Kayaker caught in squall off Maui recalls 9 hours lost at sea: 'Is this how I die?'

OLOWALU, MAUI (HAWAII NEWS NOW) - In 30 years of ocean kayaking, Jill Lee says she's never experienced weather like what she saw Sunday.

Just before 3 p.m. she and Moo Kanaio were caught in a squall off the coast of West Maui. In a matter of minutes, the pair lost sight of each other.

"The conditions were so grave. The wind was just howling. It was somewhere between 35 and 45 knots and 6 foot waves," said Kanaio.

Lee added, "I thought is this how you die? Alone and dark and cold? You're scared out there. You're freezing."

"And I thought, no. You have to go through these waves. You have to keep going through it like there is something on the other side."

The pair says when they left Olowalu about 10 a.m., conditions were pristine. They'd been out several hours when the weather suddenly turned violent.

It got so bad they had doubts they'd make it out of the storm alive.

"I was in a very good kayak — a Hobie Mirage with pedal drive. That's what saved my butt," said Kanaio.

It took three hours for Kanaio to paddle back to shore. When he realized Lee hadn't made it back, he immediately alerted the Coast Guard.

"When I saw her car there my heart sank," said Kanaio. "I knew if she wasn't there by then something was very, very wrong."

In the meantime, Lee was getting clobbered by the waves. After tipping over twice, her kayak started taking on water so she decided to swim.

With one fin, some goggles and a life vest, Lee struggled to make her way towards shore with her kayak in tow.

She says she remembers seeing a Coast Guard vessel.

"I thought maybe they'll see me and I started waving my hands and started making high pitched noises — like a whistle. I started screaming, 'I'm here.' Then nothing," said Lee.

Tired, cold and dehydrated Lee continued to swim.

When the Coast Guard spotted her, she was about a quarter mile off Olowalu. By the time a rescue swimmer reached her, the water was only knee-deep.

"He touched me and said are you injured? I grabbed his hand back and I was like, 'Oh that felt so good.' To know you made it and there is someone there," Lee said.

Medics on the beach treated Lee for symptoms of hypothermia along with a few cuts and scrapes.

Lee says she will continue to kayak. In the future, though, she plans to carry an emergency beacon, flares and a dive light — just in case.

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