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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Wednesday, October 27, 2004

Coast Guard faults captain in boy's death

By Christie Wilson
Neighbor Island Editor

The captain of a whale-watch tour boat wasn't paying attention to where his boat was going just before it hit a humpback whale off Diamond Head last Christmas Day, causing the death of a 3-year-old passenger, a Coast Guard report said.

Ryker Hamilton and his father, Ryan, shortly before the boat hit a whale on Christmas Day last year.

Photo provided by office of attorney Rick Fried

Captain Monroe Wightman III was busy adjusting the volume of the public address system on the Dream Cruises vessel and "failed to maintain safe navigation" with whales nearby, the report said. The captain "could have brought the vessel to a complete stop and avoided the incident had he not been distracted and seen the whales at the time they first appeared directly in front of the vessel," the report said.

Passenger Ryker Hamilton, 3, of Norfolk, Va., was in his father's arms near the front of the 76-foot American Dream when the boat struck a whale on its port bow, or left front. The collision jolted the pair forward, with Ryker striking the back of his neck and head on a deck railing. The two then fell backward, and the boy's head hit the deck.

An autopsy indicated Ryker died almost immediately when his spine was severed after striking the railing and deck.

Coast Guard investigators are recommending taking action against Wightman's license, but the report does not elaborate on the specific action.

The Coast Guard report also faults Dream Cruises for not making sure deckhands were trained in first aid and CPR, and for not testing the crew for drugs and alcohol immediately after returning to port, as required by federal regulations.

Neither Wightman nor company president Michael Watson could be reached for comment yesterday. The report was made available to The Advertiser by Honolulu lawyer Rick Fried, who is representing the Hamilton family. He received a copy of the Coast Guard report Monday.

Ryker was on the whale-watch cruise with his parents, Ryan and Renee Hamilton, and grandparents Robert and Sandra Hamilton. Ryan Hamilton is a fire control technician in the Navy and Robert Hamilton is an Air Force colonel stationed at Hickam.

The two couples have filed a federal lawsuit against Wightman and Dream Cruises, with trial set for March 1.

A Coast Guard spokeswoman in Honolulu said the report was awaiting final review by the Coast Guard commandant in Washington, D.C., and has not been formally released.

Fried said the Coast Guard investigation confirms what witnesses have said.

Coast Guard investigators compiled an account of the incident after interviewing all the adults on board the American Dream that Christmas Day, even contacting some passengers at home in Scotland, China and Japan.

The report said the whale-watch cruise left Kewalo Basin at 9:30 a.m. with 72 passengers and four crewmembers. As the vessel approached Diamond Head Buoy, Wightman made an announcement over the PA system that he had spotted a whale 300 to 400 yards in front of the port bow. The captain then noticed that one or two other whales had joined the first whale before the pod submerged, the report said.

After the sighting, the captain steered toward the whales to get a closer look, a common practice on whale-watch boats. After about 10 minutes, the whales were spotted 100 to 300 feet in front of the port bow, the report said. One of the whales quickly submerged and appeared to be heading straight for the American Dream.

Ten to 12 seconds later, at about 10 a.m., the boat collided with a whale on the port bow, jolting the vessel. Witnesses said the whale raised its tail, slapping the hull and striking two passengers, who were not injured.

The report said that just before the impact, Wightman said he had stepped away from the helm and turned his back to adjust the volume on the PA system in the wheelhouse. The captain told investigators that by the time he saw the whale, it was about 10 yards away and that he was unable to avoid the collision despite pulling all three of the engine throttles into full reverse position, damaging the engine.

Trials done later using the same boat indicate it would have taken eight seconds to bring the vessel to a complete stop.

The Coast Guard investigators recommended that Dream Cruises assign a crewmember other than the captain to operate the PA system, and that it use crewmembers trained in whale behavior to help the captain look out for whales and navigate around them.

In this case, the whales off Diamond Head apparently were involved in competitive behavior and their movements were unpredictable, the report said.

Although the company manual states that employees should render first aid and CPR, if qualified, the investigation found that none of the crew aboard the American Dream on Dec. 25 rendered aid to the injured child, and that the captain was the only crewmember who was CPR-certified. But because he was busy operating the boat, he would not have been available to help.

The report also found that the three deckhands were not aware there was a first aid kit on board, and that passengers had not been advised to stay seated during the whale-watch cruises as a precaution against being tossed around in rough seas.

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