Two amateur sailors set first feet on land Monday after spending nearly half a year lost at sea – a journey they said took them through shark attacks and waves as tall as office buildings, and nearly killed them on the brink of their rescue by the U.S. Navy.
"The crew of the USS Ashland saved our lives, not from the ocean, but from the vessel that was trying to render assistance to us," Jennifer Appel told reporters after the Navy ship docked in Okinawa, Japan.
"Had they not been able to locate us, we would have been dead within 24 hours."
Appel's voyage began thousands of miles away in Hawaii, when she, Tasha Fuiava and their two dogs set off in a sailboat on May 3 to explore – they thought – Tahiti and other Pacific islands thousands of miles to the south.
Appel had been sailing for a decade, the Guardian reported – but close to her home in Honolulu.
"I have no idea what's going to happen out there," she recalled telling Fuiava, who replied:
"That's OK, I've never sailed."
The pair had spent years preparing for the journey, and stuffed the 50-foot Sea Nymph with food and provisions – just in case the trip lasted more than the planned two-and-a-half weeks.
On their first day at sea, Appel said, a violent storm hit with waves as high as 50 feet.
The storm lashed the Sea Nymph for three days, but when it finally subsided, the women were more confident than ever in their abilities, and decided to sail on.
"The boat could withstand the forces of nature," Appel said.
From there, problems spiraled. The boat's mast was somehow damaged, and its frame was too big to dock at the tiny island of Kiribati for repairs.
So they kept sailing, hobbled and already hundreds of miles off their planned course.
At the end of May – long after the women were supposed to have reached Tahiti – a white squall flooded their cockpit and wrecked the engine.
Now they were simply adrift.
They began to send out distress signals, but no answer came back. Fuiava recalled to NBC's Today show that she would stand watch at night, and shoot a flare into the sky whenever she saw a ship on the horizon.
"They would turn or keep going," she said.
They did what they could to survive. The ship's water purifier broke, according to the Guardian, but they figured out how to fix it. When the dog food ran out, Zeus and Valentine made do with the women's provisions – mostly dry goods like oatmeal, pasta and nuts.
They had packed enough food to last them a year, they thought, but the supply was dwindling rapidly.
And the ocean brought other dangers.
One day, the women recalled, a pack of tiger sharks found them. The sharks started ramming the boat, and kept at it so long it that seemed to Appel they were hunting.
"When those things would hit the boat, my own teeth would rattle in my head," Appel told reporters. She and Fuiava and the dogs all huddled on the floor below deck.
"I told them not to bark because the sharks could hear us breathing. They could smell us," Appel told "Today."
They spent month after month like that – "Wondering if today is your last day, if tonight is your last night," Appel told reporters.
By late October – nearly hurricane season in the South Pacific – the food had run down to the last rations. They had by now spent nearly six months on the Sea Nymph, and it seemed less and less likely that they could do so for much longer.
And then on Tuesday, a Taiwanese fishing boat found them – about 900 miles from the coast of Japan, thousands of miles from home and nowhere close to Tahiti.
But when the fishermen tried to tow the sailboat, the Associated Press reported, they damaged it even more.
Appel managed to swim to the fishing vessel and made one last mayday call. Then she swam back to her companions and waited.
They watched the empty horizon. The day passed. It was at this point, Appel said, that she began to fear that death was imminent.
"We actually talked about how we believed we'd been left for dead," she told reporters.
But come Wednesday, she knew: The U.S. Navy had heard her distress call.
"They see us," she told Fuiava, ABC News reported.
Appel recalled shaking as the gray hull of the USS Ashland grew in the distance. She stood on the edge of the Sea Nymph and blew kisses, while the dogs barked and ran wildly down the length of the crippled sailboat.
Appel and Fuiava would spend nearly another week at sea – but they were no longer adrift, and no longer scared and alone.
As the women waited to dock in Japan, they passed the time exploring the Ashland's massive deck, Appel told the Navy last week.
And wherever they wandered, she said, seamen would rush up to help.