Journal Cover Herebemonsters
Journal Spread Herebemonsters

Here Be Monsters

Three boys. One boat. Fifty-one days lost at sea.

GQ / May 2011
by Michael Finkel / photographs by Ingvar Kenne

A crewman on a commercial tuna-fishing boat was the first to spot it: something shiny and metallic in the water off the ship’s bow. The crewman alerted the navigator, and the 280-foot San Nikunau slightly altered course to avoid a collision. As the ship came closer, the object revealed itself to be a small boat, an aluminum dinghy. It was late in the afternoon of November 24, 2010. The New Zealand-based San Nikunau was in open water, a couple of days out of Fiji, amid the vastness of the southern Pacific — an expanse the size of a dozen Saharas in which there are only scattered specks of land.

The dinghy, fourteen feet long and low to the water, was designed for traveling on lakes or hugging a shoreline. There was no way it should’ve been in this part of the Pacific. If the San Nikunau had passed a quarter mile to either side, likely no one would have noticed it. Anyway, it appeared empty, another bit of the ocean’s mysterious flotsam. But then, as the big ship was approaching the dinghy, something startling happened. From the bottom of the tiny boat, emerging slowly and unsteadily, rose an arm — a single human arm, skinny and sun-fried and waving for help.

There were, as it turned out, three people on the boat. Two were fifteen years old and the third was fourteen. They were naked and emaciated. Their skin was covered with blisters. Their tongues were swollen. They had no food, no water, no clothing, no fishing gear, no life vests, and no first-aid kit. They were close to death. They had been missing for fifty-one days.

It began, in the grand tradition of ill-considered ideas, with a group of boys and a bottle of booze — the most common of circumstances in the least common of places. The boys were gathered in their clubhouse — broken sofas, graffitied walls — near the end of the only road in the only village on the Pacific island of Atafu. Atafu is one of three atolls that make up the nation of Tokelau (which is not, technically, a nation but a territory of New Zealand). The total amount of land on Atafu is 1.4 square miles. Population: 524.

The nearest atoll, equally tiny, is fifty-seven miles to the south, well beyond the range of visibility. The closest significant land mass is Samoa, a twenty-eight-hour ferry ride away. There is no landing strip on Tokelau. There are also no dogs, prisons, lawyers, pavement, or soil — the land is mostly bits of broken coral. The highest elevation is fifteen feet. Coconuts and fish are the traditional diet, though the ferry, which comes once every two weeks, brings so much junk food these days that obesity and diabetes have become significant problems. From any point on Atafu’s shoreline, nothing can be seen but water, all the way to the horizon.

One of the boys in the clubhouse — by most accounts, the unofficial leader — was named Filo Filo. (It’s not uncommon in Tokelau to have the same first and last names.) Filo was tall and strong and exceptionally athletic. His dream was to play rugby for the New Zealand All Blacks. Though his parents were both Tokelauan, Filo had lived his entire life away from the islands, mostly in Sydney, Australia, where his mother had moved after she’d separated from Filo’s father. But in 2007, Filo’s mother grew concerned about his poor grades and growing reputation as a troublemaker. As a sort of reform school, she sent him to Atafu to live with his dad, who in addition to being a fisherman — the profession of nearly every Tokelau man — was also the local rugby coach. Filo became a star athlete on Atafu, but some people still thought of him, to use the Tokelauan word, as a palagi — a foreigner. One classmate called him a “wanna-be gangster.” He was, in truth, a city kid who had been exiled to one of the tiniest and most remote places on the planet.

Filo had become best friends with a boy named Samu Tonuia. They were both fifteen and in the same class at school — a class of seven students. Samu, like Filo, was tall and muscular for his age and also an excellent rugby player. Otherwise, the two boys could not have been more different. Samu had never once in his life left Tokelau. It is customary in Tokelau to assign one child to care for elderly relatives, and while the rest of his family had moved to Australia, Samu lived on Atafu with his grandmother. He’d never been in an airplane or a restaurant or a movie theater. According to one classmate, Samu had been a decent student — until Filo arrived.

So there they were, Filo and Samu, the permanent foreigner and the ultimate local, a gang of two, sitting in their clubhouse along with a handful of other boys. It was October 3, 2010. They were drinking vodka, smoking cigarettes, telling stories. It was getting late.

Then someone brought up the tale of the teenagers. Five or six years previous, three teens had taken a boat without permission and broken one of the cardinal rules of Tokelauan society: They’d ventured into the open ocean without the escort of a tautai, a master fisherman. Atafu’s forty-two small islands encircle a gorgeous turquoise lagoon in which anyone can boat or swim. It’s the kiddie pool. The ocean is an unpredictable and occasionally violent place, and the title of tautai, bestowed by the island’s elders, is equivalent to a driver’s license. Even tautais do not venture far offshore.

But to teenage boys, in Atafu as in every pocket of the planet, rules are made to be broken. And the isolation of Atafu can at times be difficult to bear. There’s now satellite internet service on the island, which only emphasizes how much fun everyone else is having. Filo told me that Atafu “felt like a prison.” The desire to escape can become overwhelming.

Which is what those teenagers did five or six years ago. They escaped, trying to reach some other place. Any other place. They didn’t make it. They were rescued after five days by the Tokelau ferry. They’d run out of gas but had plenty of food. Though they were severely punished by the elders, in Filo and Samu’s clubhouse they were heroes. And as a plastic jug of vodka was passed around, the old story soon morphed into a new idea. By the time the jug was finished, the idea had become a plan.

Etueni Nasau was also in the clubhouse. He’d listened intently to the story but had passed on the vodka. He wasn’t much of a drinker. Etueni (his name is pronounced ed-ween-aye) was, at fourteen, a year younger than Samu and Filo and a grade lower in school. He was also much smaller and not nearly as athletic. When I asked all three boys what they wanted to be when they grew up, Filo said “rugby player” and Samu said “rugby player” and Etueni said “surgeon.” Etueni was neither an outsider, like Filo, nor an insider, like Samu, but somewhere in between. He was born in New Zealand, spent his early childhood in Atafu, went to school in American Samoa, and then moved full-time to Atafu in 2008.

Hearing the story of the teens sparked something in Etueni. He’d always been a good student, a well-behaved boy. But he, too, was often frustrated with the truncated boundaries of life on a tiny atoll, his one square mile of world. “Its freekin hell” he once posted on Facebook. He also yearned to be more popular, to be thought of by the others in the clubhouse as a hero rather than a nerd. To have a grand adventure. And so almost on a whim, when the plans became serious — when Samu announced he’d be willing to steal his uncle’s new boat — and most everyone in the clubhouse began backpedaling from their bluster, Etueni finally spoke up. He said he was in.

