In September 2021, Elizabeth Webster and Alexander Burckle were finally on the Hawaiian honeymoon they had delayed due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The couple from Hayward in the San Francisco Bay Area, both of whom have graduate degrees from Stanford University, booked a snorkeling expedition with the company Sail Maui.
They and 42 other passengers boarded a vessel and headed out to the waters between the islands of Lanai and Maui for the first of two scheduled dives, according to court documents.
After about an hour, Webster and Burckle attempted to swim back to the boat but found that they were not getting any closer.
“They started swimming harder for about another 15 minutes, and it seemed like the boat was going into deeper water,” the couple’s attorney, Jared Washkowitz, said in an interview with The Times. “They were trying to swim toward it, and the water was getting rougher. At that point, they realized that the boat was actually leaving them.”
The couple survived the ordeal with a harrowing swim to shore, according to a complaint filed last month in Hawaii. But they were badly shaken. They are still suffering from PTSD symptoms, including sleeplessness, stress, anxiety and fear of water, Washkowitz said.
The couple are suing Sail Maui and the boat’s captain, alleging negligence and infliction of emotional distress.
According to the complaint, the boat’s crew miscounted the passengers on the vessel before it departed for the second dive spot, leaving Webster and Burckle behind.
Sail Maui did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
One passenger allegedly told a crew member that the couple were still in the water as the boat prepared for departure. But the individual was reportedly assured that all passengers — 44 in total — had been accounted for, according to the complaint. Another crew member reportedly performed two headcounts that came up with 42 passengers, then used a clicker and counted 44.
The boat then departed, leaving the couple about half a mile off the coast in worsening conditions, as waves grew to between 6 and 8 feet in height.
“Plaintiffs were beginning to panic and were struggling to swim in the ocean conditions,” the complaint says. “They feared that drowning was imminent.”
The couple decided to head to the Lanai shoreline, which the boat’s captain had said to avoid because of shallow reefs.
Webster and Burckle eventually made it to shore, where they wrote “SOS” and “help” in the sand and attempted to wave down a passing boat, to no avail.
Eventually, two Lanai residents found the couple, gave them water and allowed them to use a phone.
About 45 minutes after the boat left the first dive spot, Webster contacted Sail Maui and said they had been abandoned.
“It was apparent that Sail Maui did not realize at this point anyone was missing from the charter,” the complaint states.