The Disturbing Forty-Year Mystery Of The “Sarah Joe”

Marcus Lowth
Published Date
February 15, 2019
Last Updated
September 28, 2021
Estimated Reading Time
9 min read
Posted in
Conspiracy Theory Analysis, Unsolved & Unexplained

The small fishing boat, the ‘Sarah Joe’ left the coast of Hawaii with five semi-experienced, although not professional sailors on board in February 1979. It wouldn’t be seen again for over a decade. And even then, it was thousands of miles away on a small island in the middle of the Pacific Ocean.

The Sarah Joe wrecked on a beach blended into a depiction of the vessel on a stormy sea

The Sarah Joe

Even more chilling, all of the crew seemingly vanished into thin air. All except one, whose partial skeletal remains were discovered in a makeshift cairn-like grave near to the location of the ruined vessel. They would ultimately prove to be one of the missing men, Scott Moorman. What’s more, and equally disturbing, a strange ritualistic discovery in this shallow grave would add yet more dark mystery to an already perplexing affair.

Just what happened to the crew of the ‘Sarah Joe’? What caused the death of the man in the cairn? Were the other four men still alive? And if not, where were their bodies? And where was the ‘Sarah Joe’ all that time before her discovery in 1988? Why did no one see it? Is there a covering up of a dark secret? Or is it an incident that simply defies rational explanation?

It is a case, like many others that drift into the perpetually unsolved, that has question after question after question. All of which bring up yet more questions, which then present only hypothetical answers and rampant speculation. Just what did happen that afternoon in February 1979? While we might not discover the answers, it is a case that remains of interest over four decades after it unfolded.

A Beautiful Day For A Fatal Decision!

On the morning of 11th February 1979, 27-year-old, Scott Moorman, a recent transplant to Hawaii from California following his divorce, along with four friends, 31-year-old Peter Hanchett, 26-year-old Patrick Woesner, 38-year-old Benjamin Kalama, and 27-year-old Ralph Malaiakini, should have been working, as per their job, on a construction project in the small town of Nahiku, Hawaii. [1]

However, with the skies a clear blue and the beckoning calm waters of the Pacific even bluer, any thought of work soon disappeared and, as is very much the relaxed attitude of the local populace in general, a decision was made to take Malaiakini’s twin brother’s boat, the ‘Sarah Joe’ onto the water and do some fishing.

While the rest of the group were locals, Moorman was part of what many islanders saw as an ever-increasing migration of Caucasians looking to relocate to Hawaii and the “paradise-like” attraction they undoubtedly saw. These ‘haoles’ – as the locals referred to them – consisted of hippies left over from the sixties, new age stoners, and even veterans of the Vietnam War, tired and, at times, disillusioned with mainland society.

Generally speaking, the local populace didn’t care for these mainland refugees. However, some individuals, much like Moorman, were welcomed and accepted. Largely due to their willingness to learn local language, take part in Hawaiian traditions, and generally just to make an effort to become involved in and get to know the society around them.

After the five friends arrived at the equally small town of Hana a short distance away, they purchased beer, soft drinks, and food, as well as an ice box to store their catches for the journey back to the coast.

It was a return journey they would never make.

The Sarah Joe Crew

Clockwise: Ralph Malaiakini, Peter Hanchett, Scott Moorman (main), Patrick Woesner, Benjamin Kalama

A Sudden Change In The Weather – The Worst For 50 Years!

It was a little after 10 am when the ‘Sarah Joe’ ventured out, cutting through the sparkling waters of the Pacific. Inside, the five friends chatted and laughed.

By the time the weather changed several hours later, the boat was long gone from the coast.

The Alenuihaha Channel, in which the five men sailed into, sits in between the Big Island (officially, Hawaii) and Maui. It is, at times, some of the most dangerous stretch of water in the world. And on this day, when the weather changed drastically, likely causing gale-force winds to scream along the channel, the ‘Sarah Joe’ would have been terribly exposed. And fragile in the extreme.

In fact, the weather was so bad on that particular day, that the town of Hana where the five men left from, experienced the worst flooding and resulting damage to the area for over half a century.

Reports from larger (and sturdier) fishing boats who vacated the area before the storm became unbearable, suggested waves “up to 40-feet-high”. Considering the ‘Sarah Joe’ was 17-feet long in its entirety and only several feet “deep”, it was almost certain, they couldn’t have survived.

By 5 pm, members of the men’s family would make an official report to the Coast Guard of the missing men. An immediate air and rescue operation went into place. However, with the winds brutal and the waves responding accordingly, it would soon come to an end. One searcher would state:

…they could have been just 50 feet in front of us and we wouldn’t have seen them!

The search would resume the following day, and for four more days after that. In total, teams would search over 70,000 square miles of ocean. However, neither the boat or any of the crew themselves ever came to light.

