Peter Warner, an Australian seafarer whose already eventful life was made even more so in 1966 when he and his crew discovered six shipwrecked boys who had been living on an uninhabited island in the South Pacific for 15 months, died on April 13 in Ballina, New South Wales. He was 90.
His death was confirmed by his daughter Janet Warner, who said he had been swept overboard by a rogue wave while sailing near the mouth of the Richmond River, an area he had known for decades. A companion on the boat, who was also knocked into the water, pulled Mr. Warner to shore, but attempts to revive him were unsuccessful.
The story of the 1966 rescue, which made Mr. Warner a celebrity in Australia, began during a return sail from Nuku’alofa, the capital of Tonga, where he and his crew had unsuccessfully requested the right to fish in the country’s waters. Casually casting his binoculars at a nearby island, ‘Ata, which was thought to be uninhabited, he noticed a burned patch of ground.
“I thought, that’s strange that a fire should start in the tropics on an uninhabited island,” he said in a 2020 video interview. “So we decided to investigate further.”
As they approached, they saw a naked teenage boy rushing into the water toward them; five more quickly followed. Recalling that some island nations imprisoned convicts on islands like ‘Ata, he told his crew to load their rifles.
But when the boy, Tevita Fatai Latu, who also went by the name Stephen, reached the boat, he told Mr. Warner that he and his friends had been stranded for more than a year, living off the land and trying to signal for help from passing ships.
Mr. Warner, still skeptical, radioed Nuku’alofa.
“After 20 minutes,” he said, “a very tearful operator came on the radio, and then amongst tears he said: ‘It’s true. These boys had been given up for dead. Funerals have been held. And now you have found them.’”
In June 1965 the boys, all students between 13 and 16 years old from a boarding school in Nuku’alofa, had stolen a 24-foot boat and gone for what was intended as a maritime joy ride. A few hours into their trip, though, a fierce wind broke their sail and rudder, setting them adrift for eight days.
As they later told Mr. Warner, they finally spotted ‘Ata, about 100 miles south of Tongatapu, the main island of Tonga. It had once been home to about 350 people, but in 1863 a British slave trader kidnapped about 150 of them, and the Tongan king relocated the rest to another island, where they would be protected.
At first the boys lived off raw fish, coconuts and birds’ eggs. After about three months, they found the ruins of a village, and their fortunes improved — amid the rubble they discovered a machete, domesticated taro plants and a flock of chickens descended from the ones left behind by the previous inhabitants. They also managed to start a fire, which they kept burning for the rest of their stay.
The boys built a makeshift settlement, with a thatched-roof hut, a garden and, for recreation, a badminton court and an open-air gymnasium, complete with a bench press. One of the boys, Kolo Fekitoa, fashioned a guitar out of debris from the boat, and they began and ended every day with songs and prayer.
They established a strict duty roster, rotating among resting, gathering food and watching for ships. If a fight broke out, the antagonists had to walk to opposite ends of the island and return, ideally having cooled off. When Stephen broke his leg, the others fashioned a splint; his leg healed perfectly.
“When I think back to our time on the island, I realize we really learned a lot,” Sione Filipe Totau, known as Mano, said in an interview with Vice this year. “And when I compare it to what I gained at school, I think I learned more on the island. Because I learned how to trust myself.”
Back in Tonga, Mr. Warner was greeted as a hero. King Taufa’ahau Tupou IV, who had earlier denied him fishing rights, reversed himself. But the owner of the stolen boat was not in a celebratory mood, and he had the boys arrested. He dropped the charges after Mr. Warner offered to compensate him.
The story captivated Australia; a year later the Australian Broadcasting Corporation sent Mr. Warner and the boys back to the island to recreate aspects of their ordeal for a film crew. Other documentaries and newspaper features followed.
The news media cast the story as a real-life version of “Lord of the Flies,” William Golding’s 1954 novel about a group of boys stranded on an island who descend into murderous anarchy. But this was nothing like Mr. Golding’s book: The six boys flourished in their spontaneous community, suggesting that cooperation, not conflict, is an integral feature of human nature.
“If millions of kids are required to read ‘Lord of the Flies,’ maybe they should also be required to learn this story as well,” the Dutch historian Rutger Bregman, who wrote about the episode in his book “Humankind: A Hopeful History” (2020), said in an interview.
Peter Raymond Warner was born on Feb. 22, 1931, in Melbourne, Australia, to Arthur George Warner and Ethel (Wakefield) Warner. Arthur Warner was one of the country’s wealthiest men, having built a manufacturing and media empire, and he expected his son to follow him in the family business.
But Peter was uninterested; he preferred boxing and sailing, and at 17 he ran away from home to join a ship’s crew. When he returned a year later, his father made him go to law school at the University of Melbourne.
He lasted six weeks. He ran away again, this time to sail for three years on Swedish and Norwegian ships. Quick with languages, he learned enough Swedish to pass the master mariner’s exam, allowing him to captain even the largest seagoing vessels.
He eventually returned to the family fold, working for his father during the day and studying accounting at night. But he never left the sea. He won the annual Sydney-to-Hobart race three times in the early 1960s, often sailing against his friend Rupert Murdoch. In 1963 he placed fourth in the Transpacific Yacht Race, a 2,225-mile dash between California and Hawaii.
In 1955 he became engaged to Justine Dickson — and immediately went to sea for five months, telling his fiancée it would be “my last fling,” as he recounted in a 1974 interview. He returned two days before the wedding, and afterward the couple took a five-month honeymoon aboard a cargo ship sailing between Australia and Japan.
Along with his daughter Janet, his wife survives him, as do another daughter, Carolyn Warner; a son, Peter; and seven grandchildren.
In 1965 Mr. Warner bought several crayfish boats, which he operated around Tasmania. But the grounds around Australia were overfished, and he ventured further and further east, eventually taking him to Tonga — and his encounter with ‘Ata.
After he discovered the six boys, Mr. Warner moved with his family to Tonga, where they lived for 30 years before returning to Australia. He hired all six as crew members; he remained especially close to Mr. Totau, who sailed with him for decades.
In 1974, they were fishing near the Middleton Reef, about 300 miles east of Australia, when Mr. Totau spied four sailors on a small island, where they had been stranded for 46 days.
Mr. Warner converted to the Baha’i faith in 1990 and later gave up commercial fishing to start a company that harvested and sold tree nuts.
He wrote three books of memoirs, the second of which, “Ocean of Light: 30 Years in Tonga and the Pacific” (2016), detailed his encounter at ‘Ata.
Last year Mr. Bregman, the historian, published an excerpt from his book in The Guardian. It garnered more than seven million page views and set off a new round of interest in the boys’ story, including offers from film production companies. In May 2020 it was announced that the four surviving boys, now men in their late 60s and early 70s, along with Mr. Bregman and Mr. Warner, had sold the film rights to New Regency.
Although he was accused by some of trying to win fame off the Tongans’ story, Mr. Warner always insisted that it was theirs to tell, and that he would rather spend his time sailing.
“I’d prefer,” he said in 1974, “to fight mother nature than human beings.”