It was now past midnight. The rest of the boys headed home. Filo, Samu, and Etueni fanned out across the village. Their first mission was to find gasoline, and they soon collected about twenty gallons in five plastic jerry cans. “We stole all of it,” admits Filo.

They stashed the gas in Samu’s uncle’s boat, a silver-colored Frewza, made in New Zealand, with a fifteen-horsepower Yamaha engine. There was nothing fancy about it — a couple of unpainted wooden benches, a tiny storage space in the bow that could keep a few things dry. The only items inside were a small machete and a wooden mallet, used to club fish. Its freeboard — the distance between the water and the top of the boat’s sides — was just sixteen inches, enough to repel only the smallest of waves. The boat’s best feature was not visible: Inside the hull were three large air-filled aluminum cylinders, pontoons that made the craft exceptionally stable.

After loading the gas, the boys again separated, dashing the short distance from the dock to the village. Filo sneaked into his house and grabbed a green tarpaulin, a large plastic sack containing twenty coconuts, a white ceramic teacup, two packs of Pall Mall cigarettes, and another jug of vodka, still sealed. From his refrigerator, he took two bottles of milk and a Kraft mayonnaise jar filled with water. Samu, meanwhile, climbed a tree and knocked down nine more coconuts. Etueni had been instructed to find fishing equipment, but he was concerned that he’d wake someone up and get caught. So there was no fishing gear.

The boys boarded the boat. To steel their resolve, they opened the vodka, poured it in the teacup, added a bit of water, and passed it around. This time, Etueni joined in. Samu started the engine. It was the final chance to run home, to sleep in a bed. Etueni later admitted to me that as he sat in the boat, he’d thought that this was a dangerous and stupid idea. “I almost jumped off,” he says.

But then Filo began yelling, and Samu and Etueni joined in — a rebel yell, a primal scream. A howl that tried to both express and eclipse their nervous, excited joy. They soon began shouting people’s names, those they’d stolen from. They teased Samu’s uncle. “Ha-ha! We’re leaving! We stole your boat!” And they motored through the gap in the reef surrounding Atafu. It was the first time any of the boys had been on the ocean side of Tokelau without a master fisherman.

Their plan, they later told me, was to reach the next atoll. They figured it would take three or four days. They had only the clothes they wore: shorts and T-shirts and sandals. No one had a hat. No one remembered to bring sunglasses.

They continued drinking. Etueni was bartender — water and vodka, in their one tea cup. Filo was the first to tire out; he curled up on the bottom of the boat. Samu and Etueni stayed up, still drinking. Somehow, in his insobriety, Etueni took off his shirt and lost it overboard. Samu controlled the engine. “We just had an idea of following one star,” says Etueni. “But we didn’t know what star it was.” Then Samu, too, grew sleepy. So Etueni drove for a while. Eventually he switched off the engine. And soon all three boys were passed out on the flat metal bottom of the boat.

They were cold in the night. Cold and wet. Waves and spray continually spilled into the boat. The puddle in the bottom was soon up to their ears.

Etueni woke first, to the noise of a couple of dozen seagulls flying around. He could no longer see land. The bright sun, he realized, eliminated the idea of following one star. Filo was next up. He immediately vomited over the side. Then Samu awoke, and he, too, threw up.

Samu revved the engine. “We just started going,” says Filo. Where? “Just anywhere.” They were not worried. “We thought we were going to be fine,” Etueni says. “The other boys were found in five days.”

They began cracking coconuts, banging them against the rail of the boat, drinking the liquid, and chucking them away. They didn’t even bother scraping out the coconut meat. Then they finished both bottles of milk. They broke out the cigarettes. Only six were dry. They smoked them.

They ran the engine intermittently. It was a warm and overcast day. Their new idea was to follow the seagulls; in the evening, they figured, the birds would naturally head back to land. But the birds seemed to be flying randomly, maybe in big circles.

As the afternoon wore on, they grew a little hungry. They wondered what people were saying about them back on Atafu. Eventually the sun set. “We were still in a good mood,” says Filo. “Not that hungry.” They slept again in a puddle on the bottom of the boat.

The next day, they saw an airplane. It was flying low, and they figured it was looking for them. Etueni waved, and the other two boys immediately teased him for wanting to be rescued so soon. “You’re a girl,” they said. So he stopped waving. Filo and Samu didn’t think two days was enough to seem heroic. They figured, as the plane flew away, that it would eventually be back.

When there’s an emergency on Atafu, the secretary of the men’s group walks the coral-gravel village road, blowing on a brass bugle, strolling past the small homes made of concrete with corrugated-steel roofs, many painted a blue or turquoise that echoes the color of the lagoon. He did this on the morning after the boys left, summoning everyone to Atafu’s meeting hall.

The leader of all of Tokelau is called the Ulu; the position rotates every year among the heads of each individual atoll, and when the boys left, it was Atafu’s turn. The Ulu, Kuresa Nasau, who is also Etueni’s uncle, says his first thoughts were, “Why did they go? Did they take food? Were they angry at someone?” He immediately ordered all the village men to check the lagoon and the outer islands. He contacted the leaders of the other two atolls, and they, too, sent their men out.

The prevalent feeling on Atafu, according to a nurse who works in the island’s medical clinic, was “Oh no, not again.” The island was still recovering from a tragedy eight months earlier, in February of 2010, when three men on a barge were caught in a storm. Their boat capsized. The bodies washed ashore. And now three more were missing. The forecast was for stormy weather.

Such things happen in Tokelau. Sometimes boats are blown off course; there’s even a Tokelauan word for this: lelea. It’s theorized that the very existence of people on the atoll — it has been inhabited for a thousand years — is because a Polynesian canoe drifted off course. But there is also another, more complicated Tokelauan word: tagavaka. This applies to boats that have purposely sailed away. Sometimes it’s for love; early reports about Samu, Filo, and Etueni’s disappearance falsely claimed that Filo was attempting to meet up with a girl on the next atoll. Tagavaka also applies to those seeking adventure, like the boys who inspired Samu, Filo, and Etueni to leave. There are many tales like that. The Tokelau government’s official website contains a story, from 1951, about three young men from Atafu who stole an outrigger canoe, loaded it with 260 coconuts, several chickens, and a cooking stove, and escaped. Several weeks later, they landed on tiny island of Wallis, 400 miles away. The final definition of tagavaka refers to those who wish to end their own lives. These days, Tokelauans commit suicide by driving their boat into the open ocean until the gas runs out. “It happens,” one Tokelauan told me. “These islands are very small. Very isolated. You want to go somewhere else. You want to leave. You go a little crazy.”

