April 1, 2024 | Allison Robertson

The Tongan Castaways


The Tongan Castaways

In 1965, a group a young boys ran away from their boarding school and ended up shipwrecked on an uninhabited island, where they endured the elements alone for over a year.

From keeping a continuous fire burning to drinking the blood of seabirds, this is their survival story.

castaway boys and shipwreck split image

Where It Started

The boys were from Tonga, an island country in Polynesia, part of Oceania. The country has 171 islands, of which 45 are inhabited.

TongaAsian Development Bank, Flickr

The Boys

The group of castaways includes six teenaged boys who were between 13 and 19 years old. Their names were: Mano Totau, Sione Fataua, Stephen Fatai, Kolo Fekitoa, David Fifita, and Luke Veikoso.

Mr. Peter Warner and Tongan castaway boysFairfax Media Archives, Getty Images

The School

The boys were a group of a friends who attended St. Andrews Anglican boarding school in Nukuʻalofa on Tongatapu.

nukuʻalofaTauʻolunga, CC BY-SA 2.5, Wikimedia Commons

Advertisement

Their Plan

As most young boys, they had little interest in school and the thought of freedom was too enticing for them. With very little planning, the boys came together and decided it was time to leave.

Peter Warner with Tongan castawaysFairfax Media Archives, Getty Images

The Escape

Since they lived on an island, their only way out was by boat. So, they took a 24-foot boat and set off in the direction of New Zealand—where they hoped for a “better life.”

Milford Sound New ZealandBernard Spragg, Flickr

The First Night

After sailing the rough sea for most of the day, they dropped their anchor with plans of laying their heads down for a few hours during the night.

But a sudden turn of events changed their entire plan.

Old boatOlegRi, Shutterstock

Trouble Started Brewing

The boys were not expecting trouble, and were ill-equipped for anything to go wrong. So, when the sun went down and a storm started brewing overhead, they knew they were in trouble.

People in a boatAussie~mobs, Flickr

The Storm

As with most storms at sea, things escalated pretty quickly. The wind brought in massive waves and the sky was pitch dark. They held on with nothing but their prayers, but the boat took a hit.

small boat surrounded by waves during stormVernerie Yann, Shutterstock

The Boat

Unfortunately, their boat struggled amidst the rough waves and pulsating rain. The storm was worse than they could have ever imagined—and it left them in a pretty bad situation.

Small boat during stormpicturepixx, Shutterstock

Advertisement

They Survived

The boys survived the stormy night—barely. But their boat was reduced to scraps. They lost their anchor, and the boat’s sail and rudder were destroyed by the wild winds.

Storm at Seagentlemanbeggar, Flickr

Hanging On

When the sun came up, the boys found themselves hanging on for dear life—literally. The boat was reduced to ruins and they were now drifting in the middle of nowhere, unsure of which direction they were heading or how far they were from home.

In raft at seaNationaal Archief, Picryl

Drifting

Sione, who was 18 at the time, recalls the initial experience, “The boat was all torn up — no rudder, no sails — and for eight days we drifted with no food, no rain to drink, we prayed, knowing only God could save us.”

Two Australian survivors of the sinkingAustralian War Memorial, Picryl

Counting Sunsets

All six boys survived the storm, but found themselves with nothing but a chunk of wood to float on.

They laid there, sheltering themselves from the blinding sun, counting the sunsets to keep track of time. Until something changed.

In raft at seaChannel 7, The Castaways (1966)

The Island

After eight long days and drifting for almost 200 miles, one of the boys was bailing water from their slowly sinking boat when they spotted an island off in the distance.

Island in Tonga

Abandon Ship

At that point they decided to hand paddle their battered craft to get as close as they could to this island. After crashing into some rocks, they abandoned ship and made a seemingly impossible swim.

wooden boatJulia Volk, Pexels

Advertisement

The Unforgiving Sea

Although they thought they were close enough the swim, the sea reminded them just how unforgiving it was. The relentless waves and powerful currents pushed and pulled them as they grabbed onto planks salvaged from their wreck, and once again, prayed for their survival.

Six Tongan castawaysChannel 7, The Castaways (1966)

The Island

The boys struggled once again at sea for an entire 36 hours—drifting separately and calling out for each other throughout the night. The island seemed like a tease at this point.

Six Tongan castawaysChannel 7, The Castaways (1966)

Safety on Shore

Mano was the first to reach land; weak from hunger and dehydration, he could not stand but called out that he had safely reached shore, and the rest soon followed him.

