CA couple says snorkeling tour group left them behind in waters off Lanai

A California couple has filed a federal lawsuit against a Maui snorkeling tour company, claiming one of their vessels left them behind in waters off Lanai.
Published: Mar. 1, 2023 at 8:54 PM HST|Updated: Mar. 2, 2023 at 10:05 AM HST
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HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) - A California couple has filed a federal lawsuit against a Maui snorkeling tour company, claiming one of their vessels left them behind in waters off Lanai.

The lawsuit says Elizabeth Webster and Alexander Burckle were on their honeymoon when they booked a snorkeling tour with Sail Maui in September 2021.

The two declined to be interviewed for this story, but their attorneys say they were experienced snorkelers who had purchased tickets for Sail Maui’s Lanai Coast snorkel tour.

The vessel left Lahaina at 10 a.m. and arrived at the snorkeling site off east Lanai about 40 minutes later.

The lawsuit alleges that the waters became more turbulent and the two tried to get back to the catamaran, but then it departed without them.

“When they started to go back to the vessel, they noticed it seemed to be getting further away,” said attorney Jared Washkowitz.

“They kept swimming toward it, it kept getting further away, until they finally realized that the vessel left and that they had been abandoned in the water.”

Washkowitz said the pair had swum further away from shore while pursuing the vessel — and were left at least a quarter to a half mile from land.

“It was basically a traumatizing event where they thought they were going to die and they thought their spouse was going to die,” he said.

“These people are coming here on their honeymoon, want a wonderful experience. Instead they had to face death, and that’s terrible for Hawaii, frankly,” added Douglas Moore, another attorney for the couple.

The complaint said the two were able to swim about 20 minutes to a deserted shoreline, where they were eventually found by a pair of Lanai residents who were driving by.

The lawsuit alleges that the crew didn’t do a proper head count and didn’t even know Webster and Burckle were missing until the couple called the tour company from Lanai.

“It was just too disorganized. Everybody kept moving, so they easily got missed,” said Jessica Hebert, a Louisiana resident who was on the same snorkeling tour.

“And then how do you get to another place and again miss the head count? That’s twice,” noting that the vessel had made a second stop before returning to Lahaina.

Hebert also didn’t realize the two had been left behind until she ran into them the next day in Lahaina and Webster recounted the experience.

Hebert happens to be a member of the U.S. Coast Guard and contacted a local unit to tell them what happened.

“I called them and then the Coast Guard took it for action,” she said. “I know that they’re doing their own investigation.”

Webster and Burckle did make it back to Lahaina that evening by taking the ferry from Lanai.

The couple is seeking compensation for general damages and emotional distress.

The complaint noted that Sail Maui has changed its head count protocols since the incident, but the company declined comment because the lawsuit is pending.