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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Thursday, March 11, 2004

California man praised for bravery after boat capsized

Ten people hung onto the capsized catamaran Paragon waiting for help off Lana'i.

Sonny Rivera • Special to The Advertiser

By Christie Wilson
Advertiser Neighbor Island Editor

WAILUKU, Maui — Less than 48 hours after they began their lives together as husband and wife, honeymooners Craig and Andrea Hilty of Medford, Ore., were wondering if their lives were going to end together adrift in rough seas two miles off Lana'i.

The Hiltys, three other couples and two crew members were aboard a 47-foot Paragon Sailing Charters catamaran when it capsized Monday afternoon. They were rescued nearly three hours later by an O'ahu fishing boat.

One of the passengers, Patricia Duffy of Levittown, Pa., suffered a broken collarbone and a slight concussion when a powerful gust of wind flipped the vessel upside-down.

Paragon was attempting to salvage the boat yesterday and company owner Eric Barto could not be reached. The Coast Guard is conducting a routine investigation.

The Hiltys credited fellow passenger Scot Smithee, 39, of Hollister, Calif., for helping the group escape from the cabin of the overturned vessel and getting passengers aboard the fishing boat amid large swells.

"There's no reason 10 people should be alive today. God was looking down on all of us, and then there was Scot," said Craig Hilty, 23, an assistant golf course superintendent.

Smithee's wife, Brenda, 36, said her husband's training and experience as a captain in the Police Department in Gilroy, Calif., gave him the wherewithal to stay calm and take action during the crisis.

The sailboat left Lahaina Harbor at 8:30 a.m. Monday for a snorkeling cruise to Lana'i. A National Weather Service small-craft advisory was in effect with winds of 20 mph to 30 mph.

Brenda Smithee, a tax preparer, said the wind prevented them from snorkeling offshore so the catamaran sailed into Manele Small Boat Harbor to let passengers walk to a snorkeling spot at Hulopo'e. The group set out on its return voyage from the Lana'i port around 1:30 p.m., but had to motor back to the harbor because the crew could not raise the sails in the strong wind, Smithee said. The sails were raised halfway and the boat set off again, she said.

"It was really blowing," she said.

Scot and Brenda Smithee of Hollister, Calif., were among the Paragon's eight passengers. Scot Smithee helped the others escape the capsized catamaran.

Christie Wilson • The Honolulu Advertiser

While other passengers huddled in a sheltered area, Scot Smithee stood near the front of the boat. His wife said she kept an eye on him as swells crashed over the twin hulls. "The waves were huge. It was like movie time," she said.

At 2:15 p.m., a strong gust blasted the boat and Brenda Smithee said she saw her husband fall overboard. "We tipped over really fast. There was absolutely no time to react," she said.

Brenda Smithee and six other passengers found themselves in the overturned cabin with an 18-inch pocket of air and life jackets out of reach. She said they were hesitant to swim out from under the boat because they were protected from the swells in the cabin, didn't known which way to swim and were afraid of getting tangled in the ship's lines.

But the hull was settling and fuel or propane fumes began fouling the air. "It became overpowering. You could taste it in your mouth," she said.

She was unsure if her husband was safe until he swam into the nearly submerged cabin, holding a rope for the seven passengers to use as a guide to swim out. By the time they all got out, there was about four inches of air left, she said.

Newlywed Andrea Hilty, 22, didn't know how to swim, but was coaxed to make a go of it by her husband and Scot Smithee. "Oh, boy, she learned how to swim that day," said her husband, Craig.

The eight passengers and two crew members sat on three floatation rings on the top of the capsized boat, "squished together for warmth," Brenda Smithee said, and began drifting out to sea. To lighten the mood, the passengers introduced each other and talked about their jobs and where they lived, she said.

The passengers didn't realize an emergency locator beacon had been automatically activated when it had gotten wet, Smithee said.

"We were preparing to spend the night ... We thought nobody would know we were missing until (the boat) didn't show up for the sunset cruise," she said.

Craig Hilty said, "It was the scariest 2 1/2 hours of my life. It was like a gut check."

A Maui Fire Department helicopter spotted the group at 4:20 p.m. about two miles south of Manele Bay, and "we all started crying," Smithee said. The helicopter left and flew three or four miles to where Sonny Rivera's Aikane Sport Fishing boat Kekahi was on a charter with some Minnesota visitors.

The helicopter hovered nearby and signalled for the fishing boat to follow. The Navy and Coast Guard also participated in the search.

"It was pretty gnarly. There were 10- to 12-foot seas with 30-knot winds," Rivera said.

Rivera said he was surprised to see the capsized tour boat. "A catamaran is probably one of the most stable vessels on the ocean. It was very odd to see something like that flip over," he said.

Because of the dicey conditions, it took about 45 minutes to load everyone aboard. Scot Smithee helped his fellow passengers into the Kekahi and was the last one out of the water.

Once on land, the passengers were given hot showers, warm bath robes and dinner-to-go at the Manele Beach Hotel before flying back to Maui on two helicopters chartered by Paragon.

The Paragon passengers met Tuesday night for dinner in Lahaina to relive their harrowing experience and celebrate their good luck at being rescued.

Brenda Smithee praised the Paragon crew and called the incident a "freak accident," saying she "wouldn't hesitate" to take another sailing trip with the tour company.

Although they lost $3,000 in camera gear and other possessions and were bruised and battered, the Smithees were happy to board a plane at Kahului Airport yesterday afternoon to continue their vacation on the Big Island.

The Hiltys, who were married on Maui Saturday, are returning home today. Patricia Duffy and her husband, Tim, also are leaving today after spending their last night on Maui at a lu'au. The fourth couple, Richard and Mila Payne of Costa Mesa, Calif., returned home yesterday.

Contact Christie Wilson at cwilson@honoluluadvertiser.com or (808) 244-4880.