The following morning — no one, says the Ulu, slept that night — help was requested from the Royal New Zealand Air Force. It swiftly sent out a P-3 Orion, a huge military surveillance plane, big as a 737, with radar capable of detecting something as tiny as a submarine periscope. The total search area, according to Nick Olney, the Orion’s wing commander, was more than 8,500 square miles. The plane searched three separate times  — returning once to Samoa to refuel — for a total of eight hours.

Visibility was reasonable, says Olney, but there was sun glint on the waves. “Lots of noise,” as he calls it. “I don’t know how we missed them,” he says, though he adds that boats so small, without a GPS beacon, are found only twenty percent of the time, even with the most sophisticated equipment.

Once the plane returned to New Zealand, the medical-clinic nurse says, “People started to give up hope. Everybody was crying. Even the little kids. It’s like a big family on Atafu. Everyone just shut down. Everybody just went quiet.” Olney, back in New Zealand, kept wondering what happened to the boys. After a week passed, with no sign of them, he admits, “I pretty much assumed they were dead.”

A few hours after the search plane left, Samu began suffering from a rash, a bad one, a spray of itchy red bumps across his legs and arms, probably from sleeping for a couple of nights in a puddle of seawater. He scratched himself constantly, and soon there were flakes of skin all over the boat. Still, he hardly complained; Samu has a serious and quiet mien, an admirable quality among Tokelauans. When we spoke, he often answered my questions with just a raise of his eyebrows, an all-purpose expression that means “yes” or “I agree” or “that’s funny” or “hmm” or a dozen other things.

At this point — approaching the third night, with no idea where they were, their supplies pitifully meager — you might think that panic would have set in, but when I talked with the boys they all insisted no. They were sure someone would soon rescue them. The next day, they finished the mayonnaise container of water and continued drinking the coconuts, this time making sure to scrape the insides.

By that evening, they had used up all the gas. They could now only drift with the current. They threw all the fuel containers overboard. When they went to sleep, they had exactly eleven coconuts left.

Again, their sleep was fitful and wet. The wind picked up. Etueni, who’d lost his shirt the first night, was especially cold. In the morning, there was still nothing but water all around them. No rescue boat. No airplane. Etueni finally said it: “Shouldn’t we be found by now?” The response from the others? “They laughed at me,” Etueni says.

Their mouths soon grew very dry — despite storm forecasts, it had not rained at all during the trip — and the only edible items were coconuts. That day, they each drank and ate two, an extravagant use of their supplies, yet it wasn’t nearly enough to slake their thirst or satiate their hunger. By the time they went to sleep that night, they had precisely five coconuts left.

At sunrise on the fifth day — the day the teens who had previously stolen a boat had been rescued — the boys all finally admitted, aloud, that they’d like to go back, that they wished they were home. “We started getting worried,” says Filo.

They agreed to eat only one coconut that day, split three ways. But one-third of a coconut was nowhere close to satisfying. “Our lips were still dry,” says Etueni. “Our stomachs were hungry,” says Filo. Still, they refrained from eating any more.

“I was thinking about chicken,” says Etueni. “Chicken, mayonnaise, and rice. The kind my mother makes.” Filo, the city kid, imagined unwrapping a McDonald’s double cheeseburger. Samu, who had never seen a McDonald’s, talked about tuna stew. They all dreamed about pies. “And cakes,” Filo says. “Chocolate cakes.”

By the next morning — day six — the three were well aware that they’d made a terrible mistake. But what could they do? They sat on the benches, facing each other. They had no watch. Nothing to read. No pen or paper. They tried to distract themselves with conversation, but they had little to say. “It started to get quiet,” says Etueni. “All I was thinking about was water and juice.”

Soon they were down to their last coconut. Samu was in charge of cracking it. He used the machete, careful not to spill any of the precious milk. Samu sipped first. He passed it to Filo, who passed it to Etueni, who passed it back to Samu, who finished it. They scraped out every morsel of meat. And that was it. They threw the shell overboard.

They had nothing left.

There was just the sun, beating down on them. Parching them. “That’s when we started thinking about drinking seawater,” says Etueni. Filo warned them that this was a bad idea; he’d learned it from a Discovery Channel show called I Shouldn’t Be Alive. Seawater is three times as salty as human blood. In an effort to dilute this salt, water leaks from every cell in your body. For each ounce of seawater taken in, the body creates about one and three-quarters ounces of urine to wash it out.

The next morning, Samu — the lifelong Tokelauan — announced, “I’m drinking it,” and dipped the teacup into the ocean. He starting sipping. “Then I got sick of looking at Samu drinking it,” says Etueni.

“Me, too,” says Filo.

They all drank seawater together.

How did it taste? “Yuck,” says Etueni. But they kept drinking. It still had not rained.

They descended into silence. Hours passed between words. “We got sick of looking at each other,” says Etueni. “We got sick of looking at the ocean. We got sick of looking at the boat.”

And what would someone say when the silence was finally broken?

“I’m hungry,” says Etueni.

Finally, more than a week into the trip, it rained. Hard. For ten minutes. And for the first time, the boys used the green tarpaulin, which had been balled up and shoved into the small hold in the bow. They took it out and spread it open in order to catch rainwater.

And at last something good happened.

There, hidden beneath the tarp, were three more coconuts. They were quite old — they’d probably been in the boat when they took it — and were cracked, all the water gone, and had been drenched by gasoline. But there was still some meat in there. They ate it all immediately and drank every drop of the rainwater they collected.

And then there was truly nothing left.

There have been, over the centuries, several incredible stories of survival at sea. Most recently, in August of 2006, three Mexican fishermen were picked up in a twenty-foot fiberglass boat after having spent an astounding 285 days drifting more than 5,000 miles across the Pacific — an all-time record, in terms of days, by quite a margin. I researched dozens of these survival tales. And the more I read, the more I realized that, taking into account age, lack of experience, and lack of supplies, almost no one experienced a harder trip than the Tokelauans. Perhaps only the survivors of the whaleship Essex had it worse. In 1820, twenty men abandoned the Essex, which had been rammed by a whale, and sailed for three months. They resorted to cannibalism. Only eight survived.