They grouped together and this time, they made a plan.ata island castawaysJohn Carnemolla

The Pact

At this point, the boys knew they were in a serious situation and needed a plan for survival. Right then and there they made a pact to live on the island just like how they had been raised: “We all come from close and poor families where, whatever you get, you share," said Sione.Six Tongan castawaysChannel 7, The Castaways (1966)

The Island

After regrouping, the boys set out to see just where they ended up. It wasn’t long until they realized they were alone on the island—which we now know was the uninhabited ‘Ata Island.

Six Tongan castawaysChannel 7, The Castaways (1966)

The Cave

The boys had grown up scattered across the small islands of Tonga, and had knowledge of basic survival skills. They knew the first thing they had to do was create a shelter, so they dug a small cave by hand, enough to shelter them temporarily.

Six Tongan castawaysChannel 7, The Castaways (1966)

Advertisement

The Seabirds

After their cave was settled, they set out looking for food. Not much was available to them at this time, so they resorted to catching seabirds which they used for meat, and eventually eggs, once they came across nests.

Ideas That Backfired factsPixabay

Fishing

The boys collected bits and pieces from their wreckage and crafted tools from the debris that they used as makeshift hooks and spears—becoming expert fishermen. This greatly increased their food options.

fishJohn Carnemolla

Wild Taro

Aside from birds and fish, the boys foraged extensively for wild taro—which the island had plenty of. This nutritional root became a dietary staple for them.

Taro rootHeinsdorff Jularlak, Shutterstock

Water Collection

The boys quickly learned that freshwater was a luxury, so they resorted to other methods of hydration. They collected rainwater and stored it in hollowed-out tree trunks, ensuring they had a steady supply of safe water.

Six Tongan castawaysChannel 7, The Castaways (1966)

Desperate Measures

When rain was scarce, the boys’ survival instincts kicked in and they reluctantly drank the blood of the seabirds—knowing that hydration was of utmost importance.

Six Tongan castawaysChannel 7, The Castaways (1966)

Fire

Initially, upon making it to the island, the boys were terribly weak and were unable to find the right materials to make them a fire. They continued to try, day in and day out without success. They lived off raw meat and fruits as their sustenance.

island John Carnemolla

Shelter

The island provided them with a plethora of materials that came in handy for making shelters. They used palm leaves and thick sticks to create shelters without using any kind of tools.

Island John Carnemolla

Tropical Storms

During the course of their 15-months on the island, the boys experienced several tropical storms during the cyclone season, but their shelters were intelligently built and were able to withstand the elements.

Six Tongan castaways Channel 7, The Castaways (1966)

A New Discovery

After 3 long months of surviving alone, the boys set off on a journey to explore the land they now inhabited. And after a two-day climb up the island’s volcano—they found something.

Ata island Channel 7, The Castaways (1966)

Village Ruins

Inside the island's volcanic crater, they found what appeared to be ruins of an ancient village—which we now know was the village of Kolomaile.

Happiness was an understatement.

islandJohn Carnemolla

Revival

The boys immediately made a plan to revive the remnants of the 19th century village, salvaging whatever they could.

ancient potAlvaro Cerezo

A New Beginning

For the first time in three months, the boys were truly happy, believing they now could survive without nearly as much struggle, stating: “For the first time since we landed here 3 months before, we were happy. We had the will and the strength to go on.”

Six Tongan castawaysChannel 7, The Castaways (1966)

It Got Better

Upon discovering the village ruins, the boys also discovered several other things that would aid in the survival, including: wild chickens, bananas, grapefruit, coconuts, and other vegetation.

They now had an array of nutrition, and better shelter.

Six Tongan castawaysChannel 7, The Castaways (1966)

Mastery of Fire

Another important factor to their survival was fire—which they had been without now for three months. They knew that fire was needed for warmth, cooking, safety, and also if they had any hope in being rescued.

Six Tongan castawaysChannel 7, The Castaways (1966)

The Ignition

The first ember came from using a sea hibiscus for a fire plough—which is an age-old technique passed down through generations. Then they rubbed sticks together until the flame grew stonger.

Six Tongan castawaysChannel 7, The Castaways (1966)

The Celebration

After three long months without a fire, they were successful. The boys celebrated by cooking a feast of bird, turtle, chicken, and cooked fruits.

“It took us three months to make a fire, and it was the first hot meal that we had,” recalls Mano.

