"...we should pass over all biographies of 'the good and the great,' while we search carefully the slight records of wretches who died in prison, in Bedlam, or upon the gallows."
~Edgar Allan Poe

Monday, February 12, 2024

The Mystery of the "Sarah Jo"

Scott Moorman

The tale of the last voyage of the "Sarah Jo" is a short, simple one, but at the same time it is one of the strangest sea mysteries I know.

On February 11, 1979, 27-year-old Scott Moorman, a native Californian who had moved to Maui, set out on the 17-foot Boston Whaler for a day-long fishing trip.  He was accompanied by four friends--Ralph Malaiakini, Pat Woessner, Benny Kalama, and Peter Hanchett.  The weather was good when they set out, but two hours later, the sky darkened, gale-force winds blew in, and the sea became dangerously turbulent.  And the "Sarah Jo" vanished.  

The Coast Guard spent nearly a week searching the area for the boat.  Friends and family of the missing men continued the hunt for another month.  Not one trace of the boat or her passengers could be found.

It seemed to be the end of the story.

Fast-forward nearly a decade, to September 9, 1988.  A Marine biologist named John Naughton Jr. was researching green turtles on the Marshall Islands, about 2,300 miles southwest from where Moorman and his friends disappeared.  On a bleak, uninhabited atoll called Taongi, Naughton found something very unexpected:  the battered remains of the "Sarah Jo."  By an amazing coincidence, Naughton, a member of the National Marine Fisheries Service, had helped in the original search for the boat.  Nearby was a pile of stones topped by a crude driftwood cross and a human jawbone. Under the stones was more of the skeleton.  Dental records were able to identify these bones as all that was left of Scott Moorman.  A search of the atoll found no further clues.

There was no way of knowing when Moorman was buried in this shallow grave, but Naughton and his crew believed it was a relatively recent burial.  Also, a government survey of the atoll done six years earlier would surely have found the boat and the grave.  The boat--and Moorman--must have arrived on the atoll sometime after 1982.  Where were they before that time?

Adding to the eeriness of the scene was something found buried with Moorman:  a stack of unbound, partially burned blank papers 3" by 3" and about 3/4" thick.  Between each of the papers was a small square piece of tin foil.  The meaning of this strangely ritualistic touch remains uncertain.

This partial "solution" to the disappearance only raised even more puzzling questions.  How did Moorman and his small motorboat manage to travel 2,300 miles?  How did he die, and when?  The pathologists could not say.  Who buried him?  What became of Moorman's four companions?  As Moorman's sister said, "All this is like the Twilight Zone."

Speculate away.  Your guess is as good as anyone's.


  1. The paper and foil sounds like an attempt at a voltaic stack -- maybe trying to jump start the boat motor?

  2. The only explanation I can think of is a partial one; perhaps while the burial was recent, Moorman's death was not. His remains were found - by someone - and buried. But why did this supposed person not alert authorities? And surely the 'Sarah Jo' could not have been drifting all that time, unseen by anyone. Very strange, indeed.

  3. Such a strange, sad case. I have seen it speculated that the partially-burnt stack of paper and foil may have been an attempt to offer ming chao (or at least, this is how it sounds in Cantonese; no idea how to write it correctly or how to pronounce it in Mandarin, but it's this: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Joss_paper) by whoever found and possibly buried Scott Moorman's remains, which in itself is predicated on another speculation: that he was found deceased by fishermen, likely from a Chinese port, who may have been fishing illegally in the area and so obviously didn't want to contact authorities, but still attempted to provide a proper burial. Admittedly, the cross symbol erected over the grave doesn't really fit in with this interpretation, but it's been an internationally-recognizable symbol for a grave for a few centuries now, regardless of any religious intent which may or may not be behind it, and is at least easy to construct with some sticks and rope or nails. Likewise, the hypothesized fishermen may have recognized or assumed Scott Moorman must be a Westerner, and thus assumed he was a Christian, hence a cross, while the ming chao could have been put together with whatever else was at hand, maybe random paper scraps and the foil inside cigarette packs or chewing gum packs, etc., and then (at least partially) burned as another form of showing respect and care for the departed spirit of this, to them, fellow sailor/fisherman, whose name and circumstances they didn't know, but who had clearly died far from home, and so they still wanted to give him the best send off they could using whatever materials were available to them on a small fishing boat and a little island. Admittedly, this smacks a bit of newspaper romance, but I don't think it's a wholly implausible theory, and *if* true, it's at least bittersweet, maybe, to his surviving friends and relatives to know that even in death kind strangers showed him compassion.

    1. I've seen that theory before. It's all very speculative, of course, but it seems to me the most likely possibility.


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