The key to staying alive, as evidenced by nearly every tale, is the ability to fish. The Mexicans, for example, were all adults and longtime professional fishermen, with a complete range of fishing gear. They were set adrift after running out of fuel while looking for their shark-fishing longline, which had floated away during the night. They had plenty of extra clothing (one man alone brought five jackets), as well as blankets. They had a compass. A full toolbox. Each of them had a flashlight. They all brought toothbrushes. Over the course of their trip, they caught 108 turtles. They had storage containers capable of holding fifty gallons of rainwater and never ran out once between rainstorms. They had a lighter, fashioned a stove in the boat, and could cook. They caught hundreds of fish — sometimes more than sixty a day, all they could eat. They barely lost weight.

The closest to the sheer helplessness of the boys may have been the case of Luis Alejandro Velasco, an enlisted man in the Colombian Navy — twenty years old and experienced in all manner of safety and survival techniques — who in 1955 fell overboard in the Caribbean and drifted on a raft without food or water. Gabriel García Márquez wrote his account in a series of newspaper articles. Velasco probably suffered equally to the boys, for the first week of his drift. Then, on the seventh day, a half-meter-long fish jumped in his raft, and he ate well. He was rescued after only ten days.

Even Poon Lim, the record holder before the Mexicans, was able to fish. He also had crackers and chocolate, as well as flares. Lim was a Chinese castaway from a British merchant ship that was torpedoed by a German U-boat in the Atlantic in 1942. He fashioned a small fishhook from a flashlight wire and a larger one from a bent nail and proceeded to catch enough fish that he was able to walk off his lifeboat under his own power after 133 days adrift. (The worst part may have been that the woman he was engaged to, believing him dead, married someone else.)

There were young people on board when Scottish sailor Dougal Robertson had his schooner sunk by a pod of killer whales in 1972; the group included his wife, Lyn, their eleven-year-old twin sons, and their eighteen-year-old son. They had two life rafts — a dinghy and an inflatable — and Dougal and Lyn were extremely experienced. They also had plenty of fishing gear and caught many fish and turtles, often more than they could eat. They had onions, oranges, and lemons, and vitamin-fortified bread. They were rescued after thirty-seven days.

Maurice and Maralyn Bailey drifted for 118 days in 1973 but had dozens of cans of food (braised steak, spaghetti bolognese) as well as a stove, books, and a deck of cards; they also caught scores of fish and turtles. Steven Callahan, who in 1982 survived seventy-six days in a raft, was an expert sailor and had two solar stills (to convert seawater to drinking water) and a speargun, with which he caught several enormous dorados. In 1989, Bill Butler and his wife Simonne drifted in an inflatable raft for sixty-six days but had fishing gear, a set of dominoes, so many blankets that they threw two overboard, canned food, a radio, seven bottles of Evian, and two bottles of Perrier. They once tossed fifty pounds of fish away because they didn’t like the taste.

According to almost every survival manual, you need three essential things to survive: food, water, and shelter. The Tokelau boys had none of these. The International Maritime Organization has issued official stipulations regarding the minimum amount of supplies that must be kept in a life raft. The list includes fishing gear, a first-aid kit, a flashlight with a spare bulb and batteries, ten flares, thermal blankets, two paddles, and food rations. The dingy that the boys from Tokelau were on didn’t have a single one of these items.

Samu, Filo, and Etueni saw plenty of fish. The shadow of the drifting dinghy created a kind of artificial reef that attracted many small fish, which in turn enticed larger ones. There were also the ever-circling birds, who’d dive for fish during the day and sleep bobbing on the water at night. All the food the boys needed was visible to them, yet just out of reach.

For a while, Etueni tried fishing with his hand, just holding it in the water over the side of the boat. He says he actually felt fish but could never grab them. The boys also saw several sharks — a handful of whites and a hammerhead. One got very close, and Samu decided he could leap from the boat, machete in his mouth, and land atop it, then slice its throat. Only Samu, who on Atafu was in line to become a tautai, or expert fisherman, the highest honor a Tokelau man can receive, would come up with an idea like that. The others pleaded for him not to try it, and the shark swam away with Samu still in the boat.

Through sheer happenstance, the boys did actually catch a few fish. The chief disadvantage of the low-sided boat was that seawater continuously splashed in. A wave of any size would break over the gunwales. Bailing during the day, using the mayonnaise jar, was constant, and at night the boat slowly filled up. But every so often — a total of four times during the trip — the waves carried along a fish that would flop into the boat. Three of the fish were tiny; Etueni described them as pinkie-sized. The boys would each have one bite. It tasted horrible — “It was yuck,” in Etueni’s parlance. They had no saliva, and it took all day for the bitter taste to dissipate.

One time, they got a bit luckier. A wave deposited a larger fish in the boat — probably a halfbeak, though the boys called it a “baby swordfish.” The fish was dead; it had been floating on the surface. It came in the night. It was about six inches long. They ate it, four bites each. Etueni says he swallowed the entire head.

Once the boys finished their last coconut, that was their total food intake: three minnows and the baby swordfish — a total of seven bites — over the course of about a month. (Exact time periods were impossible to pin down, so the boys organized the story by events: “after the first rain,” “before the last coconut,” “the day of the swordfish.”)

Soon after World War II, the British Royal Navy commissioned a study to determine the minimum amount of rations needed on a life-raft voyage. During the war, an estimated 30,000 soldiers in the Royal Navy died after they’d survived the sinking of their ships; they died, in other words, during the life-raft phase. This was a startling number, and in response, the British navy committee came up with three survival levels. Desirable was a food intake of 1,750 calories per person per day. (For comparison, the average American man consumes about 3,000 calories per day.) The compromise ration was 1,250 calories per day. The minimum ration — and this was for an estimated five-day period, by which time it was assumed that the raft would be rescued — was 600 calories per day, and at this rate it was thought that some people would die. The Tokelau boys, in essence, averaged very close to zero. For nearly two months.

As for water intake, the minimum body loss of a person sitting still in a warm environment is close to half a gallon a day. It’s very difficult to survive long without replacing most of it. But unless it rained, the boys did not drink at all. They all insist that they never drank their urine, which was often dark brown. None of them defecated at all for the final month of the trip.