Picture of the Sarah Joe on the water

On the water

“These Were Young, Strong, Healthy Guys!”

After five days, officials would suspend the search. However, many of the family members and local residents would continue the search for the men. Funding campaigns would pay for commercial planes to conduct aerial searches. Others would comb the beaches and coastal regions looking for any sign of wreckage or the crew.

One of the volunteer searches would state to the media at the time:

These were young, strong, healthy guys. They were experienced fishermen and good swimmers. They were all capable and head 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!

Despite these dedicated and ongoing searches, however, nothing at all would come to light. And furthermore, there was not even the tiniest clue as to the destination of the men or the ‘Sarah Joe’. It appeared the boat and her crew had simply vanished into thin air.

Even as the search efforts ceased, most boats, whether commercial or private fishing vessels would perform unofficial searches for the wreckage, lest they were lucky enough to stumble on to it. However, by the time a memorial service was held on the island to make a year since their disappearance, even the most determined of searchers had lost any hope of finding the ‘Sarah Joe’ or any of her crew.

Then, almost a decade later, thousands of miles away from the search area, came a remarkable, if grim discovery.

The Sarah Joe as it was discovered on an island beach

The wrecked discovery of the Sarah Joe

A Chance Discovery And More Unanswered Questions!

On the 10th September 1988, a small marine research vessel ventured out towards some of the narrow strip-like islands around 3,000 miles away named the Taongi Atoll (officially part of the Marshall Islands). On board this small boat was marine biologist, John Naughton, along with four crew members.

Naughton was part of the search efforts for the ‘Sarah Joe’ in the weeks following the disappearance in 1979. Now, he stood amazed at the sight of a very similar looking vessel on the beach of the small island they were approaching. When he saw “HA” on the side of the boat, it was clear it was a Hawaii registration. Why would a small boat from Hawaii be this far out? Then, he remembered the ‘Sarah Joe’.

By the time Naughton and the four crew members set foot on the island and he had run his hand along the side of the mysterious boat, several other letters remained:

S_a_h   J

It was becoming increasingly obvious this was the ‘Sarah Joe’ from almost a decade previously, and last seen thousands of miles away. What made Naughton even more curious, was that a full US government survey and mapping mission on these same islands only several years previously in 1985. He felt sure the boat would have surfaced then. Yet it wasn’t.

Did that mean, then, that the boat arrived at some point after those surveys? And if so, where was it until then, simply drifting? And what about the crew?

As Naughton and the crew began searching the wider area near to the crippled boat, they would make even more chilling and mystifying discoveries.

Depiction of a portal off the coast of Hawaii

Depiction of a portal off the coast of Hawaii

A Makeshift Shallow Grave With Human Skeletal Remains

As the five crew took in their surroundings, their attention went towards a makeshift cairn with an equally makeshift wooden cross sticking out of it. Naughton would later state:

When we got up there, we could see immediately that there was a human jaw bone protruding out of the pile of rocks. At that time, we had no way of knowing that the gravesite was associated with the wrecked whaler (the ‘Sarah Joe’)! [2]

However, it was when they began to carefully remove the piled rocks of the cairn that they would make their most intriguing discovery.

There, purposely placed together was a “book” of blank paper, unbound, and with slight burn-markings near the edges. Even more bizarre, though, were the square pieces of foil in between each piece of paper. Naughton would explain:

It was a sheaf of paper, and I’d say a book, except it was not bound. Probably three inches by three inches by maybe ¾ of an inch thick. But between each of these pieces of paper, there was a very small square piece of tin foil material. We have not been able to determine who placed that there, or, what purpose it serves!

Other bones would ultimately surface. Testing would reveal them to be that of Scott Moorman. Perhaps what is also strange is that future, independent investigations on the island would also discover human bones. And at a different location along the coast, no less. These were also Moorman’s.

And perhaps most importantly, was the fact that Moorman was a ‘haora’ of significance? After all, the whereabouts of the other four men remains unknown. As does the ultimate circumstances surrounding just what happened to them. And Scott Moorman.

Map of the supposed route of the Sarah Joe

Map of the supposed route of the Sarah Joe

Theories And Questions

There were, of course, so many unanswered questions. Not least, how had the boat managed to escape the viciousness of the storm to arrive relatively intact thousands of miles away? All expert opinion suggests the small vessel was no match for the storm. And the debris left for all to see in the days following.

And, if we assume that the boat somehow did manage to come through the storm, how did Moorman manage to stay within it? Surely, he wouldn’t have remained inside the boat. And once that occurred, the chances of getting back to the wreckage, never mind in it, are unlikely at best.

And perhaps more importantly, how did it manage to go unnoticed for six years until after the US government survey? We will come back to this a later.

