Monday, June 11, 2001

John Ruiz III vows to take better equipment next time
he heads to sea. Ruiz was rescued by fisherman Tim
Wong, left, shown here with Ruiz after they arrived
yesterday at Keehi Harbor.

Boater home safe
after 28 hours at sea

An Oahu man leaves his
powerless boat and paddles for shore

By Leila Fujimori

What started out as a typical day of diving and trapping fish almost turned tragic for John Ruiz III.

Ruiz routinely dives alone and never gave it a second thought -- until this past weekend, when he spent 24 hours drifting in his boat and another four hours or so trying to paddle to shore on his surfboard.

"All the time, I didn't think I was going to make it," said a sunburned Ruiz at 5:30 p.m. yesterday after finally making landfall at the Keehi public boat ramp near Sand Island.

"I'm angry at myself for taking this chance too many times." He was brought to shore by another fisherman, who picked him up off Barbers Point.

Ruiz's ordeal began Saturday morning in Maunalua Bay in Hawaii Kai. He set a fish trap and was about to check on another trap when the engine in his 17-foot boat lost power at about 10:30 a.m. off Portlock.

"I could have jumped off the boat at any time," he said.

Ruiz was not far from shore when the engine died. He tried to restart it but the battery was wet. And so was his only form of a communication, a radio.

"I thought I was so close, I'm sure somebody will be coming," Ruiz said. The boat kept drifting and he passed Black Point.

Day turned to night, and he passed the Diamond Head lighthouse. He flashed his diver's light and saw cars flash their lights back. He committed to staying on the boat for the night and went to sleep.

"The current did work in my favor," Ruiz said. "It kept holding me this side (of Oahu), or I would have been out to Molokai."

His mother and girlfriend reported him missing just before midnight. Fire rescue crews found his truck and trailer parked at the Hawaii Kai boat ramp. The fire department searched the near-shore water from Makapuu Point to Diamond Head while the Coast Guard searched up to 45 miles out to sea.

At 10 yesterday morning Ruiz could not wait any longer. "I drifted for 24 hours, then I decided to jump in the water."

He abandoned his boat about 10 miles off Barbers Point, taking off on his surfboard and paddling for shore. But the wind was blowing hard.

"Looking back at the boat, I thought, 'Wow, what a big mistake.'"

After four hours or so, he was getting tired, "but I was determined I was going to get back to shore."

Ruiz spotted a tanker being towed by a tugboat and was heading toward it when Aina Haina resident Tim Wong passed by on his 19-foot fishing vessel. He waved him down, and Wong said his first words to him were, "Can I come aboard?"

"I thanked Tim very much, and I just lay down and let him go fishing, and he caught one," Ruiz said.

Wong shared some dried fish and a beer with a grateful Ruiz.

While on board, Ruiz called his mom and two children, Chelsea, 12, and John IV, who cried. He asked his mother to call his girlfriend, who had been at the Hawaii Kai boat launch while rescue crews were out searching.

At the Keehi boat ramp, Ruiz was in good spirits and appeared nonchalant, holding the line for Wong's boat while Wong went to get his truck. No one but the press was there to greet him.

"I feel good," Ruiz said. "I'm hungry and a little bit sunburned."

His white, blue-bottomed boat, similar to a Boston Whaler, has not been recovered, but Ruiz was happy to have returned with his life.

Ruiz's advice to other boaters: "Stay with the boat. If you can afford it, get more equipment."

He said next time, he will have at least two forms of communication.

Next time, he said, "I'm going to do it a little more strategically and have somebody drive my boat when I jump off.

"I'm not in a real big thrill to get back in my boat," he said.

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