Coast Guard Probes Circumstances of 2015 Sailboat Altercation

Details of an investigation by Coast Guard officials into the death of a sailboat crewman surfaced this week as a lawyer representing the captain in federal court prepares for a hearing next week. Capt. Richard Smith, owner and operator of the S/V Cimarron, is charged with seaman manslaughter.

The federal manslaughter charges are connected to an October 2015 incident in which crew member David Pontius jumped overboard after an altercation with Smith. The sailboat captain was indicted in July on felony charges but charging documents were made public earlier this month. A federal magistrate recently rejected a motion by prosecutors to detain Smith, pending trial.

Interviews with Smith, two crew members, and relatives of Pontius were conducted Nov. 2 by Coast Guard Lt. Jacob Hopper and Agent Aaron Morrisette, court records said.

At the end of the report submitted on Wednesday, Hopper concluded that Pontius was physically challenged by health problems, made worse by the onset of sea sickness shortly after the Cimarron set sail for St. John from North Carolina. As the ailment worsened, it became difficult for Pontius to take prescription medications found among his personal effects, Hopper said.

“I believe that David’s medical condition made him a high risk along without the complication of being seasick. He did not make a good choice to sail several hundred miles offshore with help so far away,” Hopper said.

Investigators said that a combination of events led the crewman into a disoriented state and agitation. Eyewitness accounts provided details about the ailing crewman’s behavior on board the Cimarron between Oct. 21 until he jumped over the side on Oct. 25.

But those accounts differed among crew members. Hopper said all three people on the sailboat agreed with an account of illness and deterioration of Pontius’ emotional state.

After that, versions of the story begin to change, and the changes speak to some of the specific charges Smith faces in court. A grand jury indictment alleged failure to take required precaution; failure to stop and render assistance; failure to deploy a search and recovery pattern after Pontius went overboard; failure to mark the location where the crew member left the vessel and failure to make proper use of the marine radio on board.

All three witnesses said Pontius fell ill within a few hours of setting sail; that he initially refused a patch offered for relief; that the crewman became disoriented and began to hallucinate.

By Oct. 25, they said, the situation worsened, leading to an altercation between Pontius and Smith. Shortly afterward, witnesses said the crewman jumped overboard.

Pontius was not seen again. Three witnesses, at this point, told the Coast Guard different things.

One said they saw a line of bubbles rising from the sea where Pontius disappeared. Another said they asked the captain if he would go back and look for the crewman, to no avail.

The third witness told investigators the altercation took place a few minutes after the captain and crew member argued over the handling of a spotlight, followed by a threat from Smith. When Pontius went overboard, that witness said the seas were too rough to see bubbles.

Defense attorney David Sheesley declined comment on Hopper’s report but said the record spoke for itself.

“I don’t have a comment on it but those documents are attached to a public record,” Sheesley said.

A detention hearing is expected to take place before U.S. magistrate Ruth Miller and is most likely to take place next week.