Boys on islandDe Correspondent

Fire Maintenance

Not only did the boys successful make a fire, they maintained it so well that this exact fire continuously burned for the entire 15-months they were on the island.

Six Tongan castawaysChannel 7, The Castaways (1966)

The Raft

After gathering more and more supplies, the boys decided to build a raft that could take them back out to sea.

But the treacherous ocean had different plans.

Raft at seaktuec, Pixabay

The Attempt

The boys took the raft to the edge of the ocean and set sail. Within minutes the waves crashed the raft into the rocks and destroyed it.

Six Tongan castawaysChannel 7, The Castaways (1966)

The Life-Changing Decision

This was when the boys decided to just stay on the island and make the best of whatever life they had left. After six long months, they gave up hope of ever leaving.

Six Tongan castaways making something Channel 7, The Castaways (1966)

Their Hut

The boys had decided that since they were staying put, they needed a proper “house” to live in. Mano was the only one who knew how to weave coconut leaves, so he started with that.

Six Tongan castaways making shelter Channel 7, The Castaways (1966)

The Layout

Their little house took two weeks to construct. It had walls, a roof, and inside was divided into separate areas with a fire pit in the middle. The only materials used were what was found in their environment, such as sticks, leaves, and rocks.

Six Tongan castawaysChannel 7, The Castaways (1966)

Their Beds

The boys cut down banana leaves to use as bedding on their beds made of thick branches—which had to periodically be replaced.

Six Tongan castawaysChannel 7, The Castaways (1966)

Outside the House

Outside their hut they made fences, benches and tables using large rocks and sturdy branches. They did everything they could to make this island their “new home.”

Six Tongan castawaysChannel 7, The Castaways (1966)

Structure and Routine

From day one the boys had set up a sort of routine or structure for how they would execute their survival, which included various shared tasks such as: gardening, hunting, cooking, and guard duty.

Six Tongan castawaysChannel 7, The Castaways (1966)

Dividing Labor

The boys worked well together as they teamed up in pairs and divided the labor, ensuring that everyone had a role. This fostered a sense of responsibility and kept them engaged.

Six Tongan castawaysChannel 7, The Castaways (1966)

Leadership Roles

The two eldest boys became natural leaders, one tending to the group’s spiritual needs and the other focused on practical matters. They kept a strong connection to God, and made practical use of their surroundings.

Six Tongan castawaysChannel 7, The Castaways (1966)

Grievances

The boys designated the nightly fire pit as the place to air out their troubles. Sione recalled, “If anybody had something they didn't like, they talked about it and we say 'Sorry' and then pray and everything's okay.”

Six Tongan castawaysChannel 7, The Castaways (1966)

Serious Conflicts

Although serious conflicts rarely occurred, the plan when they did was to simply take a walk. Sione recalled, “If someone got really mad — like, if I planned something and they didn't do it — you disappear for a few hours, look at the ocean and clear it out of your mind.”

Six Tongan castawaysChannel 7, The Castaways (1966)

Emotional Support

Being alone on an island undoubtably had its emotional challenges. The boys took care of each other by singing songs, telling stories, and creating new rituals together.

They even got creative and made something special.

Six Tongan castawaysChannel 7, The Castaways (1966)

The Guitar

During their stay on the island, one of the boys, Kolo, built a guitar out of scrap wood and coconuts. They used it to compose five original songs during their exile—keeping their spirits high.

Six Tongan castawaysChannel 7, The Castaways (1966)

Exercise

The boys, who we now know were wise beyond their years, made sure exercise was a part of their daily routine. They used rocks and large branches to create a makeshift bench press.

Six Tongan castawaysChannel 7, The Castaways (1966)

Well-Being

Although they were busy with continuously working to survive, they took breaks to go for walks and climb rocky hills for fun.

Six Tongan castawaysChannel 7, The Castaways (1966)

Respect for Life

They were not only wise; they were compassionate too. The boys held funerals for the animals they sacrificed for food. They recognized the value of every living thing, and thanked Mother Earth for providing for them.

Chicken at GoldenMadisonRae, Shutterstock

Hygiene

The boys did everything they could to make some sort of resemblance of home—which included appropriate sanitation.

They had set up designated areas for hygienic needs, and maintained strict cleanliness rules.

Six Tongan castawaysChannel 7, The Castaways (1966)

Another Discovery

During their time on the island, the boys made another discovery that brought them mixed feelings, even sparking one of the boys to cry for home.

