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Couple on honeymoon sue tour company for abandoning them in the sea on a snorkelling trip

Choppy, deep water and shallow reefs led the newlyweds to fear for their lives

Joanna Whitehead
Tuesday 07 March 2023 09:31 GMT
Newlyweds sue tour company for allegedly abandoning them in the ocean

A California couple has filed a $5m (£4m) lawsuit against a tour operator in Hawaii they allege abandoned them in the ocean during a snorkelling trip, forcing them to swim half a mile back to shore.

Elizabeth Webster and Alexander Burckle were on their honeymoon in September 2021 when they booked a snorkelling excursion with the company Sail Maui.

According to court documents seen by NBC, the newlyweds formed part of a 44-passenger group that set sail from Lahaina Harbour at 10am and was scheduled to return at around 3pm.

Once onboard, the captain informed participants that the boat would remain anchored in one location for about an hour, before moving on to a second dive spot.

The couple, who were experienced snorkellers and had visited Maui several times, said that the captain did not give a specific time everyone should be back on the boat.

They also claim that they were not given instructions on how to get back on the boat, or what to do in case of an emergency.

All 44 passengers entered the water at around 10.50am, with Ms Webster and Mr Burckle swimming north as instructed by the captain.

Throughout the excursion, passengers returned to the boat at different times, the lawsuit said.

Around 11.50am, the pair began to make their way back to the boat but, after swimming for about 15 minutes, realised they “still had not made progress towards the boat”.

“The water was choppy and plaintiffs started swimming more aggressively towards the vessel,” the suit stated. “At approximately 12.20pm, after another 15 minutes (approx.) of aggressive swimming, the vessel was clearly farther from plaintiffs than it was at the last time they had checked.”

Despite signalling to the boat and calling for help, the vessel then moved on to its second location, leaving the couple stranded in the ocean.

Ms Webster and Mr Burckle attempted to swim in the direction of the boat but began to panic as the water became deeper and they struggled “to swim in the ocean conditions,” court papers state.

About half a mile from the shore, the pair feared they would drown.

“Plaintiffs realised the vessel had left them and was not coming back for them, and they decided that their only option for survival at that point was to return to shore,” the suit stated.

“Plaintiffs were extremely fearful and nervous about the decision because they were told in the safety briefing explicitly not to swim to Lanai and that shallow reefs were in the area.”

The couple reached the shore around 1pm where they were discovered, dehydrated and fatigued, by a local resident.

The suit also alleges that the crew miscounted everyone who reboarded the boat, with people on the tour claiming that three attempts to do a headcount came up with 42 and 44 passengers respectively.

Passengers were also walking around and not instructed to remain seated while the count was taking place.

The suit also claims that a fellow passenger attempted to tell a crew member that Ms Webster and Mr Burckle had swam further out during the trip, but was told by crew that they had made it back.

The couple are seeking compensation for negligence and emotional distress.

The Independent has contacted Sail Maui for comment.

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