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Monday, July 10, 2000

U.S. Coast Guard
A Coast Guard helicopter lowers a basket to
Justin Rapoza yesterday.

Local fisherman
endures night
adrift on ocean

Shrugging off his ordeal,
he helps his team win
a paddling regatta

By Treena Shapiro


Justin Rapoza spent about 15 hours standing on top of his capsized boat in the ocean before being rescued by a Coast Guard helicopter at 6:15 a.m. yesterday.

He drank some water and juice, took a bath and headed off to place first with his open-mix team in a paddling regatta at Keehi Lagoon.

Rapoza, 21, left for a solo fishing trip at 8 a.m. Saturday, and after six hours of luckless trolling, he turned his boat back toward the Waianae Boat Harbor. But along the way, he had a strike -- an ahi he estimated weighed between 170 and 200 pounds. Rapoza managed to get the fish aboard his 14-foot boat, but before he could get it into the cooler, small swells started coming in behind him.

"The swells were only 2 feet, so he didn't feel threatened," said his mother, Lois. "What he didn't realize was that he was on the same side of the boat as the fish." He was gutting the fish to prepare it for icing, she said. But when the swell lifted the light side of the boat, all Rapoza could do was keep his balance and go with the motion of the capsizing boat. When the boat had turned, he was in the water, but managed to get up on the hull.

"I had all the equipment needed for the boat inside a compartment I had no access to because of the dangers that I thought could get me trapped under the boat -- hooks, lures, rope, other things could be tangled around inside of my boat," Rapoza said. "I decided not to take the chance to go under and risk my life just to get the safety equipment."

Luckily, his yellow rain jacket was floating next to the boat. Rapoza tried futilely to flag down other boats with it. When they went in, Rapoza resigned himself to spending the night at sea and hoisted his jacket on an outrigger he detached from the side of the boat.

Then he tried to relax as much as he could, considering he had to stand up most of the time to keep his upper body dry and warm. At about 2 a.m. a Coast Guard Dolphin helicopter made three passes near him, coming as close as 100 feet, but since Rapoza had no light source, they could not see him with their night goggles.

The near miss "felt like a little relief because I knew they were looking for me, but they still hadn't found me yet," Rapoza said. But he knew they would find him at daybreak.

He spent his time trying to stay strong mentally, thinking "about all the good things that my family, my friends go through, just trying to steer myself from the negative."

The Coast Guard rescue team spotted Rapoza at about 6 a.m., guided by the yellow jacket, according to Coast Guard pilot Lt. Michael Brandhuber. By this time, Rapoza's boat had drifted 16 miles west of Kaena Point.

From an altitude of 600 feet, Coast Guard pilot Lt. Jim Seeman said the yellow caught his eye, but even so, the boat looked like a soda can. "The boat was too small to pick up on radar," he said. "A lot of things had to go right to find him."

Rapoza was able to jump into the rescue basket the team lowered for him from 25 feet above, and returned to Barbers Point tired but in good health. "I was pretty happy," he said. "It was about time that I got off my feet, got to sit down and relax and drink some water."

Meanwhile, his friends had been able to see the rescue and towed his boat back in. "My hat goes out to them," Lois said. "They salvaged the whole boat."

Rapoza lost lures, papers to the boat, a kicker engine and two fishing reels. He also lost the ahi that had caused all the trouble. "But all those things can be replaced," he told his mother. As for the ahi, she said, "at that point he didn't care."

Rapoza's family, contacted by the Coast Guard, came to meet him at Barbers Point. He smiled at his mother and told her not to worry because he was OK.

Her response: "Don't ever do that again. I don't know if I want you in a boat again."

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