Shipwrecked crew finds 'aloha' in Panama
By Zenaida Serrano Espanol
Advertiser Staff Writer
The men suffered minor scrapes and bruises and upon returning to Hawai'i yesterday, Woodard said he found a bit of Hawai'i in his saviors.
"I'm glad to be alive, glad to find the aloha spirit in Panama," the 58-year-old Waikoloa resident said while on a layover at Honolulu International Airport.
The group had sailed along the coast of Mexico and South America, and planned to go through the Panama Canal to get to their final destination, Charleston, S.C.
But the trip ended abruptly at about 10:15 p.m. last Saturday when the yacht, which was about 2.5 miles off the coast of Panama, crashed into a rock and sank in less than 10 minutes.
The foursome, accompanied by a Spanish translator from Costa Rica, saved what they could within those few minutes. They swam about 200 yards to a small rock island, which Woodard described as deserted and smaller than Rabbit Island. They spent the night on the island before being rescued at about 6:30 a.m. Sunday when two men from Florida on a fishing boat noticed the group's dinghy, picked them up and brought them to the nearest town, Pedas.
Woodard, a retired Christmas ornaments manufacturer, purchased the 57-foot, 4-story yacht he named the Hui Kane in Ventura, where their excursion began.
"When we hit the rock, I just saw the bow of the boat shift and with the noise, we knew we had hit something big," said Woodard's son, Kai, a student at Kapi'olani Community College.
Kai Hudgins, a construction worker from Waimea, said the water came fast.
"It went from ankle-high to knee-high in less than a minute," he said. "It was intense."
The men managed to make light of the situation while on the island by joking about their unbelievable ordeal, Hudgins said.
"I guess we don't have to fuel back up in Panama," Kai Woodard recalled saying, then laughed.
Waimea resident Kahinuolani Payne said they remained calm and never lost hope.
"It was never about if we were going to make it; it was just when we were going to make it," he said.
Even though the men shot three flares and turned on an emergency locating device, no one came to their rescue until the next day.
They ended up in a dive shop owned by a California man who now lives in Panama. From there, the five who had no shoes and were only wearing shorts were clothed, fed and put up in a hotel.
"The main thing was the real aloha spirit that we got from the people once we were there," Woodard said.
Woodard said he'll never forget the kindness of the Panamanians who helped them including the Catholic priest who allowed him to use a church phone to call home, the divers who tried to salvage what they could from the sunken yacht.
Woodard said he wants to ask Big Island Mayor Harry Kim to get Pedas to become a sister city to Kona.
"(Pedas) has the same kind of aloha," Woodard said, "so what could be a better reason?"