San Francisco Chronicle
Hayward couple sues over 2021 honeymoon nightmare
A Bay Area couple have filed a federal lawsuit against a dive boat operator in Hawaii after they were allegedly left behind in deep, choppy water and feared drowning before struggling to shore.
The Hayward couple, Alexander Burckle and Elizabeth Webster, were on a delayed honeymoon in 2021 after getting married earlier in the pandemic, and booked a snorkel tour off the coast of the island of Maui with tour company Maui Sail, according to a lawsuit filed in Honolulu federal court and their attorney, Jared Washkowitz.
An attorney for Maui Sail could not be reached for comment Saturday, and a company spokesperson could not be reached by phone.
Burckle and Webster say they were traumatized by the event and are seeking $5 million, Washkowitz said, adding the two are “still getting psychological treatment” more than a year later, including for physical symptoms of anxiety and loss of sleep.
The attorney said the couple did not want to speak with the media to avoid having to relive the trauma of the event.
The couple, both experienced snorkelers and Stanford-educated chemists, the complaint said, set out on the snorkeling excursion in September 2021 from Maui with 42 other passengers and four crew members.
The boat anchored in a channel between Maui and Lanai, about a half mile from the shore of Lanai in an area that Washkowitz said is known for its high winds and surf and potential for rapid changes in weather.
After a briefing from the crew, the lawsuit said the couple swam north into the current as instructed for around an hour, with the initially calm waters starting to churn up into waves of 2 to 4 feet.
The filing said other swimmers returned at different intervals and there had been no mention by the crew of a specific time to return to the vessel, other than that the boat would be there for roughly an hour.
Once ready to return, the couple swam for about 15 minutes toward the boat, but realized it had not gotten any closer. After another 15 minutes or so of more intensive swimming in choppy water toward the boat, Burckle and Webster realized the boat was farther away. They began signaling for distress while finding themselves in deeper water, the lawsuit said.
“They yelled at them and waved their hands” before they “realized that they had been left behind and they were forgotten,” Washkowitz said.
Back onboard, crew members allegedly did a number of head counts after being told by one diver that two people had been farther out. The first two counts came back with 42 people onboard, the lawsuit said, before a third done by the first mate using a clicker showed 44, which was reported to the boat captain.
Around 12:30 the boat departed for its second dive site, “leaving Plaintiffs behind in the open ocean,” the lawsuit said.
It was around that time that Burckle and Webster began to panic, the complaint said. The conditions had worsened, and the two found themselves caught in 8-foot rolling waves and “feared that drowning was imminent,” court papers said.
Despite having been instructed by boat staff not to swim toward the island of Lanai because of the danger of the shallow reefs there, they decided it was their only option.
After 20 minutes of swimming as hard as possible and a final approach over shallow, rocky shoals, the pair reached shore dehydrated and exhausted, the lawsuit said. They tried unsuccessfully to flag down a passing boat and wrote “HELP” and “SOS” in the sand.
Despite their coming ashore in an area with mostly abandoned beaches on an island with a small population, Washkowitz said, another couple, identified as RJ and Shra Sanches in the lawsuit, happened to be passing through the area.
The Sancheses gave them water and a phone, which they used to call Sail Maui. “It was apparent that Sail Maui did not realize at this point anyone was missing from the charter,” the filing said.
The Sancheses then took the two to their home in Lanai City before transporting them across the island to Manele Bay Harbor, where they boarded a ferry back to Maui and filed a police report.
The complaint said a U.S. Coast Guard investigation into the incident found negligence on the part of the captain, and that the company had since revised its procedures to require vocal contact with each passenger.
The Coast Guard could not be reached for comment Saturday. Washkowitz said he might make the report available shortly.