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StarBulletin.com

At the mercy of the waves


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POSTED: Friday, November 27, 2009

With the boat rudder broken, Luke Harmon had just lowered the main sail and was crawling back to the rear Monday when a huge wave hit, capsizing the boat and throwing him under in an air pocket in the cabin area in 20-foot seas in waters off Lanai.

“;I kept thinking about not seeing my family, my fiancee, about how we're not going to be together anymore,”; he said.

Harmon and his friend David Alfredo Lugo-Valby, both Waikiki residents, were rescued at sea after being missing for nearly two days.

Harmon, 25, who works as a nurse, and Lugo-Valby, 32, a student and a member of the Hawaii National Guard, were sailing a 24-foot boat from Honolulu to the Big Island when the rudder broke off Lanai and a huge wave capsized the vessel Monday morning.

“;The wave hit us from the left side ... and we went flying under the boat,”; Harmon recalled.

Harmon, who was on his first interisland sail, said when the two left Honolulu at 8 a.m. Sunday, the weather was not bad.

He said Chris Clark, the owner of the boat in Hilo, reviewed the forecast.

Harmon said they sailed through Sunday night and decided to anchor in the ocean for several hours in Lanai waters to rest before continuing their journey.

Early Monday they awoke and continued their sail toward the Big Island, when the rudder snapped and the boat had no steering and began to flounder.

Lugo-Valby, who has 14 years' sailing experience and has sailed from Oahu to San Francisco, told Harmon to lower the main sail at the front of the boat.

“;Right after I got it down, I was crawling down to the back when a wave hit and capsized us,”; Harmon said.

Harmon, who recalled the capsizing occurring at 10 a.m. Monday, said his life vest automatically inflated when he hit the water, and he was in an air pocket in the capsized cabin area and struggled to get out from beneath the boat.

He said he surfaced and was working his way to the bow of the boat when another wave hit and righted the vessel.

Harmon said Lugo-Valby was clinging to the cockpit and ended up on the boat as it righted itself.

Harmon said Lugo-Valby reached out to help pull him aboard the boat as the waves kept hitting them.

The capsizing had washed away the boat's two-way radio and soaked and damaged Harmon's cell phone.

Harmon said they were able to salvage flares and a flare gun.

Harmon said to attract attention, they rigged an assortment of inflatable gear onto the mast and jib, along with strobe lights from their jackets.

Harmon said they also dragged mainsail and jib off the bow to act as an anchor and to point the boat's nose into the wave, rather than be struck sideways and be capsized again.

“;The waves were really big the rest of the day,”; he said. “;It was pretty rough all night.”;

What made it even more uncomfortable was when Harmon saw a couple of sharks swimming around the boat.

Harmon said besides the owner, his fiancee, Allyson OBrien, was expecting him in Hilo at 4 p.m. Monday, and he hoped she would call authorities for help.

Harmon said they saw a cargo ship at a distance at midnight and fired a flare and lit hand flares.

He said the ship sailed in a straight line toward them, stopped for a while, then drove away.

Harmon said he tried to maintain a positive attitude, but he kept thinking about the possibility he might die.

Harmon said they saw no ships through most of Tuesday and had drifted away from the sight of the Hawaiian Islands, when they saw a Coast Guard search plane fly pass them near sunset.

Lugo-Valby, who knew about the crossing pattern of the search planes, advised that they should shoot their last remaining flare when the plane came back, which it did 20 to 30 minutes later.

The plane flew by and dipped its wings, indicating its crew had seen them, then flew near the boat for a couple of hours until a rescue helicopter arrived that night.

A Coast Guard diver was put into the water and swam to the boat.

Escorted by the diver, they swam away from the boat to be lifted by a rescue basket onto the helicopter.

Harmon said from talking with the Coast Guard, the search plane was close to returning to base when its crew spotted them in the water.

“;I feel so lucky to be alive. ... We have a lot to be thankful for,”; he said. “;It's the best Thanksgiving ever.”;