Boat left couple at sea: $5m lawsuit blames flawed headcounts 

Alexander Burckle and Elizabeth Webster
Alexander Burckle and Elizabeth Webster

An American honeymoon couple have brought a $5 million civil action against a Hawaiian snorkelling tour operator, claiming to have been traumatised 18 months ago when its boat moved on from a site while they were still in the water.

On 23 September 2021, the Sail Maui catamaran had left Maui with 44 guests for a snorkelling tour off the island of Lanai, reaching the site near an abandoned resort at around 10.45am. The snorkellers were told that they would have up to an hour to spend in the water before the boat moved on.

Sail Maui arranges to take snorkellers to a variety of sites accessible only by boat. “If you’re looking for an adventure you’ll not soon forget, look no further,” its website promises.

That was how the day turned out for Alexander Burckle and his wife Elizabeth Webster from California. Described as experienced snorkellers, they swam out further from the boat than other guests but, as they started to make their way back, found the sea growing rougher and making progress difficult. Waving and shouting proved fruitless, as eventually they realised that the boat was moving away from them.

In their attempt to reach the catamaran the newlyweds had been drawn out to sea and were now up to half a mile offshore, with 2.5m waves obscuring their view. They were also concerned about trying to make it ashore, having been warned not to approach because of shallow reef, but decided they had to take that risk. 

Boat left couple at sea – Lanai, with Maui in the background (Matt McGee)
Lanai, with Maui in the background (Matt McGee)

It took them another half-hour to reach a deserted section of shore, by which time they had spent more than two hours in the water. Fatigued and dehydrated, they were eventually found by two local passers-by who assisted them in returning to Maui by ferry. They also lent them a phone to call Sail Maui – and according to the lawsuit it was only then that the operator realised that they had been missing.

Milling about

The catamaran had continued to the next snorkelling site, with its crew unaware that they were two passengers short. According to the lawsuit, the first mate had made three attempts to carry out a headcount but these had been ineffective because people were milling about, and had not been told to stay in place during the count. After two counts indicating 42 people, the third had seemed to add up to the required 44.

Another guest, who worked with the US Coast Guard, says that on leaving the sea she had asked the crew whether Burckle and Webster were back onboard, and had been assured that they were. It was only the next day when she met the couple that she learnt what had happened and informed the Coast Guard, which launched an investigation.

Sail Maui is reported to have changed its headcount procedure since the incident, but the couple are seeking compensation from the operator and its captain for gross negligence and the inflicting of emotional distress. They are still said to be receiving psychological treatment for anxiety and stress.

Also on Divernet: Buoyed Freediver Survives Boat Separation, Where The Hell Did Our Boat Go? Scuba Diver Endures 5hr Drift – Then Hikes, Diver Endures 7hr Drift After Separation



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