It could happen in an instant. One moment you could be out sailing with friends, catching fish and pulling in enough food to feed your family for weeks and the next you could be fighting for your life in a situation that you could never have anticipated.
For 53-year-old Uein Buranibwe and his friend, that exact exchange of moments did in fact occur. Over the course of one, single, seemingly insignificant moment these two men were swept up in a tide of trouble that would not only put their future at risk but link them to their past in a way they’d never expected…
Friends on a Trip
Pacific Islanders Uein Buranibwe and his 26-year-old friend Temaei Tontaake were headed out for a day of fishing. It was something they had done a hundred times before and they were prepared with a slew of nets, hooks, harpoons, and even a GPS locator, just in case.
The pair had cast off from their island home of Kiribati, an island nation in the South Pacific. They knew that they would have to be very careful, though. Many a sailor had become lost at sea in those treacherous and tricky waters. This included their long-lost uncle Bairo, who had also been swept off at sea…
Despite the dangers, the pair had decided to go out fishing at night. They had a better chance of hooking Tuna and other large fish at that time and knew that the payout and the weeks of food would make the risk well worth it.
Lost Their Way
The journey would take them a dangerous 50 km from their home and any neighboring islands in the former Gilbert Islands Atoll. Unfortunately, the starless night and subsequent rough seas would prove to be a lethal combination for the two ambitious fishermen. Before long, they’d lost their way entirely…
Out of Batteries
Despite having a fairly up-to-date GPS with them, the two fishermen would learn that relying solely on technology is a folly all it’s own. Within a few hours, the GPS had run out of batteries, and both men were have left adrift in the daunting Pacific Ocean.
Drifting for Weeks
With no satellite navigation system and no idea where they were, the two men drifted for weeks. They survived on what little fish they could catch, but the process was slow and they were running out of supplies faster than they could catch new ones…
Sometimes, the men would go three or four days without catching a thing. Four days without food can make people do desperate things, but four days without water, that can kill you. There was little rainfall in the hot, humid South Pacific, and as the unbearable days stretched on and on, the fishermen wondered what they could do for water.
Bad but Necessary
When they could get rain, or trap some condensation, they relished it. However, most of the time the two men went thirsty. When their fresh water supplies finally ran out, they made one desperate and ill-advised decision: they began to drink salt water…
No Sign of Them
Meanwhile, the U.S. Coast Guard was already on the lookout for Mr. Buranibwe and Mr. Tontaake. Once their families had informed the village that they were missing, the Coast Guard mounted a search. Unfortunately, the search area was very wide, and it would take them days to comb the entire area.
Over the course of 33 days, the boat had drifted over 600 km across the ocean. Finally, when it looked as though the fishermen would die in the ocean, they ran aground on a strange island. Only 600 people lived on the island but there was something vaguely familiar about them…
The island was a little-known speck of land known as Namdrik, but it was populated. Unsurprisingly, the island’s inhabitants spoke a language that the two men were wholly unfamiliar with. They tried to inform the villagers about who they were and what had brought them there but to no avail.
One of the island’s inhabitants had apparently recognized their foreign tongue and brought them to the only person on the entire island who spoke their language. He too was very familiar. He had the same warm smile and kind eyes as the very uncle who had disappeared from their island some 70 years earlier…
Not Lost at All
But it couldn’t be him. Surely the original Uncle Bairo was long dead. Their mild curiosity soon turned to delight when they realized that it wasn’t Uncle Bairo, but one of his descendants who had learned his grandfather’s language and carried it down through the family.
Also Run Aground
Uncle Bairo, who they had feared drowned at sea in the 1950s, had survived and had decided to stay on Namdrik and build a life for himself there. After all, there was no way back then for him to find his way home or to reach out to his family and let them know he was alright. His only choice was to blend in…
Part of that Life
As can happen, Uncle Bairo eventually fell in love and in time he married into the community. He became a part of the village and an irreplaceable figurehead in his new family. His fate actually brought hope to the village at large, who had always hoped that their own lost relatives found new lives somewhere else.
As it turns out, people being lost at sea is a fairly common occurrence in these Pacific Island communities. It’s the reason that Buranibwe and Tontaake took a GPS with them in the first place. When people do disappear in these island chains, they are usually never seen or heard from again. They just vanish…
Some, however, do find their way to the nearby Marshall Island chain. Drifting fishermen from Kiribati frequently find themselves on their shores. Despite the hardships and exposure of the unforgiving South Pacific, they persevere until they’re able to find help.
Wait for Repairs
After meeting their long-lost relatives, Buranibwe and Tontaake took a pitstop on Majuro, the capital of the Marshall Islands, to repair their boat. They would have returned home soon after by plane, but the local island’s lone aircraft was grounded for repairs. It would be a further 17 days before they finally went home…
Bring the News Home
They flew home in early 2017, having solved a 50-year-old family mystery in the bargain. Their weary and worried families welcomed them in with loving arms and warm smiles.
“That was a pretty pleasant surprise, to drift at sea for 33 days and wind up on an island where you’ve got family members,” said Buranibwe. Truly they have done the impossible on two counts and learned that even when something seems hopeless, it isn’t always.