When it did rain, which happened roughly every other day, they’d form the tarp into a bowl. Flakes of skin would float about the rainwater, along with bits of plastic from the disintegrating tarp. At first the boys took turns scooping water with the teacup. Then one day Samu accidently hit the cup against the side of the boat, and it shattered. They started lapping at the tarp like dogs. They wanted to save some water but never could. Thirst was too overpowering. But at least, after a decent rainstorm, they say they felt almost full.

All of their skin soon grew torturously itchy rashes. The boys have dark, latte-colored skin, but the sun still overwhelmed them, igniting severe burns. The only way they could stay comfortable was to pull off their clothes. They threw them in the sea in anger and frustration. They kept only one T-shirt, Filo’s, which they used to dry the bottom of the boat after bailing it.

Eventually, to avoid lying in the puddle, they started sleeping sitting up between the benches, legs and feet intertwined. They’d huddle together, wrapped in the tarp, while waves filled the boat. At night they didn’t bother to bail. “We didn’t care,” says Etueni. “We just tried to sleep to get past that day.” They napped in the daytime, too. Anything to kill time.

About two weeks in, they began bickering. By this point, the boys were starving. Of course they weren’t in good moods. “We got angry easily,” says Etueni. It was worst at night, when they fought for a little extra room. “Scoot over,” “Move your elbow” — that sort of thing.

“All you think about is food,” says Etueni. “You never think about anything else. It’s like your stomach is being ripped apart.” Samu said he dreamed of fish and chips. And pizza. And chocolate.

Etueni envisioned eating an orange. This is when it was hot, at midday. He described it out loud — the boys agreed that Etueni was the most adept and creative describer of food fantasies. He described taking the orange out of a refrigerator, cold, and then carefully peeling it. And then, not even taking a bite. Just shoving the whole thing into his mouth.

At night, when it was cold, he’d describe a meal fresh out of the oven, warm and steaming. He described biscuits and tea, and how he’d dunk the biscuits and get them soggy.

Sometimes, he just made up new food. Like sardine curry.

Time seemed to pass with extraordinary slowness. They had nothing to divert themselves. They lost track of how many days they’d been gone. The disc of the sun slowly traveled overhead. The water changed color — blue, green, gray, black — with the changing light, with the passing clouds. In rough weather they rode the great ocean swells, rising and falling sometimes thirty feet or more, as if the sea were breathing. The horizon was naked save for the incessant waves that formed a swaying divide between ocean and sky.

“When it was night, I wanted it to be sunny,” says Etueni. “When it was day, I wanted it to be night.” Sometimes, in the darkness, specks of light from phosphorescent plankton danced below, its illumination triggered by the splash of waves. The gold ring that Samu wore, a cherished possession, slipped off his finger while he was scooping a palmful of seawater. He had grown skinny.

How long, they wondered, could they drift? They thought they’d surely spot an island. But the answer is that they could, in fact, drift a long while. It’s possible to get caught in an enormous eddy system and circle for years. One ship, the Marlborough, left New Zealand in 1890 and then was purportedly seen again, off the coast of Chile, twenty-three years later, complete with skeletons of the crew.

They had no idea where they were, which way they were moving, or if they were moving at all. They didn’t know if they were getting further out to sea or closer to land.

Sometimes the boys prayed. It was all they could do. This was usually in the evening, as the sun set on another day adrift. They’d take turns. “God,” they’d say, according to Etueni, “please take us back home. Please forgive us. We will be good.” They made promises to God. “We’ll never drink again. We’ll never smoke again. We’ll do well in school. We’ll be good boys. We won’t do anything stupid. We’ll look after our families.”

Sometimes they wept. They all did. “Tears just came,” says Etueni. Someone would turn his back and cover his face, but the others knew. So they’d sit next to him, put their arms around him. They’d comfort each other in the best way they could. “It’s all right, it’s all right; we’ll get there,” they’d say when Etueni cried. “We’re gonna see your mom again.”

There was one occasion when all three cried at same time. “That was one of the saddest days,” Etueni says. They thought about their families. Their grandmothers. “That was the first time,” says Filo, “that we never thought about food.”

One time, a storm blew in. It rained for two and a half days, the only major storm the boys encountered. They couldn’t bail fast enough; water rose to the benches. They shivered violently ‑- rain, even in the tropics, comes in cold — so they wrapped themselves under the tarp, sitting cross-legged. From outside the boat, they would have looked like a small green haystack. It was warm in there, so despite the boat filling up and in danger of sinking, they sat for an entire day, huddled naked, rain hammering down, thrashed by winds. They say they felt like a team at this moment, dependent on one another, helping one another.

They were just a tiny speck in a seventy-million square-mile ocean. Even if their position could have been approximated within a hundred miles, which would’ve been nearly impossible, that’s a circle with a hundred-mile radius — 30,000 square miles. More likely the boys couldn’t have been pinpointed within 500 miles. That’s a search area of 785,000 square miles, the size of the state of Texas. Plus Colorado. Plus Montana. Plus both Dakotas. And Nevada. To find a fourteen-foot boat. And yet soon after the storm — about three weeks into their trip — they spotted a ship.

It was at night. The ship was a large one, the deck outlined in orange lights. It was difficult to tell how far away it was. They stared at it. Then they thought, Let’s make a sail and catch up. So they held up the tarpaulin and tried to harness the wind. But it was exhausting work. They hadn’t seen a boat since leaving Tokelau. They wanted to swim for it; they debated the idea, discussed it back and forth. Should only Samu go? Should they all go? They couldn’t decide. And the boat motored away.

They felt terrible. They wondered if that was their only chance, if they’d die before seeing another ship. They thought about all the food on that boat. The warmth. The beds. They blamed one another for not jumping in the water and at least making an active attempt at saving their lives. Now all they could do was sit in their dinghy and wait.

Soon after the ship passed, Etueni quit. He stopped talking. He curled up in the bow. He didn’t even sit up — he just lay all day in the bottom of the boat, mute. Mostly unmoving. Eyes half-lidded. He did this for weeks.

Starvation is an insidious process. After the body consumes all the food in your stomach and small intestine — a point the boys had passed weeks before — the energy stored in fat comes next. When all available fat has been consumed, your body turns on muscle tissue. You’re basically being eaten alive, from the inside. The nagging in your stomach, your body crying for nourishment, is constant and unstoppable. Physical strength is sapped. It’s difficult to think clearly. Everything seems to happen in slow motion. The boys developed, in all their fingernails and toenails, a noted sign of deep starvation, a ragged white square in the middle of each nail. Their hair started to fall out.

