PHOENIX — A northern Arizona family has survived being lost at sea for weeks after an ill-fated attempt to leave the U.S. over what they consider government interference in religion.
Hannah Gastonguay and her family will fly back home Sunday after taking their two small children and her father-in-law and setting sail from San Diego for the tiny island nation of Kiribati in May.
Weeks into their journey, the Gastonguays hit a series of storms that damaged their small boat, leaving them adrift for weeks, unable to make progress. They were eventually picked up by a Venezuelan fishing vessel, transferred to a Japanese cargo ship and taken to Chile.
Their flights home were arranged by U.S. Embassy officials, Gastonguay said. The U.S. State Department declined to comment on Sunday.
The months-long journey has been "pretty exciting" and "little scary at certain points," Gastonguay told The Associated Press by telephone.
The 26-year-old mother said they wanted to go to Kiribati because "we didn't want to go anywhere big." She said they understood the island to be "one of the least developed countries in the world."
Kiribati is a group of islands just off the equator and the international date line about halfway between Hawaii and Australia. The total population is just over 100,000 people of primarily Micronesian descent.
Hannah Gastonguay said her family was fed up with government control in the U.S. As Christians they don't believe in "abortion, homosexuality, in the state-controlled church," she said.
U.S. "churches aren't their own," Gastonguay said, suggesting that government regulation interfered with religious independence.
Among other differences, she said they had a problem with being "forced to pay these taxes that pay for abortions we don't agree with." While federal law bars public funding for abortion, state attempts to block Medicaid funding for organizations that provide the procedure have met with legal hurdles. Opponents say that funding allows those groups to perform abortions.
The Gastonguays weren't members of any church, and Hannah Gastonguay said their faith came from reading the Bible and through prayer.
"The Bible is pretty clear," she said.
The family moved in November from Ash Fork, Ariz., to San Diego, where they lived on their boat as they prepared to set sail. She said she gave birth to the couple's 8-month-old girl on the boat, which was docked in a slip at the time.
In May, Hannah, her 30-year-old husband Sean, his father Mike, and the couple's daughters, 3-year-old Ardith and baby Rahab set off. They wouldn't touch land again for 91 days, she said.
She said at first, "We were cruising."
But within a couple of weeks "when we came out there, storm, storm, storm."
The boat had taken a beating, and they decided to set course for the Marquesas Islands. Instead, they found themselves in a "twilight zone," taking more and more damage, leaving them unable to make progress.
They could have used a sail called a genoa, she said, but they risked snapping off the mast and losing their radio and ability to communicate.
They had been on the ocean for about two months and were low on supplies. They were out of food and were down to "some juice and some honey." She said they were able to catch fish, but they didn't see any boats.
Still, we "didn't feel like we were going to die or anything. We believed God would see us through," she said.
At one point a fishing ship came into contact with them but left without providing assistance. A Canadian cargo ship came along and offered supplies, but when they pulled up alongside it, the vessels bumped and the smaller ship sustained even more damage.
They were getting hit by "squall after, squall, after squall."
"We were in the thick of it, but we prayed," she said. "Being out on that boat, I just knew I was going to see some miracles."
They watched the surrounding storms disperse, and "next thing you know the sun is out. It's amazing."
Eventually, their boat was spotted by a helicopter that had taken off from a nearby Venezuelan fishing vessel, which ended up saving them.
"The captain said, 'Do you know where you're at? You're in the middle of nowhere,'" she said.
They were on the Venezuelan ship for about five days before transferring to the Japanese cargo ship, where they were for nearly three weeks before landing in Chile on Friday. The Chilean newspaper Las Ultimas Noticias reported the story of their arrival.
"They were looking for a kind of adventure. They wanted to live on a Polynesian island but they didn't have sufficient expertise to navigate adequately," police prefect Jose Luis Lopez told the newspaper. Lopez took the family's statement in San Antonio, Chile, where the Japanese ship had dropped off the family.
Mauricio Araneda, the governor in Chile's San Antonio province, told the AP that the family "had zero knowledge and experience in navigation."
Sean Gastonguay's brother Jimmy, who lives in Arizona, said he had provided a description of the family's vessel to the U.S. Coast Guard and exchanged emails with them once they were picked up by the first boat.
"There was some concern, but we were hoping for the best, and they eventually popped up," he said. He was able to keep track of the family with the help of the Coast Guard as they were transferred from ship to ship.
"We're all happy. We have good peace of mind now," he said.
Hannah Gastonguay said the family will now "go back to Arizona" and "come up with a new plan."