small community of Nahiku on the east coast of Maui. 

Nahiku was a town of native Hawaiians and a growing population of "haoles," mostly Caucasian refugees looking for their version of paradise - hippies, earth mamas, nature freaks and Vietnam vets trying to forget. Women and men both wore their hair long, grew and smoked dope, lived with each other with no thought of being married and partied way more than they worked. 

The natives didn't take to them as a group, but a few of the new-comers, including Scott, made an effort to get to know them, learned to speak the pidgin-English they spoke, learned their customs and so, gradually, some of the haoles became at least casual friends with some of the natives. The locals called the remote area where they lived "inside" and the populated areas, like Hana, "outside." After a while, Scott and the other newcomers came to see it the same way. Scott went back to California once, for his son's birthday and to see his parents. They asked him to stay, but he told them he couldn't see living anywhere else now. He had to go back to Nahiku, he had to go back home. It was the last time they would see him.

On February 11, 1979, Scott and four friends, Peter Hanchett, Patrick Woesner, Benjamin Kalama, and Ralph Malaiakini, were working constructing a house, but the ocean was smooth and the sky almost cloudless. According to Hawaiian time, things happen when they happen - "yes" means probably later, "maybe" is a nice way of saying probably not, and if the weather is good, then work goes into the later category. The 5 men decided to work later and go fishing now. 

They drove the 7 miles to Hana and borrowed a boat, a 17-foot  Boston Whaler, from an acquaintance. The 85-horsepower outboard needed new spark plugs so the 5 men bought the plugs and installed them. They also purchased beer, soft drinks, snacks, and filled a large cooler with ice for the fish they hoped to be bringing back. 

The Alenuihaha channel between the Big Island and Maui is perhaps the roughest and most dangerous waters in Hawaii. Flowing next to Mauna Loa, the world's largest volcano, the water is 17,000 feet deep and has strong surface currents moving swiftly to the southwest. On this day, a low pressure system had formed near the islands and it intensified as it approached the Alenuihaha channel, but since Hana received no television stations and the radio stations issued weather reports mostly for the western side of Maui, boaters were accustomed to heading out to sea without consulting weather reports beforehand. They simply played the weather by eye. The day Scott and his friends decided to go fishing, the bay had barely a ripple and the sky was void of all clouds except a few little stray puffs. By 10:00 that morning, the men had the boat in the ocean and motored out of the bay. They were heading straight into an enduring mystery which will likely never be solved.

By noon, just 2 short hours after the men put to sea, the wind had shifted to the north and picked up considerable speed. Two hours later, gale-force winds were whipping up large waves in the Alenuihaha channel and a torrential downpour had begun. Residents said later the storm was the worst one they had seen in 50 years. A good portion of Hana was flooded and a number of houses and businesses were damaged by the high winds. Three boats out fishing that day made it back to Hana just as the storm got really bad, but the Sarah Joe wasn't one of them.

The Coast Guard was notified at 5:00 PM that the boat and men were missing. A helicopter and a large fixed-wing plane were dispatched to search for the men, but the winds were high, the ocean boiling and the visibility was very poor. One searcher said the weather was so bad, "they could have been just 50 feet in front of us and we wouldn't have seen them." More planes and helicopters were dispatched to the hunt. Eventually, over the next 5 days, 44 planes and boats covered more than 56,000 square miles of ocean, but they found not a trace of the Sarah Joe or her occupants. After 5 days, the official search was called off.

The families, friends, and neighbors didn't give up. One of the men who continued the search stated, "These were young, strong, healthy guys. They were experienced fishermen and good swimmers. They were all capable and had each other to rely on. If someone had found debris, we would have agreed they didn't live through the storm, but nothing was found - nothing. And so we felt there was still a chance they were afloat and alive." A fund drive was begun and over $50,000 was raised. It was used to hire commercial boats and private planes to join the volunteers in an extended search. Dozens and dozens of volunteers combed the isolated south shore of Maui and the Hamakua coast of the Big Island in case the boat or it's crew had managed to land there. Absolutely nothing was found that could possibly be related to the Sarah Joe or the men who vanished with her. A full week after the Coast Guard had given up the search, the volunteers admitted they had no idea what had happened to Scott and his friends. While in the area, commercial and private fishermen and boaters kept their eyes open for any sign of what happened to the Sarah Joe for months after, but no trace was found.