Etueni’s breakdown infuriated Samu. Filo was neutral about it, but Samu understood that if they wanted to survive, they needed to work together. “Etueni didn’t help us clean, didn’t help bail, didn’t talk,” says Filo. “I’d say, ‘How are you?’ and he wouldn’t say anything. He’d just lay there.”

Etueni was locked in his own world. His tongue refused to work. “I wanted to talk,” he says. “But I had a horrible taste in my mouth. Seawater didn’t help. Nothing helped. I couldn’t get rid of it, no matter what I did.”

Phrases repeated in his head, over and over, for hours. “Why did I come? Why did I come?” “I hate this, I hate this.” Then he contemplated dying, something no fourteen-year-old should have to do. “I thought about suicide,” he says. He considered stabbing himself with the machete. But it had grown rusty and dull.

“I thought about the fastest way to die — the easiest, the least pain,” he says. He finally arrived at a plan. He’d tie the cord from the engine around his leg, detach the engine from the boat, and jump over the side. “I didn’t tell the others this,” he says. “I just kept it to myself.” They were probably floating over 10,000 feet of water.

Back in Atafu, as the weeks passed and there was no sign of the boys, people weren’t sure what to do. At the school, they left the boys’ desks empty, untouched. Though the ferry stopped searching, the fishermen of Atafu never did. They’d glance extra long at the horizon. Hoping. Every morning, several villagers walked the beach, looking for a sign.

Once, during the first week they were missing, word went around the island that the New Zealand Herald reported that the boys had been found. People began screaming and cheering. But it turned out not to be true. Someone had e-mailed an old article detailing an unrelated rescue.

At the church, there were special services held for the boys; even the official magazine of Tokelau, Te Vakai, called it a “memorial service,” though the magazine also added that “there was still hope of finding them alive.” There were many days of special prayers — and then of families visiting families, bringing food, sitting and talking.

“We went back to routine,” says the nurse on Atafu, “but never officially said that the boys were gone. They said that boat couldn’t sink. They said they took a good boat.”

Filo’s father, Tanu Filo, said he had frequent dreams about his son. In those dreams, he could see Filo. He wanted to talk to him, but he couldn’t. There was a barrier between them. “Every time I thought about him,” says Tanu about his son, “I went crazy.” His mind, he said, told him that there was no hope. But his dreams said otherwise. His dreams said Filo was still out there. Suffering. He felt helpless. He stopped working, went to the beach overlooking the ocean, near the gap in the reef that the boys went through, and put up a tent and stayed there many nights, staring out to sea.

Etueni’s mom cried until she was too weak to stand. Samu’s mother and grandmother were wracked with guilt. His mother had just come to Atafu, a few months before the boys left, to take him back to Australia. But his grandmother talked her out of it. She wanted Samu around.

“Basically the whole country was turned inside out,” says Joe Suveinakama, the general manager of the Tokelau government in Samoa. He is not Tokelauan — he’s from Fiji — but he married into a Tokelauan family. “I stayed outside all the time, just hoping to see a piece of metal or something like that. There needed to be closure, but you don’t want to be insensitive and say, ‘Look, they have died now.’ The problem of not knowing keeps the ghost unsettled in your heart.”

Suveinakama says that he, like many Tokelauans, could not give up. “There’s something about Tokelauans,” he says. “They feel like, in an ideal world, they would be living in the water. They are more connected to the sea than they are to the land.” Their atolls are built of coral rubble, of billions of tiny lime skeletons, generation upon generation of polyps, produced by the sea. “And in their culture, their dances, you won’t hear about land or mountains. It’s about fishing, about what the sea gives and what it takes, how the sea assists in your love, in your emotions. It’s all about the sea.”

Hope Sini, a young boy in Etueni’s class, says that he and his friends took a vote when the boys had been gone more than six weeks. Who still thought they were alive? The vote, in favor of alive, was seven to two. Still, there were several messages left on the boys’ Facebook pages, saying things like “Rest in peace” and “You are in God’s hands.”

The Ulu was in a difficult position. He, too, wanted closure but couldn’t prematurely declare the boys dead. And he was related to all three boys. His brother is Etueni’s father. His sister is Samu’s grandmother. His second cousin is Filo’s mom. “We had special services for them, morning and evening,” he says. “But no memorial service. Never. The only time we have memorial services is when death is confirmed. We can wait years.”

The Ulu claims he always believed the boys would be rescued. “I don’t know why,” he says. “We are taught to respect the ocean. Not fight against it. Go with the current. If you go against it, you will lose. I lost a lot of sleep waiting for the phone to ring, for someone to say that we found them. It seemed like everyone in Tokelau was lost with them.” He spoke with a skilled boat captain in American Samoa who had closely followed the weather and the winds from the day the boys went missing. After six weeks, the captain told the Ulu, “Sorry, those boys are gone.” No one, he said, could survive that long without food or water.

Deep in his silent stage, pondering suicide, Etueni was alone, confined to the bow of the boat. Filo and Samu slept at the rear. They had the tarp. Etueni couldn’t even stretch out. “If I straightened my legs,” he says, “they’d kick me and tell me to pull them back. In Tokelau, Samu always treated me like a little brother. One the boat he treated me like an outcast. I saw it as two on one — those two were best friends. I was odd man out.”

Sometimes, he says, because he wasn’t helping, Filo and Samu drank nearly all the rainwater. Samu slapped him a few times to try and wake him up, to snap him out of his silence. “He was trying to be the boss,” said Etueni. “I could’ve killed the boss.”

And then he nearly did. Etueni was huddled in the front of the boat, still in silent mode, the tarp over his head — he could use the tarp at times during the day — when Samu asked him for the machete. He wanted to scrape his skin, to ease the painful rashes. Etueni refused to move. He told me later he had no idea where the machete was. As it turned out, it was under him. This, for some reason — this of all things — made Samu snap. He kicked Etueni. “Get up, bum,” he said. But Etueni just lay there. He didn’t get up.

Samu reached down, gruffly, and grabbed the machete from under Etueni. He knelt over him, one knee on either side of Etueni, who was laying on his back. His eyes, said Etueni, looked angry, violent. Etueni was pinned beneath Samu, unable to get away. Samu scraped the machete — one, two, three — against the gunwale of the boat, trying to sharpen it. “And then,” says Etueni, “he went crazy.”

In a flash, Samu yanked Etueni up and pressed the machete to his neck. Pressed it hard. “I put my fingers around it,” says Etueni. “I was pushing it back.” This lasted about ten seconds. Samu pressed the machete so hard it cut into Etueni’s neck. There was a little blood. Later, Etueni showed me the scar. “I really thought Samu was going to kill me,” he says.