Tropical islandgrebmot, Pixabay

Human Bones

While exploring the ruins, the boys came across human bones buried in the ground. This was not shocking to them as there was already tons of evidence of a previous civilization, but it certainly brought upon feelings of unrest.

cross at a beachhpuppet, Pixabay

The Island’s Dark Past

What we know now is that back in 1863 a tribe of about 300 people lived on the island. However, more than half of them were kidnapped by the crew of a whaling ship, who then sold them as slaves in Peru.

The skeletons belong to the last members of the tribe.

Group of Kanakas on a Queensland sugarcane farmUnknown Author, Wikimedia Commons

A Cry for Home

The youngest boy of the group struggled with these findings and had spent many nights crying and wanting to go home.

It was then that the school friends became a family, and prayed daily for the strength to continue on together.

Six Tongan castawaysChannel 7, The Castaways (1966)

Back in Tonga

Back in Tonga, the families of the boys believed they had succumbed to the ocean, and so they held funerals for them.

Public domain photograph of funeral procession - 1930Digital museum, Picryl

15 Months

It was now September of 1966, and it had been 15 long months since the boys had set sail—though they say it didn’t feel that long to them.

Suddenly, one of the boys noticed a boat in the distance.

Six Tongan castawaysChannel 7, The Castaways (1966)

The Boat

On September 11, 1966, an Australian fishing boat Just David, captained by Peter Warner, approached the island after noticing patches of burning grass on the island’s cliffsides.

He noted this as “unusual signs of life,” which intrigued him to go closer.

Six Tongan castaways, Ship that saved them Channel 7, The Castaways (1966)

The Fire

As Warner got closer, he saw the boy’s permanent fire glowing from ashore, which was now a definite sign of life on what he thought was an uninhabited island.

Peter Warner aboard his new fishing boat Fairfax Media Archives, Getty Images

The Boys

At this time, the boys had seen the boat and were making their way to the beach as fast as they could, hollering as loudly as they could while waving their arms.

One of the boys, Stephen, jumped right into the water and started swimming toward the boat.

Six Tongan castaways, Ship that saved themChannel 7, The Castaways (1966)

An Undiscovered Tribe

Warner was shocked to find the boy swimming out to the boat and hurried to help him.

He claimed to have been shocked to find that the boy spoke perfect English, assuming he had come across an uncontacted tribe.

Six Tongan castawaysChannel 7, The Castaways (1966)

The Rescue

Captain Warner saw the rest of the boys standing on the edge of the island, unclothed with long hair and waving their arms.

He assured Stephen they would soon be safe, and they navigated closer to collect the boys.

Six Tongan castawaysChannel 7, The Castaways (1966)

The Radio Call

Warner made a quick radio call to Nukuʻalofa, where Stephen said they were from. The response he got back brought the boys to instant tears.

Six Tongan castawaysChannel 7, The Castaways (1966)

They’re Alive

After 20-minutes of waiting for a response, the call came back stating: “You found them! These boys have been given up for dead. Funerals have been held. If it's them, this is a miracle!”

Captain Warner could not contain his shock.

Six Tongan castawaysChannel 7, The Castaways (1966)

Home Sweet Home

The boys were immediately taken back home to Tonga, where their friends and families had given up searching long ago.

Their sudden presence was nothing short of a miracle.

Six Tongan castawaysChannel 7, The Castaways (1966)

Celebrations

Back home, the community celebrated for three days. Mano recalls, “The first celebration was from our families, the second one was from the church, and the third one from the island.”

But that wasn’t the end.

Six Tongan castaways going home Channel 7, The Castaways (1966)

Headlines

The boy’s story made international headlines. The boys told descriptive stories of their life on the island, and people were so intrigued that journalists all over the globe were begging for a chance to meet them.

At the time, the boys declined the fame, but did agree to one thing, that today our nosey minds appreciate.

Six Tongan castaways going homeChannel 7, The Castaways (1966)

Photography Opportunity

A Syndey-based photographer named John Carnemolla offered to go to the island with the boys to reenact photos of how they’d survived for 15-months.

They took photos of their shelters, firepits, how they ate their food, and so on—the photos you see in this article.

John Carnemolla

The Boy’s Health

Afterward, the boys were sent for extensive health check-ups which came back that they were all surprisingly very healthy and in very good shape.

It was also a miracle that all six boys survived.

