In late November of last year, a story ran in several newspapers about three adolescent boys from a territory of New Zealand called Tokelau. The three — Samu Tonuia, 15, Filo Filo, 15, and Etueni Nasau, 14 — survived for 50 days with almost no food and very little fresh water on a small dinghy floating in the South Pacific Ocean. The press covered the basic details of the event, going through the motions of typical news coverage: the facts and relevant details and some quotes from those concerned.
Obviously, there was a whole other story to tell beyond the basic coverage, and that’s what Michael Finkel did in the latest issue of GQ. Finkel writes, “I researched dozens of these survival tales. And the more I read, the more I realized that almost no one experienced a harder trip than the Tokelauans.” It’s true; at least going on Finkel’s brief summary of some other horrific survival tales, these three young boys went through hell on earth.
Samu, Filo, and Etueni originally got on that boat in early October because their island, Atafu, with its small size (1.4 square miles) and population of 524, was pretty boring and restrictive. Finkel aptly points out that the island’s satellite internet only made things worse, because residents are aware of just how much fun everyone else is having.
A group of adolescent boys, including the three in question, were hanging out at their club house, drinking shitty vodka from a plastic jug and smoking cigarettes, when some stories were told about boys not unlike them who had stolen a boat and left the island to have some fun. These boys didn’t get anywhere and where found less than a week later, but nonetheless their brief adventure became a legend, talked about years after. Under the influence of the vodka, the idea that they could do the same was suggested, and ultimately only Samu, Filo, and Etueni decided to follow through. That same night they gathered supplies – a tarpaulin, about 30 coconuts, a jar of water, two bottles of milk, cigarettes, and more vodka – and set off in Samu’s uncle’s boat.
Without any specific goals or destinations in mind (they were too far away from any other land masses, anyway), they decided to follow a star. The trouble was, they didn’t know which star to follow. They eventually passed out – they had been drinking all along – and woke up to daylight, feeling hungover.
At this point, none of the boys were concerned about their state. Even though they were floating seemingly out in the middle of nowhere with no land in site and the sun blazing, they weren’t worried because they assumed that, like those before them, they would be found soon enough. In part as a result of their confidence that everything would be OK, they were not so good about preserving their supplies.
After about five days, down to only a few coconuts and with no more fresh water, they started to feel alarmed. Before a week passed they exhausted all of their supplies. Things seemed bleak. There was a large storm, which afforded them some water to drink. They discovered some old coconuts, but they ate those up in no time.
What was surely quite frustrating for the three was that there was an abundance of food all around them – fish. But without any proper gear, there was not much to be done. Etueni and Filo had the clever idea to dismantle the boat’s engine and use some of the wires to create a makeshift hook for catching fish, but Samu refused to allow them to ruin his uncle’s engine.
So things took a turn for the worse. The only thing that kept them going was the rare occasion – four in total – when a fish would be splashed into the dinghy by a wave. Once they even managed to capture a seagull and eat that.
Not surprisingly, relations became strained between the three boys. There was nothing to do all day except stare at each other and occasionally complain about being hungry. In particular, there was a great deal of animosity towards Etueni. Not only were Samu and Filo totally unlike him – they were athletic and popular at school, while he was smaller and a bit nerdy – but Etueni became completely withdrawn and suicidal and refused to speak or help the others out (one can’t blame him though, viewing the circumstances). At one point, Samu even cut Etueni’s throat with a machete that was lying in the boat. This incident brought Etueni out of his silence.
The boys’ condition deteriorated and their minds slowly unraveled due to starvation. They reached the point where their bodies began devouring muscle tissue to stay alive – after the body uses all the energy from fat cells, muscle cells are the next step. Samu, who is described as stoic and reserved, stopped caring about what happened to him, and more or less accepted death as inevitable. Etueni reached the point where he repeatedly puked (or rather, dry heaved), and sometimes Samu would punch him out of annoyance. Samu even considered eating Etueni, but Filo wouldn’t go along with it, and he ultimately decided that he couldn’t do it because he was scared of God (if this makes you question Samu, I understand). Although they all suffered from skin afflictions – from being naked all of the time, exposed to sunlight and sea water – Filo had it the worst, and sometimes he would cry out in pain in the middle of the night.
Finally, on November 24, a fishing ship chanced upon the dinghy and the boys were saved. They were taken to a hospital and treated for extreme dehydration, fungal infections, second degree burns, anemia, elevated heart rates, gross muscle wasting, and widespread infections. Apparently, they wouldn’t have survived another week.
The harrowing experience obviously changed the boys, although none of them articulated just how. Finkel writes that “The boys themselves didn’t have any profound conclusions about the meaning of their whole trip. They’re kids. It happened.” Probably in large part as a result of their experience – after all it was motivated by the desire to escape their small community – Samu, Filo, and Etueni have left Atafu for other places: Samu and Filo now live in Australia, and Etueni moved to Hawaii.