Thirty years ago today, five friends from Hana set out in the late morning for a fishing trip aboard the Sarah Joe. They were never seen again, although their boat and the remains of one of them were discovered on an uninhabited atoll 21 years ago.
On Feb. 21, family and friends will paddle canoes into Hana Bay for a memorial ceremony to be followed on shore by a luau, music, storytelling, laughter and tears.
The story of the Sarah Joe was more than a tragic boating accident. It was an unforgettable series of mishaps and surprises, and it still is much of a mystery.
Many people in Hana risked their lives to search during a violent storm for the crew of the Sarah Joe, a 17-foot Boston whaler.
Ralph Malaiakini, then 27, borrowed the boat from his twin brother, Robert. Ralph Malaiakini set out on Feb. 11, 1979, in the Sarah Joe from Hana with four friends. They played ball, drank beer and fished together. They called themselves the Nahiku Gorillas.
The day the five friends went to sea was a clear day and the ocean was "as flat and calm as it could be," in the later recollection of the late John Hanchett, whose son, Peter, then 31, was one of the five.
The others were Scott Moorman, 27, Benjamin Kalama, 38, and Patrick Woessner, 26.
It was just another day in Hana, and people did not pay special attention. Later, some said the men had called over citizen's band radio to report engine trouble, although Hanchett said they didn't have a radio.
By 1 p.m. that day, the wind was rising. By nightfall, the storm was violent. Bobby Poovy, who went out searching in his 26-foot boat, said that at times his vessel was vertical that night.
The Coast Guard search went on for five days and the private searching for much longer. Currents in the Alenuihaha Channel are swift, and the potential search area grew almost exponentially as the days went by.
The Naval Oceans Systems Center in San Diego had trained three homing pigeons to spot international orange or red. The birds' excellent color vision and resistance to fatigue were expected to vastly increase the search capability of aircraft.
However, the Coast Guard helicopter carrying the pigeons made a forced landing off Kona. No crew members were hurt, but the pigeons - the only trained rescue pigeons in the world - were lost.
One of the searchers was John Naughton, a researcher with the National Marine Fisheries Service. In 1988, Naughton was inspecting Taongi, the northernmost coral atoll in the Marshall Islands. He spotted a wrecked boat with a Hawaiian registry number on the hull.
He later said he immediately thought of the Sarah Joe but could hardly believe it. Once ashore, it was the Sarah Joe, and nearby a simple grave of heaped stones and a cross of driftwood contained the bones of Moorman. Nearby was what looked like a thick pad of note paper interleaved with aluminum foil. It did not have writing. No one knows who buried Moorman.
In 1989, the television show "Unsolved Mysteries" recreated the departure of the Sarah Joe, with several people who had taken part in the original rescue portraying themselves. Others took the parts of the lost men, with Robert Malaikini acting the part of his brother Ralph.
Friends hoped the publicity would draw out testimony from whoever buried Moorman. "We had to do it," Malaikini said of re-enacting his brother's last day.
No one came forward with information, and no more is known about the fate of the Sarah Joe than was known in 1988. Julie Moorman Sinenci, Moorman's sister, and her family believed her brother was alive when the Sarah Joe reached the waterless atoll. Forensic examination of the bones did not answer that question either.
The memorial will begin at noon on Feb. 21. Commemorative T-shirts will be sold. The Hana Canoe Club will paddle out for the ceremony.
* Harry Eagar can be reached at email@example.com.