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Rip current pulls girl out to sea

LIHUE — A 14-year-old girl narrowly escaped being swept out to sea at Polihale State Park Tuesday afternoon.

Greg Ellsworth was captain aboard a 60-foot catamaran owned by Kauai Sea Tours, cruising up the Westside of the island carrying customers on a sightseeing tour of Napali Coast. Rounding the corner past the U.S. Navy Pacific Missile Range Facility at Barking Sands, the boat was approaching Polihale Beach when crew members saw people waving from the shore.

At first, the crew thought maybe it was just some friends trying to say hello, but quickly realized something was wrong.

“We kinda waved back at first. Then we realized, ‘oh no, they’re trying to flag us down,’” said Colin Valhuerdi, a crew member.

When Ellsworth pulled the boat closer to the beach, another crew member, Julie McQueen, spotted the girl caught in a current a few hundred yards offshore.

Before she got caught in the rip tide, Chloe King had been enjoying a beautiful afternoon at the beach, on vacation with her family from Anaheim, Calif. King and her brother were boogie boarding in the Polihale shore break when both kids suddenly found themselves quickly being sucked away from the beach.

Their father saw his children in distress and swam out to help. He managed to pull his son back to shore, but when he turned around, his 14-year-old daughter was nowhere to be seen, lost behind the six-foot waves crashing steeply against the beach.

He was about to run back into the ocean and swim in the direction he last saw his daughter, but a bystander held him back, according to reports of the incident later relayed to Ellsworth and Valhuerdi.

“Someone told him, if you try to save her, you’re both gonna die,” Valhuerdi said. Ellsworth said he was told that the man responded, “Well, then I’m going to drown trying.”

Just then, people on the shore spotted the Kauai Sea Tours catamaran sailing up the beach and flagged it down.

“The rip was going out pretty far,” Ellsworth remembered.

He worked the boat farther in, trying to get as close to the stranded girl as possible, but had to pull up short in the shallow water. A wide swath of churning sea water still separated the boat and the girl struggling to tread water in the powerful current. Realizing somebody would have to swim out to her, one of the guys ran to the back of the boat, grabbed a rescue surf board and threw it over the side.

Ellsworth said two of the guys on the crew, “both excellent watermen,” looked at each other for a moment, trying to decide who would make the rescue. Both men wanted to go, but Ellsworth said Valhuerdi had seniority and seized the moment.

“Colin was kinda amped to do it,” Ellsworth said.

Valhuerdi said as soon as he saw the board in the water he jumped over the side of the boat, pulled himself on the board and started paddling. By his estimate, the girl was at least 200 yards away, but he said it didn’t take more than a minute to get to her.

“I grew up surfing,” he said. “I’ve been in the ocean my whole life, so if I gotta do a real quick sprint, I can do it.”

Valhuerdi paddled up to the girl and offered her one end of the board to climb on. She was tired but coherent. Valhuerdi asked her a few quick questions to assess her mental condition. She knew where she was and how many fingers he held up but said she had been stranded for about a half hour and lost her boogie board 10 or 15 minutes before.

“She was pretty winded,” Valhuerdi said, guessing the young girl probably didn’t have enough strength left to stay afloat much longer.

“I’m just glad we were there when we were,” he said. “That could have been a completely different outcome.”

A set was coming in, but Valhuerdi saw them coming and knew they wouldn’t break until they passed. He waited for a couple minutes before heading back. Valhuerdi put the girl on the 12-foot board, and then “I just pushed and swam and pushed and swam” until they reached the boat.

Back on the deck of the catamaran, Chloe ate some fruit and drank a ginger ale. Physically she was OK, although visibly shaken by the near-death experience.

“As soon as she caught her breath she was fine,” Ellsworth said, but remembered the girl stayed pretty quiet for the rest of the boat ride. “You could tell she had other things on her mind.”

He contacted the fire department on his cell phone just before losing service, and got the OK to continue the tour, agreeing to meet Chloe’s family after the trip.

“He came over, and I went to shake his hand,” Valhuerdi said, recalling what happened when he met Chloe’s father, who was waiting on the dock when the boat pulled into Port Allen later that evening.

“He was like, ‘No. I’m not gonna shake your hand,’” Valhuerdi said. “And he gave me a hug.”

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Caleb Loehrer, staff writer, can be reached at 245-0441 or cloehrer@thegardenisland.com.
Source: The Garden Island

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