The Only Survivor


Even after being saved from drowning, I still needed rescuing.

It was an overcast morning in December 1973, but the weather did not reflect my mood. Standing on the deck of a cargo vessel with my parents and two younger siblings, I was in high spirits as we began to pull away from our small South Pacific island. The ship was the Uluilakeba, bound for Suva, the capital of the Fiji Islands.

For a 12-year-old boy from the outer island of Ono-i-Lau, a trip to the big city was no everyday experience. Along with my parents and two of my siblings, I had eagerly awaited this day. The five of us were traveling to Suva to be baptized into The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Finding the Truth

The light of the restored gospel had first shone in our home in an extraordinary way. My father, Mosese, was raised a Methodist. But through years upon years of personal study in the Bible, he had concluded that the true Church of Jesus Christ as described in the holy scriptures was not known on our tiny native island. He never once allowed our family to attend church services of any kind, yet we would gather together daily at his feet as he taught from the Bible. With each passing year, as my father continued to search the scriptures, he became more convinced that the true Church of Jesus Christ was not in existence.

Thus we remained in darkness until, finally, in 1971 our cousin Siga returned for a short visit. Siga had settled in Hawaii. We were excited about this unexpected reunion. Straightaway my mother prepared tea for our visitor, but to our surprise, he would not accept it. He explained that while in Hawaii he had been baptized into the Mormon Church and no longer drank tea. Having never heard of such a religion, my father questioned, “What kind of church is that?” Siga suggested that he look it up in the dictionary. Under the entry “Mormon,” my father read, “The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.”

Immediately my father jumped to his feet and pounded the table with his fist. In that instant, the Holy Ghost had confirmed in his heart that this was what he had been searching for all of his life. His whole countenance changed as he asked Siga to tell him about this church. A long conversation ensued as they began reading from the fourth chapter of Ephesians, discussing “one faith, one baptism” (Eph. 4:5) and the need for apostles and prophets. Siga suggested that my father contact the missionaries for further information.

And so it was that we learned, for the first time, of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. My father began corresponding with President Ebbie L. Davis of the Fiji Suva Mission, who sent us a copy of the Book of Mormon. Other books and pamphlets regarding Church doctrine soon followed. All of these my father devoured, and he found answers to his questions. Within a short time, he desired with all of his heart that our family be baptized. The Church, however, was not on our island. We soon realized that to be baptized, we would have to go to where the Church was. And for us, that meant Suva.

Amid Angry Waters

At long last, after we had spent nearly two years planning and preparing, the day had finally come, and we stood aboard the Uluilakeba. Energy was thick in the air as we crowded on with the other passengers. Hope and excitement filled our hearts as we waited to depart on our journey.

The ship left the dock at approximately 8:00 a.m. on Monday, 10 December 1973. With all the emotions of that day, I hardly noticed the gusty winds and threatening clouds that loomed ahead. As the boat crawled into the open sea, however, the weather worsened. Soon forecasts came in of an approaching tropical storm. Despite the warnings, our captain was confident of a safe voyage. We continued onward, while around us the sea steadily grew fiercer and the rain fell harder. Before long all passengers were instructed to take shelter inside, while the crew navigated the rough waters.

The captain was a relative of my father, and he gave us his personal cabin to rest in while we endured the storm. There we huddled together as a family and waited. In spite of the now heavy rocking of the ship, after a few minutes, my brother and sister and I fell asleep.

After what seemed only an instant to me, we were awakened by my mother’s scream. Water was now coming in through a small porthole. Sitting up, I noticed that my father was not with us, and thinking he must have gone on deck, I left my mother and two siblings. Climbing up to the deck was quite difficult, although in my panic I did not realize why. I did not understand that the ship had taken too much water and was sinking. Just as I reached the deck, the Uluilakeba began to capsize, and I was plunged into angry waters.

My only instinct was for survival. Desperately I swam with all my strength to stay on top of the monstrous waves. Within a few minutes, I caught sight of an older man holding fast to two floating bags of coconuts. Managing to swim to him, I pleaded for a bag, and he mercifully gave me one. I took hold of the bag and clung to it for my life.

Minutes passed, and suddenly I spotted my mother. Seeing me as well, she swam over and we embraced. With words I will never forget, she told me to hold on to that bag no matter what, for it would save my life. Then, after kissing my cheek, she left me to search for my brother and sister. That was the last I ever saw of my mother.

As the storm continued to rage, I did not think about what had happened. I only fought to stay above the waves. Bobbing up and down in the sea, I could see many other people, but I could not find my family.

The hours stretched on like a terrible dream. Soon night fell, and we swam on in the darkness. After what seemed like forever, the sun rose again, and I held on through another day and another night. Finally, around 5:00 in the afternoon on Wednesday, a rescue boat discovered us.

More than two full days had passed. Of the approximately 120 passengers who had boarded the doomed ship, 35 were found alive in the water. We were taken to Suva and admitted to the hospital. There, I learned the details of what had happened. Less than four hours after leaving the dock, we had been struck by Cyclone Lottie, a short-lived Pacific storm. The Uluilakeba was never found. I also learned that of the five members of my family who had been aboard, I was the only survivor. My family’s plans to be baptized into the Church had sunk in the depths of the ocean.

Lost and Found

Time moved forward, and I remained on the island of Viti Levu, the main island of Fiji. I went to stay with my older sister, who had moved away from home years before. In the chaos of the tragedy, President Davis lost track of me, and I lost track of the Church. Learning that I had survived, however, he instructed the missionaries to search for me. They looked for months but to no avail. President Davis’s time as mission president came to a close, and he passed the search on to his successor.

The years passed, but because of poor communication systems, I could not be found. The family I was staying with was not interested in the gospel, so I had little hope of finding the Church during my teenage years. I struggled with the loss of my family and wondered why I had been left alone. But I carried in my heart the truths my parents had taught me. Although at times I gave in to weakness and temptation, I always remembered my father’s testimony concerning Jesus Christ and His true Church. Eventually I got married and settled on Vanua Levu, the northern island of Fiji.

In March 1985 I was at work cutting coconut copra not far from the main road when an elderly couple in a small car stopped and called out to me. They asked me if I knew a man named Joeli Kalougata. But before I told them they had indeed found him, I asked what they wanted. They introduced themselves as Elder and Sister Kimber and explained that they were missionaries from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Finally they had found me! It was a glorious moment. Following six missionary discussions in two days, I was baptized on 18 March 1985, along with my wife, Elenoa. Our lives have never been the same since.

I look back on the great blessings my Heavenly Father has poured out upon me during my life. I will always be grateful for my loving parents and the principles and truths I learned from them. Because of my parents’ example, my wife and children and I now belong to the true Church of Jesus Christ.

In 1998 Elenoa and I flew to Tonga to enter into sacred eternal covenants in the Nuku‘alofa Tonga Temple and to perform temple ordinances for my parents and siblings. A few years later, our children were sealed to us in the new Suva Fiji Temple. I look at my family now—my eternal family—and thank the Lord for remembering me and bringing the gospel back into my life.

[illustrations] Illustrated by Gregg Thorkelson

Joeli Kalougata is a member of the Nabua Branch, Labasa Fiji District.