Filo was sleeping on the other side of the boat but woke to the commotion. Etueni finally said something. “Please,” he whispered. “I don’t want to die.” And Etueni realized at this moment that it was the truth. He didn’t want to die. He didn’t want to tie himself to the motor. And he didn’t want Samu to cut his throat. He says he thought then of his mom, of not seeing her again if he died. The two boys were separated by only a few inches, Samu pushing the machete one way, Etueni pushing back. They glared at each other.

“Let go,” Samu said to Etueni. Etueni didn’t let go. Then, abruptly, Samu dropped the machete. It clattered on the aluminum floor of the dinghy. “You’re lucky this time,” Samu said. And he turned his back on Etueni.

“I sat up quickly,” says Etueni, “and grabbed it. ‘Jump on him now,’ I was thinking. I was thinking of killing Samu.” He told me it was the first time in his life he had ever truly wanted to kill another person. “I could’ve jumped on him. It was a good chance. His back was turned to me.”

But something stopped him. When I spoke with Etueni and he was describing this moment, he quoted Martin Luther King to explain what had held him back. He told me he’d read King’s line in one of his schoolbooks and that it had always stuck with him: “We must all learn to live together as brothers or we will all perish together as fools.” He put down the machete.

A flock of birds, about twenty gray seagulls, had been hanging around the dinghy every day. The boys watched, enviously, as the birds repeatedly dove into the water and nabbed the fish that were attracted to the shadow of the boat. The birds spent the night bobbing nearby in the water.

Then one afternoon a bird landed in the front of the boat. The boys were half comatose, in the depths of hunger. Scarcely able to move. They stared at the bird.

Samu started talking to it. “Where do you come from, bird?” he asked. “What’s your name?” The boys actually laughed a little, this deep into the trip. They thought it was a sign. A sign from God. An angel. “Can you take us back home?” asked Samu.

The bird did not answer. “I’m speaking to you,” Samu said. “Hey! Pay attention.” The gull remained on the boat for a long time. It cooed. They made a plan. File was supposed to kill it. But he made one move, and it flew away.

A few days later, another bird came. This time, Samu tried to kill it. He actually hit it, with the wooden fish club, but it fell into the sea. Samu lunged into the water but it was only stunned, and it too flew away.

Then a third one came. This was just after a big rainstorm, and there was water in the tarp, and the mayonnaise jar was full. Samu was stealthy this time. He crouched low. He used his hand. He grabbed the bird by the neck and twisted it. When Samu thought it was dead, he let go. It immediately started squawking. He twisted again, harder. Then Samu plucked the feathers.

He cut the skin with his teeth. They ate a bite of raw meat, but even in their hunger, it was worse than yuck. So they dried the carcass in the sun. And it was good. Better than good: possibly lifesaving. They ate all the meat; there wasn’t a lot. They ate the organs — the heart, the liver. They rummaged in the stomach for bits of fish. They crunched up the bones and ate all of them. “Afterwards,” says Etueni, “we wanted more.”

They drank the water in the tarp. The sea was so calm that waves didn’t splash into the dinghy. Etueni ended his silence. “The bird finally helped,” he says, “and I started talking.” It was a good day. “We were friends again,” says Etueni. “We were happy that day.” But no more birds ever landed on the boat.

The relief provided by those few bites of meat did not last long. It only served to reawaken their hunger pangs, their long-dormant stomachs gurgling with digestive juices. But there was nothing more. Soon they were hungrier than ever. The sun continued to beat down. The sea stretched all around, limitless and cruel.

At times, Samu and Filo spent a few minutes bobbing in the water to cool off, but Etueni felt too frail to leave the dinghy. During one of these dips, the boys found barnacles on the bottom of the boat. Samu was the first to eat them. They were better than not eating. They gave some to Etueni.

Then, during one swim, Filo let go of the boat, trying to snap off a barnacle. The current was strong, and he became separated from the boat. He was too weak to catch up. If Samu had delayed any more than a few seconds, it’s likely Filo would have drifted away and swiftly drowned. But Samu instinctively held the dinghy in one hand and swam with the other, tugging the boat. It was an incredible feat, considering his condition. He managed to swim fast enough to reach Filo. He grabbed his hand. He helped haul him into the boat. That was the last time anyone went swimming.

They were crazed with hunger, desperate beyond any measure. Their bodies were rotting before their eyes. Their tongues, thick with thirst, stuck to the insides of their mouths. What little saliva they could generate was viscous as glue. Their lips cracked. Their arms and legs swelled, the edema of famine. The gluteus maximus — the largest muscle in the body — was almost completely eaten away; there were only hollows of flesh ridged by pelvic bones. The glare of the sun had damaged their eyes, and sometimes they could scarcely open them. A lump seemed to form in their throats, and they repeatedly tried to swallow, to dislodge it, all in vain. They had severe headaches. Starvation had lowered their internal temperatures and they were colder than ever at night. Their bodies had used up all their fat. It was working on their muscles. Their minds would go next.

In anguish, Samu clamped his jaw on one of the boat’s wooden benches. It was two inches thick. Eventually he gnawed a piece off. He chewed for many minutes. He swallowed. They all joined in. The front bench was slightly softer than the rear one — it got wetter — so that was the one they ate. They ate lots of it. They ate some of the hair that fell off their heads. They ate bits of their fingernails. They were dying.

And then the rash on Filo’s skin reached the point of excruciation. He was under the tarp in the middle of the night and felt what he described as an electric shock across his body. He leapt up. He screamed. “God, please help! Take this pain away!” He yelled louder. “God, please forgive me!” He wanted to tear off his skin. He couldn’t stand it any longer. He was finished. He grabbed the machete. He begged Samu to kill him. “Stab me. Stab me.” He begged Etueni. “I felt like I was burning,” Filo later tells me. “I’d rather die than endure the pain. I was screaming at them to stab me. I was serious.” Both boys refused. “How are you going to see your parents?” Samu asked.

Eventually the pain subsided. Exhaustion gripped him. There was too much water in the boat to lie down, so they entangled their legs and arms and napped sitting up, with Samu and Etueni holding the tarp high so it didn’t make contact with any of Filo’s skin.

