Honeymoon Couple Claims Hawaii Snorkeling Tour Left Them Stranded in Dangerous Ocean, Forcing Them to Swim to Shore
They wrote "help" and "SOS" in sand.
A couple who were on their Hawaiian honeymoon say they were abandoned by the operator of a snorkeling tour, stranding them in the ocean and forcing them to swim half a mile back to shore. Elizabeth Webster and Alexander Burckle, from Oakland, California, bought their tickets for the expedition off Lanai, a small island near Maui, in September 2021. They went out into the ocean with 42 other passengers, who were told the boat would remain in place for an hour while they snorkeled. But that's not what happened, and Webster and Burckle are suing the tour company, Sail Maui, for $5 million. Read on to find out more.
Abandoned By Boat and Feared Drowning
As the couple swam, they encountered choppy water and struggled for 30 minutes to return to the boat. They signaled and yelled for help, but the crew didn't notice. Then they noticed the boat was getting farther and farther away. The couple started to fear for their lives. "They feared that drowning was imminent," the lawsuit says.
Another tourist, Jess Hebert, told the Washington Post she had swum out as far as Webster and Burckle, and when she got back to the boat, she told the crew the pair were behind her. The crew said they were there and performed a head count, she said. "If we looked behind us, probably would have seen Bette and her husband," Hebert said. "Everything seemed totally normal. … I had no idea."
Wrote "Help" and "SOS" In Sand
But Webster and Burckle were still in the water. They continued swimming toward the boat into deeper water before realizing the gravity of their situation, according to the lawsuit. They panicked as waves between six and eight feet high crashed into them. They were about a half-mile from shore. The couple's only option was to swim to Lanai.
They reached an unoccupied beach around 1 p.m. They had been snorkeling and swimming for more than two hours. Webster wrote "Help" and "SOS" in the sand, the lawsuit says. They attempted to flag down a passing boat by waving their snorkeling fins and palm leaves.
"They Probably Would Have Drowned"
Finally, two residents of Lanai discovered the couple and helped them get back to Maui on an afternoon ferry. They used a borrowed cellphone to call the tour company, which still hadn't realized they were missing, the couple's attorney, Jared Washkowitz, told the Post.
"The conditions were getting worse as they were out there," he said. "They're lucky to get back." "If it wasn't a couple that was young and fit, they probably would have drowned," he added.
"They Were So Scared"
The next day, the couple ran into Hebert at a mall on Maui, Hebert told the Post. Webster recognized Hebert, introduced herself, and told her what happened, bursting into tears. "They felt like they were going to die," Hebert said. "They were so scared."
Improper Head Count Alleged
Webster and Burckle's lawsuit alleges that Sail Maui and the tour group's captain were negligent because they didn't perform a proper head count before leaving the snorkeling site. According to the suit, the boat's first mate conducted three head counts and twice had said that they were two people short of the 44 guests before counting a third time and incorrectly saying all 44 were on board. The crew did not ask people to sit down or remain still as he counted, the suit says.