3 men rescued after fishing boat capsizes

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KAILUA-KONA — The sight outside Wendell Kualaau’s Kailua-Kona home Monday afternoon was one of family and friends gathered by a parked boat for beers, fish and laughs.

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KAILUA-KONA — The sight outside Wendell Kualaau’s Kailua-Kona home Monday afternoon was one of family and friends gathered by a parked boat for beers, fish and laughs.

But earlier in the day, no one would’ve guessed that same boat was capsized 6 miles off Kealakekua Bay. Kualaau and his friends, Bill Souza and Frank Carvalho, clung to the partially submerged 22-foot fishing boat for an hour and a half before the Hawaii Fire Department rescued them early Monday.

“It’s mind over matter,” Kualaau said. “I’m the captain and my responsibility is for my crew.”

The Fire Department first got the alarm at 1:44 a.m. The first responding unit reached the victims at 3:15 a.m.

The Fire Department contacted the U.S. Coast Guard. They sent out an urgent marine broadcast, letting other mariners in the area know there was a distress situation.

The Coast Guard said it launched a rescue helicopter from Oahu; however, the Fire Department was able to reach the men before the Coast Guard aircraft reached their location.

Kualaau took his boat, the Kamaliaoha, and his crew out at about 9:30 p.m. Sunday, launching from Keauhou Harbor.

“We went out and it was rough,” Kualaau said. “The water was coming over the back, over the back, over the back.”

When he realized what was happening, Kualaau made the 911 call and told Souza and Carvalho to don their life jackets.

“I told them this is gonna happen really fast,” Kualaau recalled.

The captain closed the cabin doors and the boat went down shortly after.

“But I believed in the boat,” Kualaau said. “The boat is sound.”

The vessel and Souza’s water-resistant iPhone 7 saved the three men’s lives. Kualaau held the cellphone above his head for nearly two hours before rescue came.

“He was able to talk to the Fire Department and tell them exactly where we were,” Souza said.

Souza said big swells did hit the men. While he knew the sharks were there, he just didn’t think about it.

“It wasn’t traumatic,” he said.

Carvalho praised the firefighters who came to their aid. He said they were heroes.

Souza noted the trio’s gratitude for the department’s efforts and keeping in contact and keeping them informed throughout the ordeal.

The men didn’t suffer any injuries. The rescue personnel left lights attached to the vessel to alert other boats of the navigational hazard.

Later Monday morning, Kualaau went back to the harbor to see if there was a boat that could take him out to Kamaliaoha so he could tow it in. The Poke Shack boat and another fisherman named helped tow the vessel to Keauhou Harbor.

With Kamaliaoha back safe outside his home, Kualaau spent the afternoon draining the old oil and cleaning the salt water out.

Occasionally, a passing driver would stop to check on Kualaau and say how glad they were that he was OK.

Kualaau’s son-in-law, Michael Elvenia, wanted to thank friends and family who reached out and called to make sure his father-in-law was alright.

“There’s so much love from the community for Wendell,” he said with tears in his eyes. “We’re so happy they came out safe.”

The three-man crew didn’t catch anything before their boat capsized.

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“All we caught was a ‘fishing tale,’” Kualaau said with a chuckle.

Email Tiffany DeMasters at tdemasters@westhawaiitoday.com.

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