Six Tongan castaways going homeChannel 7, The Castaways (1966)

The King’s Appreciation

King Tāufaʻāhau Tupou IV, befriended Captain Warner, and in appreciation for recusing the boys Warner was given a royal concession to trap the spiny lobster in Tongan waters.

Not only that, he was allowed a very special crew.

King Tāufaʻāhau Tupou IVETH Library, CC BY-SA 4.0, Wikimedia Commons

The Lobster Crew

Captain Warner also befriended the boys, and hired them to crew a lobster boat with him where they would teach him the secrets of how and where to fish for the Pacific spiny lobster.

But on their first day, none of the boys showed up.

Captain Warner Channel 7, The Castaways (1966)

Behind Bars

After waiting for hours and not even one boy showing up, Warner learned that all six of them had been locked up for theft.

Were they really causing trouble?

A Bunk Bed With Striped Linen Behind BarsRDNE Stock project, Pexels

The Boat

Let’s circle back to the beginning for a second. Fifteen months prior, the boys snuck out of their boarding school dorms and waited for a fisherman to go home so they could take his boat.

This fisherman never forgot, and he held a grudge.

Six Tongan castawaysChannel 7, The Castaways (1966)

Locked Up

Even after learning what the boys endured for 15 long months, the fisherman still chose to press charges against all six boys for taking his boat—and destroying it.

beach in trinidad and tobagoRichard Semik, Shutterstock

Consequences

So now after spending over a year surviving on an island alone, they were all now stuck behind bars with no one able to get them out—suffering the consequences of their actions that fateful night in 1965.

That is, until someone stepped in.

Captain WarnerChannel 7, The Castaways (1966)

Captain Warner to the Rescue—Again

Warner knew he had to step in, so he contacted Channel 7 news in Sydney and arranged to film the boy’s story.

Which at first seemed like he was looking for profitable gains—but he had a plan.

Six Tongan castaways going homeChannel 7, The Castaways (1966)

Compensation

Warner used the $203 from the sale of the rights to his film to pay the owner of the lost boat, and in return the owner dropped the charges.

The boys were finally free—for real this time.

The Reenactment

Now that the boys were free, they had to follow through with their promise to film. They sailed back to ‘Ata Island with the Channel 7 news crew and walked them through their life on the island.

Ata island Channel 7, The Castaways (1966)

The Film

The film was broadcasted the following month in 1966. Only one copy of the 1966 documentary survives today; it is available on YouTube.

But decades later, the boys surfaced again.

Six Tongan castawaysChannel 7, The Castaways (1966)

Back to ‘Ata Island

In 2015, one of the boys, Kolo (by then in his mid-60s), went back to ‘Ata Island with Spanish explorer Alvaro Cerezo. The two men spent 10 days on the island alone, living off coconuts, fish, and seabirds—exactly how the boys did back in 1965.

ʻAtā Island In TongatapuMiyasige Tosikazu, CC BY 2.0, Wikimedia Commons

Documentaries and Books

There have been other documentaries and books written about the boy’s miraculous story of survival. In fact, 40 years after their adventure the boys were interviewed again, but few details were made public.

The alaina buzas, Flickr

Today

Today, the boys are in their 60s and 70s, and have gone on to lead full lives. One of them became a pastor, another becoming an engineer, an another becoming a Pacific Heavyweight boxing champion.

Boxing ringlassedesignen, Shutterstock

Lifelong Friendships

Two of the boys remain close friends and even live together in California, and they remain in contact with Warner—who has been a constant in their lives since the day he rescued them.

Los AngelesMarek Masik, Shutterstock

Final Thoughts

The story of the six Tongan Castaways is more than just an adventure tale—it’s a testament to the human spirit and their resilience and ability to survive in the most challenging situation.

Skipper Peter Warner and Tongan castawaysFairfax Media Archives, Getty Images

Sources: 1, 2, 3


READ MORE

20 Foods That Boost the Immune System

Uncover 20 Foods That Boost the Immune System. From citrus fruits and red bell peppers to green tea and dark chocolate, these foods are high in vitamins, minerals and antioxidants that help rid the body of illness, fast.
April 16, 2024 Allison Robertson
Man looking at his phone, lots of people holding phones

The Consequences Of Smartphone Addiction—And How To Curb It

With billions of smartphone users on earth, it's no wonder that phone addiction is becoming a growing problem. So what is phone addiction?
April 16, 2024 Sarah Ng