A terrifying incident that led to a lawsuit filed by a California honeymoon couple against top-rated Maui tour company Sail Maui, has shaken the Hawaii activity industry to its roots. Not only that, but on checking, the company’s years of top-rated reviews on multiple websites would seem hard for anyone to question.
So what went wrong, and how did this ever happen? This is loosely yet eerily reminiscent of a 2003 budget horror film, Open Water. In that terrifying movie (below), fashioned after a true story, the couple was left far from shore while scuba diving.
The allegations of “emotional distress” after being “abandoned” on a 2021 Covid snorkeling trip near the island of Lanai in the “open ocean” are clear. Elizabeth Webster and her husband, Alexander Burckle, claimed to have been left to swim 1/2 mile to shore or drown in rough Pacific Ocean waters. The couple, reported by the suit to be experienced snorkelers, said this took place in September 2021, when they booked a $180 per person “Lanai Coast Snorkel to explore the incredible coast of Lanai with Sail Maui.”
While we wait to learn more about the details of the lawsuit as it goes to court, Sail Maui has not publically given its side of the story. As you’ll see below, some aspects are hard to fully understand based on what’s contained in the lawsuit. Obviously, we expect the tour operator to exercise maximum and primary due diligence and ultimately be relied on for everyone’s safety. And still, all parties have responsibility for an activity tour. As participants, we must also follow the rules and act to ensure our safety. Not yet released is how and why the young and snorkeling-experienced couple got from the group and the Sail Maui boat at the time of the incident.
$5 million lawsuit as a result of emotional damage.
The couple stated via their attorney that they were traumatized by the abandonment and are “getting psychological treatment and have physical symptoms of anxiety.” In the suit, it says that the boat captain mentioned neither what the “snorkeling boundaries” were nor any “specific return time” in water that became “more turbulent” as time went on. They said that after “aggressive swimming” to return to the boat, they determined they had been left at sea and began signaling for help.
The lawsuit claimed that one of the other passengers noted the couple was farther away from the boat than the other snorkelers. The crew told that passenger that following three head counts, the first two of which allegedly came up two short, while a third and final count came up complete. According to the suit, the count wasn’t done correctly since “people were moving around” during it.
The couple “feared that drowning was imminent.”
In the suit, the couple indicated that “Plaintiffs realized the Vessel had left them and was not coming back for them, and they decided that their only survival option was to swim a half mile to shore. Plaintiffs were extremely fearful and nervous about the decision because they were explicitly told in the safety briefing not to swim to Lanai and that shallow reefs were in the area.”
The lawsuit claims that once out of the ocean on Lanai, the couple flagged down someone in a truck and used that person’s cell phone to call Sail Maui. The company, at that point, was said to be unaware that anyone was missing from the boat. Sail Maui arranged for the couple to travel from Lanai to Maui via ferry and then met them at Lahaina Harbor.
It is also indicated in the suit that the US Coast Guard subsequently cited Sail Maui for negligence and established new rules for verifying passengers on board.
The couple said, ” For people just visiting, it’s very traumatic.”
Sail Maui has 5,000 near-perfect online ratings.
When we choose excursions with companies we don’t know, we naturally rely on online reviews. So we headed there to see how Sail Maui fared. Under the circumstances, it was better than we had even expected.
703 Google reviews; rated 4.7.
Sail Maui may have even been rated more highly before the negative reviews associated with this incident began to flow in. In comments, Ryan said, “These guys Love sailing. My girlfriend and I did the Molokini snorkel trip from Sail Maui and have nothing but great things to say about it. The captain, Greg, was a really cool and knowledgeable guy.” Patrick said, “We took a trip to Lanai to go snorkeling. Honestly, snorkeling aside (which was also great), the ride itself was fun and relaxing. The staff was knowledgeable and incredibly helpful..”
3,695 TripAdvisor reviews; rated 5.
Lisehoul said, “Really enjoyed the attentiveness and professionalism of the entire crew – the sailing afterward was a real treat,” while Mckenziefetters said, “I Loved this excursion! My mom and I had the best time, and bonus: we got to see a ton of whales from the boat on the way to the snorkeling spot. All staff were kind, funny, and informative and made sure everyone had a great time.” Aarsen reported, “Captain Tim, Jake and Noah of the Paragon were superb and engaging guides. We had such a fantastic trip, and the crew made it a very personal experience. ”
497 Yelp reviews; rated 5.
There were 51 pages of reviews dating from 2015. Rand said, “My wife and I took the snorkel trip to Lanai…Crew was really helpful and safety conscious (even with others on the trip that couldn’t swim and wanted to snorkel).” Edie said, “Booked this snorkel trip the day before. We loved the whole experience,” while Christine rated it only 3/5, “Great crew. Friendly. Nice drinks. Nice boat. Problem: snorkel spot options. Not much to be seen off Lanai. Coral lacking as well as fish.”
171 Facebook reviews; rated 4.7.
Scott just reported, “Great friends and awesome staff!!! Very accommodating and friendly crew!! Highly recommended!!” And Gina said, “The adventures we had yesterday with Greg and his crew on our Molokini snorkeling cruise were spectacular…We highly recommend Sail Maui and hope to be back to the Islands in the future.”
So how can you vet your Hawaii tour company?
We would be the first to tell someone asking to either (a) ask locals on the island or (b) check multiple review sites. Or both. We don’t know if the couple did either or if research had failed them since the reviews of this company appear stellar.
Stand by for an update in April on this suit.
Expect the whole thing to come to light when the initial court hearing on the lawsuit starts on April 24.
The horror film Open Water trailer is below (content warning).
The film was inspired by what happened to Americans Tom and Eileen Lonergan. The couple was unintentionally abandoned off Australia in the Coral Sea at the Great Barrier Reef. That happened in 1998 while they were on a scuba diving tour. It wasn’t until two days after they went missing that their absence was noted based on the company finding their dive bags. Their disappearance created a confidence crisis related to that country’s large dive industry. Thereafter new safety rules were put into effect.