Susan Shonk, co-owner of the Jacó hostel Room2Board, arrived in Costa Rica with her two nieces and sister-in-law on Jan. 7. After several months in Atlanta, Georgia, Shonk flew down to help her brother and business partners with their hotel and, of course, to enjoy Costa Rica’s beaches and balmy weather, especially when compared to the chilly temperatures back home.
On Thursday, Jan. 8, Shonk and her family, along with four Canadian hostel guests, woke up early and boarded the Pura Vida Princess catamaran for an all-inclusive day trip to Isla Tortuga from the dark sand beaches of Playa Herradura, on Costa Rica’s central Pacific coast.
Nearby, at the Marriott Los Sueños Marina, Captain Erick Samudio and Hanz Sandoval were cleaning and performing general maintenance on their 26-foot sport fishing boat, Straight Up With a Twist.
Both later remembered that the water was calm and the sun was out.
“It was a beautiful day,” Shonk told The Tico Times.
“It was like a swimming pool,” said Samudio, a Jacó native who has worked as a sport fishing guide for seven years.
That beautiful Thursday morning quickly turned to tragedy when the Pura Vida Princess capsized, drowning three tourists and leaving more than 100 passengers and crew fighting rough seas off the coast of Punta Leona. As the Costa Rican Coast Guard tried to muster a response, nearby fishermen and other private boats were responsible for rescuing many — if not the majority — of the survivors.
Shonk said that the Pura Vida Princess was festive that morning as breakfast was served and some day trippers tipped their glasses to celebrate the day. As the catamaran got out of the calm waters around Playa Herradura, the winds picked up and the seas churned. Shonk commented on the impressive balance of one bartender, who won applause from the guests when he safely delivered a tray of drinks as the catamaran pitched.
An announcement broke out over the speakers: “We’re turning around.”
Sitting near the front of the ship, Shonk and her family started to see the crew dart back and forth. She still didn’t think anything was amiss when the crew started to distribute life jackets to the guests.
Then the boat began to tip.
The captain ordered everyone to the port side as the catamaran keeled over.
“Even with everybody on the left side of the boat,” Shonk said, “it started to go up and everyone started falling back.”
Shonk grabbed a table to steady herself as the floor tilted out from under her. Feeling the bolts coming undone on the table she made a split second decision and jumped.
Shock said she didn’t remember her fall but her nieces, looking on already in the water, told her she fell nearly 20 feet.
“It sank so fast,” she said, “by the time I climbed on to the raft with my nieces, the ship was already gone.”
In the chaos of the moment, trying to stay afloat as waves crashed overhead and other passengers clung to life preservers, a ship in the distance was a sign of hope.
“We knew they were calling for help,” Shonk said.
The weather was still calm back at Los Sueños Marina where Samudio and Sandoval scrubbed the deck of their fishing boat when an SOS from the Coast Guard crackled on their radio.
“The sea was sly that morning. No one would have guessed it would be that rough,” Samudio told The Tico Times.
Captains in the marina started to ready their boats. Not planning to go out that day, Samudio hadn’t gassed his boat and scrambled to fill it with enough gasoline to reach the shipwreck where more than 100 people were adrift in rough seas.
By the time Samudio and Sandoval reached the shipwreck, the 106 survivors had been in the water for nearly an hour. Debris from the sunken ship littered the water. Passengers clung to net-bottom rafts, coolers — anything that would float — to stay above water. Samudio estimated that 15 or so private vessels already had started to ferry survivors out, but both he and Shonk observed that there were no Coast Guard ships in the area then.
Shonk’s raft was the last one unattended. Samudio navigated his boat as close as he could, but the waves were still rough and the boat pitched precariously. Samudio and Sandoval threw out a life preserver on a rope to the raft, and two men in the water holding the raft grabbed it and pulled the raft as close as possible to the boat.
One by one, the ship’s two-man crew hauled on board the raft’s 10 passengers, which included Shonk’s nieces and sister-in-law.
Usually designed to hold five passengers, Straight Up With a Twist was pushing the limits of its capacity. With the seas still rough and more boats on the horizon, Samudio decided to head back to the marina and not risk those he had already saved.
“Thank God they were all right,” Samudio said. “They were tired and a little beat up, but they were OK. They were lucky.”
Back on shore at Los Sueños Marina, the Red Cross was waiting. This week, Shonk invited Samudio and his wife to their hostel for dinner as a small gesture of thanks.
Said Shonk: “I wanted to thank all the fishermen who came out. Erick [Samudio] went and bought fuel so he could come out. These aren’t rich people, and they took it upon themselves to go out there in these terrible waves. They are the heroes.”