In 1966, six teenagers from Ha’afeva, an island in the Tonga archipelago, decided to go on an adventure not knowing the perils that lay ahead for them. After school, the six friends went to the beach, stole a boat and launched themselves into the sea. At that point, they couldn’t know then that they would only come back home fifteen months later.
After a few hours on the boat, they could no longer see the lights of Nuku’alofa, the port from where they’d left. It was already dawn and the wind started blowing stronger, the waves were growing wilder. “A storm came and we didn’t remember to close the sail, which was blown away by the wind,” Sione Filipe Totau, known as Mano, now 74, said to Vice magazine. Some were crying, others tried to use small cans to store rainwater.
We tried to stay hopeful, but I was worried that we might die thereSione Filipe Totau
Day and night, the boat drifted at sea without water or food. After eight days, about 150 kilometers away from where they left, they spotted land. Once on the island, they climbed the mountainous cliffs. The name of the island, they later found out, was Ata.
After some rest, they knew they had to plan for the worst: a potential long stay on the island. They forced themselves to hunt seabirds, drank their blood to re-hydrate. They ate their eggs. Eventually they built a small hut, and required three months to be able to start their first fire. They ate what they could find on the island: fish, papayas, mango, and seabirds.
I chocked up a piece of wood that was soaking wet. I took it, broke it into pieces and squeezed them in my hand, which I then licked. It was the first water I had drunk in eight days
After a month on the island they tried to build a raft to escape but the attempt was a failure. The small wooden craft merely floated along the shore. “We realized that we would never get out of there,” Mano said. Back on the island of Ha’afeva, parents and siblings were already grieving the teenagers. Funerals were being planned and organized.
More than a year after being shipwrecked on the island, they saw a boat in the distance. In his desperation, one of the boys did not wait. He jumped into the water and swam to the boat of Peter Warner, an Australian adventurer sailing in the area. According to Mano, someone from the crew reportedly told Warner that they heard a human voice.
Moments later they spotted the boy. The boat slowed down and the remaining boys jumped in the water as well. The crew, however, was suspicious. “Mr. Warner wouldn’t lower the ladder,” Mano told The Guardian. “Fortunately, one of us spoke English and we were able to answer a few questions.” When Warner realized that the desperation was real, he let them get on the boat and took them back to their island.
Upon arrival in Tonga, they were arrested and accused of theft by the boat owner. They only managed to escape thanks to Warner, who sold their story to an Australian channel and used the money to reimburse the boat owner, who later agreed to drop the charges.
More than five decades later and despite the trauma, Mano remains convinced that he learned more in those fifteen months than in a lifetime at school. “I learned to trust myself, to realize that it doesn’t matter who you are. If you’re in trouble, you’ll do whatever it takes to survive.”