Furthermore, assuming still that the boat did manage to survive the storm, and then drift aimlessly for years, the stretch to reach the beach is a narrow one with rocks on either side. The chances of the boat seemingly drifting down this stretch, unaided without becoming a victim of the rocky edges, is seemingly impossible.

Furthermore, what happened to the other four crew members? And why was Moorman the only one to survive? Was it a case of pure luck? That through a bizarre set of circumstances, he alone arrived in the base of the wrecked ‘Sarah Joe’ on the lonely Pacific island?

And what should we make of the bizarre burial mound and the foil papers inside? Who did bury Moorman’s remains? Were they skeletal at the time of burial? And what did the strange foil paper mean? On that, there is a theory that makes sense of at least part of this bizarre mystery.

Picture of a skull superimposed on top of a lonely beach

Skull on beach

Connections To Ancient Chinese Burial Rituals?

Perhaps one of the most intriguing theories put forward is one of the most likely, if only in part. While it doesn’t begin to answer the whereabouts of the other crew members, nor does it address the length of time it took the boat to arrive at its destination or why it had not been smashed to pieces by the storm in 1979, it does perhaps explain the mysterious pieces of paper and foil squares.

In some Chinese burial rites, the dead are often buried with “half-burnt” pieces of varnished paper. In between which, was gold or silver foil squares. These, according to the legends, would supply the recently deceased person with “payments” for their journey into the afterlife.

Given the location of where the boat and skeletal remains were found (relatively speaking not that far adrift from where Chinese fishermen would fish, albeit often illegally) it has been speculated that Moorman was found adrift in the boat’s remains and then guided down the narrow stretch to the beach of the island.

From there, assuming he was already dead at this stage, the traditional Chinese funeral rites went ahead. The suggestion that they were illegally fishing perhaps has support from the fact that there is no official report.

It would certainly make sense, although it is far from a proven theory. And it still leaves so many questions unanswered. Not least where had the boat been for all that time?

Plaque for the missing crew of the Sarah Joe

Plaque for the missing crew of the Sarah Joe

Outlandish Suggestions For A Truly Mysterious Case!

While this is pure speculation, what should we make of the notion of the ‘Sarah Joe’ being caught in some kind of bizarre experiment?

Admittedly, there appears to be no evidence or even claims of such a thing, but considering the circumstances surrounding the disappearance of the five men, of which, one’s skeletal remains to be found on a remote island that the United States’ government did a detailed survey on only three years before the body was discovered, does perhaps beg the question if such a thing might require consideration.

Was there, for example, some kind of weather experiment that took place around the same time that led to “the worst storm for 50 years” in the region? Was the ‘Sarah Joe’ an unfortunate, an ultimately unintentional victim of such an experiment?

It is an unlikely scenario in reality. And furthermore, unless such a potential experiment is of such a nature far beyond weather control, it wouldn’t explain how the small boat escaped further damage. Or why only Moorman’s body surfaced on the small island in the Pacific.

Perhaps the storm itself was the result of some kind of natural, although not understood, extreme weather phenomenon. One that created some kind of portal? Perhaps similar in nature to what lies behind other bizarre stretches of water such as the Bermuda Triangle or the Bass Strait?

Or should we even consider should apparently outlandish options as alien abduction? And if this was the case, why did only Moorman return? If this was the case, might that return have occurred at some time after the US survey? At which point the potential Chinese fisherman from our above scenario would discover him.

Check out the video below. It looks at this most mysterious incident in a little more detail.


1 Unsolved Mystery of the The Sarah Joe, One Dusty Track, November 27th, 2013
2 What happened to the lost crew of the “Sarah Joe”?, Unsolved Mysteries

Marcus Lowth

Marcus Lowth is a writer with a love for UFOs, aliens, and the Ancient Astronaut Theory, to the paranormal, general conspiracies, and unsolved mysteries. He has been writing and researching with over 20 years of experience.

Marcus has been Editor-in-Chief for several years due to his excellent knowledge in these fields. Marcus also regularly appears as an expert on radio talk shows including Troubled Minds and Unexplained Radio discussing these topics.

Read Marcus' full bio.

You can contact Marcus via email.

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1 Comment

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  • Dani says:

    In my opinion the crew died slowly on board during the next weeks or months of disappearing. As they were dying the bodies were buried at sea by the survivors.

    The last to survive was Moorman who died on the boat but remained on board during years until the boat got stuck at these remote island.

    After some time a random native fishermen boat reached the island and found the boat with the remains of Moorman still on it (probably just the bones).

    Of course they didn’t know the whole story of the lost boat so they decided to burrie the bones as a sign of respect. They also include the book with him because they thought it may be important for the deceased.

    Some time later the US team found the boat and the tomb.

    It make sense…

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