Samu says he’d reached a point beyond fear. He gave up hoping they’d be found. And that, strangely, made him not as scared. He wasn’t afraid to die anymore. He no longer cried. He just sat there in stunned silence with nothing to say. He once demonstrated his sea stare for me, relaxing his face, letting his eyes go soft. It was haunting and fascinating, the human version of a computer in sleep mode, and I could picture him in the little boat in that state, hour upon hour, waiting for nothing.

Samu was not frightened, but he was aware of the closeness of death. The depth of hunger was such that few have ever experienced it. He thought about it. You would, too. Finally he mentioned it: All three of them could die, or one could die so that two could live.

And the one who was going to die was already selected. “Samu says to me, ‘What would you do if I kill Etueni?’ ” says Filo. “I told him, ‘I don’t know.’ I told him, ‘Nothing.’ Samu said to me, ‘If I kill him, are you going to eat him with me?’ I said, ‘No.’ ” Over the course of a couple of days, in quiet, private conversations, when Etueni was asleep, Samu mentioned it several times. “He said, ‘I want to do it,’ ” says Filo. “He was going to do it. He kept on talking about it.” When I asked Samu to confirm that he had indeed considered killing Etueni, he simply smiled and gave me one of his enigmatic eyebrow raises.

Ultimately, though, Samu decided he could not do it. He said he couldn’t because he was scared of God.

And so they prepared to die. They stopped bailing. It was too much effort. Etueni got sick. He vomited repeatedly, but little came out. “Just yellow stuff,” he says. But he did it in the boat; he was too weak to lift himself up and vomit over the side. “Samu got mad,” says Etueni. “He punched me in the face.” He points to his left cheek. “I said sorry, but he punched me again.”

It stopped raining. They drank seawater. “We all quit,” says Etueni. “Like it makes no difference if we die or live.” They were all sprawled about in the bottom of the boat in the most weakened possible state, covered by the tarp, close to death. And then Samu pulled himself up for a moment to see if rain clouds were coming.

And he said one word.

He said, “Yes.”

And he raised his arm. And started waving.

“Boys,” he said, “I can see a boat.” Etueni and Filo didn’t believe him. A few times before, he had pretended to spot a boat, and when the others looked, he’d start laughing. No one else thought it was funny. So they made him promise he wouldn’t do it again. Now they thought he was joking once more.

“Boys,” Samu said again, “get up.” There was something in his voice. Filo and Etueni got up.

And there, directly in front of them, was a ship. The San Nikunau. “I started waving, but I could only lift my arm for a few seconds,” says Etueni. “I wondered if it was a dream.”

They feared the ship would pass by. It didn’t seem to be stopping. But then, from way above, the ship’s navigator, Tai Fredricsen, called out. He asked if they needed help. The boys screamed yes. And the ship lowered a small rescue boat. Fredricsen snapped a photo. It is an extraordinary and heartbreaking image — three naked boys, staring at their rescuer, reduced to skin and bones. Filo and Samu started crying. But Etueni didn’t. He was too dehydrated. “I couldn’t cry,” he says. “I had no more tears.”

They had floated some 750 miles. They’d been gone more than seven weeks. With help — they were too weak to walk — they boarded the San Nikunau. Their dinghy was also saved, to be returned to Tokelau. They sat in the galley, bewildered and overwhelmed by the scent of food.

Fredricsen gave them some electrolyte drink and a bit of bread. Etueni ate an apple, but it made him sick, and he vomited into a bowl in the kitchen. They showered. They borrowed clothes. Samu made the first phone call. He called his grandmother. There were celebrations across Tokelau; dancing, singing, shouting, hugging. The boys all slept that night in one bed, in Fredricsen’s berth.

“When I was officially informed,” says the Ulu, “I sat down and cried. They came back from the dead.” He later spoke with all three. “I told them what they did was wrong. I told them never to touch alcohol again. I said, ‘We all lost sleep for you.’ I told them, ‘I want you, when you get home, to change. Respect your elders. Help the community. Help your island. And tell the other kids not to do what you did.’”

The next day, the boys transferred to a Fijian naval boat, which took them to the capital city of Suva. An ambulance brought them to Colonial War Memorial Hospital. They were suffering from extreme dehydration, fungal infections, severe malnourishment, and second-degree burns. They were anemic. They had elevated heart rates, gross muscle wasting, and widespread infections. Etueni lost two teeth. Leane Pearce, Tokelau’s director of health, says they would likely not have survived another week.

“It’s a miraculous outcome,” says David Voss, a New Zealand physician who examined the boys. “They were in a wasting state for a very long time.” But Voss says that the only possible long-term effects may be a result of vitamin deficiencies, which could cause future heart trouble.

They spent a few days in the hospital, then flew from Fiji to Samoa, where they moved in with a Tokelauan family to rest and recuperate. That’s where I met them. We went to McDonald’s a couple of times, and once to an action movie. The boys ate like crazy: whole boxes of cereal in the middle of the night, packet after packet of chicken-flavored Top Ramen, pints of milk, entire baked chickens, bags of rice. They also broke several promises they’d made to God — they drank alcohol, smoked cigarettes, and lied to their caretakers about both. Samu, who had never before left Tokelau, came down with the chicken pox.

A psychiatrist, David Chaplow, the director of the New Zealand mental health department, examined them. “They won’t ever forget this,” he says. “It won’t be put out of their minds. But young people tend to be resilient, able to work through tragedies with reasonably good long-term results.”

Finally, just after Christmas, they were cleared to take the long ferry ride back to Atafu. On their last night in Samoa, they ate pizza and baked chicken. Then they drove to the wharf to catch the ferry. Etueni said he didn’t want to look at the sea, and Samu said, “Don’t be a baby” — hard on him even to the end. (“Samu never said sorry to me,” says Etueni. “But I forgive him.”)

They made it back to Atafu, where there was a big welcome feast. Samu gave a speech in which he apologized for their actions. There was dancing afterward. They told some stories of their adventure.

The boys themselves didn’t have any profound conclusions about the meaning of their whole trip. They’re kids. It happened. They wanted to get back to their lives, to play rugby, to dye their hair, to respond to all the condolence messages left on their Facebook pages. “Everyone says that God’s got things in store for us,” Filo told me. Then he shrugged.

The boys couldn’t articulate it to me, but they had changed. They could feel it. Atafu was too small for them; it was almost a boat unto itself. There was too much water everywhere they looked. All that suffering had just brought them back to the place they nearly killed themselves trying to escape.

Within two months of returning home, they all left Atafu. Filo and Samu went with their families to Australia. Etueni moved with his family to Hawaii. None of them know if they’ll ever go back.

— end —