Snorkeling company rescues paddling coach who got separated from canoe in rough Kona waters

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At about 5:30 p.m. on Thursday, beloved paddling coach Nathan Grocholski Lopez, his son and three of his son’s friends left Mahi‘ula Beach on the Kona coast to ride big waves in single-man canoes.

But after an hour, the fun time turned into a battle for survival for the 46-year-old Lopez. He fell off his canoe, and his leash — that kept him tethered to the canoe — broke.

Lopez watched his canoe flip over from upside down and right side up as it was carried out to sea. With darkness setting in, he knew his best option was to try to swim the couple miles back to shore.

From left to right: Liam Powers, Michael Poerstel and Skyler Marciel with Sea Quest Hawai‘i braved the wind and seas to rescue missing paddling coach on Dec. 15, 2023. (Photo credit: Manu Powers)

“I remember thanking God I had a swim coach who taught me how to swim,” Lopez said.

But for three hours, during a wind warning and high surf advisory issued for the Big Island, Lopez’ swimming skills were put to the test by 3- to 4-foot white cap chops and 30- to 40-knot winds that began to blow offshore. His hamstrings cramped, forcing him at times to just float.

But Lopez was lucky. He was rescued by a private snorkeling company.


Liam Powers, owner of Sea Quest Hawai‘i, got a call at around 7 p.m. that Lopez, his son’s paddling coach at Big Island Jr. Va‘a, had not made it back to shore.

Without hesitation, Powers and Sea Quest captains Mike Poerstel and Skyler Marciel headed out in a boat from Keauhou Harbor and beelined north in the pitch-black and howling winds.

“We wouldn’t have gone in the daytime in those conditions,” Powers said.

They were the only boat out, but they were on a 30-foot Rigid Hull Inflatable Boat that was designed for such conditions.

To create a spotlight, they attached to the front of the boat a light board, which they use to attract plankton during the manta ray night snorkels.


Powers said he and his crew charged through the wind, with waves crashing over the boat. They were soaked and freezing.

While no other vessels could safely get out on the water to help in the search, Powers said the shoreline was littered with headlights from Pine Trees to Hawai‘i Ocean Science and Technology Park, also known as Otec.

After a 2 1/2-hour search, the Sea Quest captains found Lopez alive swimming in choppy waters 2-1/2 miles off Pine Trees along the North Kona coast.

While he was prepared for the worst, Powers eventually heard Lopez over the sound of the boat engine, waves and winds. It was faint, but the yells for help were “primal.”

“There he was, still swimming. No canoe, no paddle,” Powers said.


The only way Lopez survived was because of his experience as a waterman and being in good shape, Powers said.

Lopez swam for three hours before he was found by Powers and his crew.

“In the dark, you notice every light,” Lopez said, adding he watched the lights in the sky for a helicopter which all turned out to be airplanes.

“When I saw Liam’s light it was lower and very bright,” Lopez said. “I swam to put myself in its path and they came directly to me.”

Powers said they wrapped Lopez in towels and brought him to Honokōhau Small Boat Harbor where 100 people were waiting. The boys who went with Lopez had made it safely to shore.

“This was a real community effort,” Powers said. “They all would’ve done it for me.”

U.S. Coast Guard and Hawai‘i Fire Department were also called out that night.

Sam Gardner, search and rescue coordinator for the U.S. Coast Guard, said a helicopter was also searching when the Sea Quest vessel spotted Lopez.

“The small boat beat us to him,” Gardner said. “This was an excellent response from the Big Island community.”

Gardner said he can count on one hand where a Good Samaritan successfully found someone in those conditions.

These types of rescues, Gardner said, don’t usually work out well at night.

“It’s similar to finding a coconut in the water at night,” he said. “You’re only seeing a person for a fraction of a second between waves. It’s literally a Christmas miracle for the outrigger community.”

Hawai‘i Fire Department got the call of the missing paddler at around 7:13 p.m. The chopper was deployed and searched for a little less than an hour before they returned to shore due to darkness and weather challenges.

The department’s 16-foot rescue boat wasn’t taken out because of the poor weather. Shoreline searches continued till crews got word Lopez was found.

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