Experts Question Company’s Boating Protocol Following Fatal Incident Outside Honokohau Marina

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A number of tour guides and boating professionals are questioning the company’s practice of having its crew enter the water from the stern of the boat where the vessel’s engines were in wake of a fatal accident earlier this week in waters outside of Honokohau Marina.

Theresa “Reesa” Butts, right, poses with her sister, Laura Lester. PC: The Butts family

Theresa Butts of Kailua-Kona – Reesa, as she was known to her friends and family – succumbed to injuries Monday, April 4 she sustained while working an evening manta tour on the vessel “Uhane Nui O Naiʻa.”

The guides on the vessel “Uhane Nui O Naiʻa,” operated by Sunlight on Water, jumped off the stern, professionals who worked on the boat told Big Island Now.

Investigating agencies haven’t released details on the manner of death, only referring to it as a fatal incident or fatal accident, but those close to the event, including family members of the victim, said Reesa was in the water during the process of mooring the vessel when she was struck by the vessel’s propellers.

Entering the water from the stern of the boat where the rudder and propellers are is an unusual method, several ocean professionals said. Most, if not all, companies have their crew jump from the front, or bow.  

While the practice of jumping from the back of the boat isn’t a safety violation by any regulating agencies’ documented standard, several people who spoke to Big Island Now this week on and off the record said it had been regarded in the touring industry circles as a strange way for a company to operate given the inherent risks involved.


“I thought that it was weird,” said Ryan Leinbach, who worked as a videographer for Sunlight on Water, the company that operated the Uhane Nui O Naiʻa, when she first noticed the practice that they jumped off the stern from that boat. “It is not the industry norm.”

Leinbach worked as a client for Sunlight on Water from roughly 2006 to 2013. She returned to the company last summer and worked as a captain up until the accident, after which, she said, charters haven’t been scheduled.

Leinbach wasn’t working at the time of the accident, which occurred at roughly 6 p.m. that day about 10 boat minutes outside of Honokohau Marina. She said she met with some of the employees and Reesa’s family after the accident that night at Kona Community Hospital, where Reesa was pronounced dead.

She didn’t speculate on the manner of the accident but said, as others have told Big Island Now, that Reesa was a highly skilled water-woman unlikely to be prone to accidents or place herself in dangerous situations when it came to boats and the ocean.

“She knew her s**t,” Leinbach said.


She said she found the practice of entering the water from the stern strange from the moment she first started working alongside the company.

Generally speaking from the boating perspective, Leinbach explained that being around propellers and rudders isn’t a recipe for disaster by itself – boat engines are often shut off when people are entering or exiting the water – but it is regarded as something that could increase the risk of an accident given that it isn’t uncommon for even the most experienced boat operator to occasionally mistake briefly which gear he or she has the boat in – first or reverse or neutral, for example.

Other industry professionals who spoke to Big Island Now voiced similar thoughts on the unusual practice of entering the water for moor diving from the rear.

“I never noticed that was how they did it so I couldn’t comment or verify that was their procedure,” said one industry professional with six years of experience on boats, who didn’t want to use their name given the sensitive nature of the story. “However, no other company that I know jumps from the stern so I’d be willing to say that the normal procedure for jumping a mooring ball is from the bow.”

Roughly a half dozen professionals on the Big Island voiced similar sentiments on the condition of anonymity.


Hawai’i police are working in conjunction with the Department of Land and Natural Resources Division of Boating and Ocean Recreation to assist the United States Coast Guard in the investigation.

Sunlight on Water declined to speak to the media on the incident, referring all questions to the Coast Guard. The company’s sign outside their dock was removed at some point Wednesday morning and a Google search of the company says it’s temporarily closed. According to its website, it’s been operating tours for 25 years.

Both the Coast Guard and DLNR Boating Division said Thursday that entering the water from the stern of the boat doesn’t run counter to any rules or safety guidelines.

“The operator decides how they enter the water. The DLNR Division of Boating and Ocean Recreation (DOBOR) has no guidelines or standards regarding this,” a spokesman for the DLNR said. 

Jeannette Butts, Reesa’s daughter, told Big Island Now on Tuesday that she did not want to speak about the accident itself, but said her comments the day before to the Honolulu news outlet, Hawai‘i News Now, were accurate. She told the news agency that the boat’s operator performed negligently.

“This should not have happened,” she said in the article.

“She was really good at her job,” Jeannette Butts added about her mother.

The captain’s name is not being printed because the person has not been cited or charged with any infraction. A message sent to the captain by a Big Island Now reporter on Thursday wasn’t returned.

Anyone who may have information relative to this incident is encouraged to contact Petty Officer Graham of the United States Coast Guard at 808-763-6520.

Leinbach, who worked alongside Reesa at various points in their careers, said many in the industry are having a difficult time coming to grips with how such an accident could occur. It has sent shockwaves through the boating and touring community, not to mention the entire island.

“Nothing like this has ever happened,” the 18-year professional said.

Tom Hasslinger
Tom Hasslinger is a journalist who lives in Kailua-Kona. Prior to joining Big Island Now, he worked as the managing editor for West Hawaii Today and deputy editor for The Garden Island newspaper on Kauai. He's worked for over 15 years as a reporter for the Oahu-based Civil Beat news outlet, as well as in Coeur d'Alene, Idaho and Douglas Wyoming.
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