When the sun broke in the Costa Rican sky on Jan. 8, a group of 10 friends woke up ready for an adventure.
It was day four of their vacation together, one of many the group of five married couples from Chilliwack had embarked on in 20 years. They got mobile early, grabbing a shuttle to the water, to jump aboard a skiff that would take them to a catamaran, the Pura Vida Princess.
Just across the Gulf of Nicoya, the small, idyllic Island of Tortuga beckoned the tourists as it has for countless others before them. The Chilliwack group, including Owen Skonberg and his wife, Chris, managed to get aboard early and find a good place to sit among the 100 or so passengers and crew.
“We were excited about where we were situated,” Skonberg says. “We all ate and all were in good moods.”
They enjoyed their breakfast while the cruise director went over safety instructions and they set course for Tortuga.
In the safety of the harbour, the water seemed calm and peaceful. It wasn’t until they got out past the breakwater and into the gulf that conditions began to change. But it was nothing that alarmed the well-travelled group.
“My wife made a comment about white caps being out on the water,” Skonberg says. It wasn’t quite what they were expecting; one couple in the group, Peter and Kathy Brown, had arrived two weeks prior and had already enjoyed a perfectly calm trip with their family on the exact same boat.
“The week before it was like glass,” Skonberg says. “But the water was getting progressively rougher.”
As the boat got about halfway to Tortuga, the waters became so rough the catamaran was rocking side to side. Peter Brown went to speak with the captain, and learned it was wind from the north causing the high waves.
“A little farther on the captain left the steerage to his mate and went to talk to the cruise director,” Skonberg explains. The cruise director announced that because of the rough seas we would be turning around and another trip would be schedule for tomorrow or another day.”
It was about this time that the mood on the boat changed from one of hopeful adventure, to concern.
“People kind of groaned about it (turning around),” he said. “But we understood.”
The captain left the top level of the two-story catamaran, and when he re-emerged he had no shirt on and was wet. By this time, the boat was rocking so much, the captain began yelling at everyone to get their life jackets on.
“We were about 30 minutes out of Tortuga,” Skonberg says. He has been chosen to represent the group of friends, nine of which survived the day’s tragic events. As soon as he was able, Skonberg wrote down as much detail as he could remember. The group of friends has agreed to share Skonberg’s account with The Progress.
“The crew quickly scrambled to get everyone a lifejacket and to move to the port side of the boat as it listed to starboard.”
Very quickly, the boat was on its starboard side and was sinking, he said. While it first felt like minutes had passed, he now wonders if it was just mere seconds.
“Some of the people slid down to the starboard and into the sea while others went over the edge at the port side which sank out of sight. Most people floated as quickly as possible to the three or four life rafts in the water,” he says.
They each looked and called around, bobbing in seven and eight foot swells, trying to catch sight of each other. As items that floated popped into view, many of the passengers created circles of people and flotation devices. The captain and cruise director were performing CPR on two of the passengers aboard one of the hard shelled, styrofoam life rafts.
“I saw Kathy, then Bob and Marlene (in the water),” he says.
And then they realized Sharon Johnston, their friend and travel companion of 20 years, was one of the people the captain was trying to save. Her husband, Norm, was at her side.
“They continued relentlessly until the two passengers were lifted onto a sport fishing craft that had come to assist in the rescue,” he said. Johnston, 70, was one of three passengers to not survive the ordeal.
The group became friends through their work, all in different capacities within the Chilliwack School District. Johnston had worked as a teacher here. With similar interests, and the same sort of “quirky” personalities, they became fast friends. Often, many of them took their RVs down to Whidbey Island in Washington for holiday time. Some of them recently traveled to Greece, and they all were getting ready to celebrate Sharon and Norm Johnston’s 50th wedding anniversary with them.
Instead, they’re rallying around their widowed friend as they work through insurance paperwork and support each other in their grieving.
It’s a long process that began the very day the Pura Vida Princess sank.
“There was so much stuff we had to do,” Skonberg says, adding that the group holds the Costa Rican people in high esteem for their heartfelt support during this difficult time, especially the ones who risked their lives to save them. They spent five days in Costa Rica sorting through paperwork, making myriad phone calls, working with interpreters, and planning how to get home as quickly as possible.
Now that they’re home, the group of friends is preparing for a service for Johnston that is being planned by her family.
“We all had a lot of fun together,” Skonberg says, recalling their many adventures over the years. “A lot of memories.”