Exactly one year after they disappeared, a memorial service was held for the five men who had vanished so suddenly, so thoroughly, it was like the sea had opened its mouth and swallowed them up.

The area southwest of the Hawaiian Islands is a vast expanse of empty open ocean stretching for more than 2,300 miles. At that point a small atoll, a group of uninhabited little islands named the Taongi Atoll, is encountered. Considered a part of the Marshall Isles, the islands were little more than strips of arid land slightly higher than the ocean. A few scrub plants have found a foothold on a couple of the strips of land, but none of them are palatable for humans. There is no fresh water. The only inhabitants ever recorded had been a few Japanese soldiers whom the Allies wiped out in 1944 during WWII.  The atoll is far from the shipping lanes and the nearest land is over 200 miles further west. The area is so isolated, it was under serious consideration as the site of atomic bomb testing. This is no tropical island paradise for anyone.

On September 10, 1988, marine biologist John Naughton and 4 other men went ashore one of those little islands looking for green sea turtles and nesting sea birds. They had been hired by the government of the Marshal Islands to find a suitable site for a wildlife sanctuary.  The team had been on the land for less than 30 minutes when they spotted something sticking up out of the sand. Upon closer inspection, it was the battered fiberglass hull of a Boston Whaler with the letters "HA" painted on the side. Naughton, a resident of Maui, Hawaii, knew those letters meant the boat was registered in Hawaii. After clearing away some of the sand, the letters S, a, h and j became visible. Ironically, Naughton had been one of the volunteers who had so diligently searched for the Sarah Joe almost 10 years ago. He knew what they had finally found. There were no traces of the five men; no remains, no notes, no clothing. Naughton and his crew decided to scour the whole little island, hoping against hope to find survivors even though nobody could have remained alive on this sand bar for long.
The Sarah Joe after she was found and pulled from the sand.

About 100 yards further on, the men came across a crude wooden cross marking a shallow grave. A cairn of flattened coral stones had been fashioned to mark the grave and on top of these stones was a single human jaw bone. One rock held down a sheaf of partially burned papers. There was no writing on the sheets of paper. Carefully unstacking several of the stones, the men could see more human bones underneath. They put the stones they had disturbed back in place and stopped. Naughton later stated, "We didn't dig up the grave. We could see it was a Christian burial and the Marshallese men with us were somewhat superstitious. We immediately saw there were fillings in the teeth and we could see it was not a very old burial just by the fact the bones were not very bleached. Also, you could see the area had been washed by really high storm waves sometime in the recent past so the grave had to have been made after that."

After completing a search of the whole island and finding nothing else, their discovery was reported to the Marshallese authorities. The U.S. Coast Guard was informed and they sent two forensic experts from the Army Central Identification Lab in Honolulu to see if the remains could be identified. When they arrived, additional bones were discovered in the grave, but a complete skeleton was not recovered. Bringing the bones back to Hawaii, they soon proved by dental records and DNA to be those of one man, Scott Moorman. The cause of death could not be determined. Two months after they were found, Scott's family held a memorial service and buried his remains in Forest Lawn Cemetery in Los Angeles.

Along the sandbar where the grave of Scott Moorman was found.
Family members of the other 4 men hired a private detective who tried for a number of months to determine what happened to the men still lost. He took a crew to the Taongi Atoll where they once again scoured the spit of land and dove in the lagoon looking for clues. The outboard engine of the Sarah Joe was found underwater wedged in the coral reef. Digging and sifting the sand, they found a handful of human bones a few yards further down from the grave site. Nothing more was discovered. The private detective and crew declared they were absolutely positive there was nothing more to find. Forensic work later determined the bones were more of Scott Moorman. 

So what really happened to the Sarah Joe and the 5 friends who went out in her that fateful day? Had she been floating around in that vast expanse of empty ocean for almost 10 years, her crew slowly dying one by one of hunger and thirst? There was only one narrow entrance through the reef and islands where a boat can enter the lagoon of 
 the Taongi Atoll. Did the Sarah Joe, against all odds, just happen to float through that narrow channel to land on an interior sandbar or could she have been guided by someones hand? What happened to the 4 men who have never been found? All sailors know, the sea rarely gives up her dead. Who buried Scott Moorman? How did he come to be freshly buried at least 9 years after his disappearance? What were those partially burned sheets of paper on his grave? Why was his jawbone on top of the grave and his other bones buried? So many unanswered questions, but it all remains a mystery.


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