7 rescued at sea

A tour boat and raft rescued seven people stranded for almost two hours atop a capsized boat in choppy waters off the Na Pali Coast on Saturday, the tour boat company captain said Sunday. No injuries were reported.

Terry Donnelly, captain and owner of Blue Dolphin Charters, said he was on one of two 65-foot motor-sailing catamarans with 37 passengers aboard when the stranded sailors were spotted about 11 a.m. Saturday.

“The boat takes up to 49 tourists, so we had room for castaways,” Donnelly said.

Survivor Talia Yeckel of Kapa‘a said by telephone on Sunday that she was happy and grateful to have survived the ordeal.

“It was definitely amazing. If it wasn’t for them, I don’t know who else would have seen us,” Yeckel said. “I’ve been on Kaua‘i for 10 years, but I’m still don’t know exactly how the ocean works, even though I love to swim.”

At first, Donnelly said, it appeared as if what they’d spotted was a stand-up paddler far from shore.

“As we got closer, a gal in a bikini was waving her hat and other guys were waving their life jackets,” he said.

Donnelly said he notified the Coast Guard, and one of his crew members, Mike Lynch, a certified rescue dive and scuba instructor, suited up and swam over to the capsized 19-foot boat. He brought three people back to the Blue Dolphin, one at a time.

Meanwhile, a Kaua‘i Sea Tours raft that had heard his radio calls approached the area and ferried the remaining four passengers to Donnelly’s boat, he said. The rescue took about 30 minutes, he said.

“The captain of the other boat and I smiled at each other, said, ‘Way to go,’ and called the Coast Guard,” Donnelly said.

All seven people, in their 20s and 30s, were examined by crew members and appeared to be fine.

“All my crew members are certified in CPR and one is going to nursing school,” he said. “The people from the boat were all healthy and happy.”

The survivors were lucky on two counts, the captain said. First, they initially considered but then decided against swimming for shore, they told him. Donnelly said that could have meant disaster in choppy waters with winds at 10 to 20 knots.

The second piece of luck was that when the boat capsized, the anchor flipped over with the boat.

“The boat was anchored upside down, which kept them in one spot. Otherwise, they would have been blowing 20 miles an hour to Ni‘ihau,” he said.

Yeckel and four friends had been on a trip to the coast in a friend’s new boat. They came ashore on the coast and picked up three other men who wanted a ride back. They were en route back to Hanalei when waves began splashing water into the boat.

“It happened so fast. We were on the way, and everything was smooth. It was smooth sailing,” Yeckel said.

“The waves weren’t any bigger than when we left, but we were going against the waves, so the water kept getting in the boat, just a little bit at first, so we were hand-pumping it out,” she said.

The boat began to tip to one side, “so we thought, ‘Let’s go to the other side.’ We kept tipping back and forth, and the water was super choppy. In two seconds, we flipped. It was so sudden,” she said. “It was a miracle the anchor was still in the boat, so it fell out with us and anchored us.”

Yeckel said she and her fellow passengers were more than a mile from the coast, and floated in the water for about half an hour. Then they started thinking about sharks, she said, so they climbed, one at a time, on top of the overturned boat.

Cell phones were wet and useless, and she had left her waterproof cell phone in her truck back on shore — “the one time I actually need it.”

Yeckel said they waved for help for about an hour and a half. “It was hard to see us because the waves were going over us,” she said.

A gecko had fallen out of the boat with her, and one of the six men with her found it, so she kept it on her shoulder.

“This little guy’s in the middle of the ocean, so we got to save him,” she said.

When she and the others were rescued, “I was so thankful. I was relieved and happy to be warm and cozy on the Blue Dolphin. I’d been on it before on a tour. I thought, wow, it’s my charter boat,” Yeckel said.

Donnelly said his tour boat’s passengers, some from as far away as Brazil and Russia, watched and took pictures of the incident.

“They got to see dolphins, turtles, a whale and a rescue at sea,” Donnelly said.

With everyone safe, the Blue Dolphin continued with its tour, which included snorkeling and lunch, Donnelly said.

On the way back to the tour boat company’s home port, “We opened our bar and most of the customers and castaways relaxed with a mai tai while we returned to Port Allen,” he said.

Donnelly said it’s not uncommon for tour boats to come to the aid of tired kayakers and others who are helped aboard.

But, he added, “This is my first overturned boat rescue.”  

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