The captain of a sailing vessel that runs charters out of Camden during the summer has been charged with seaman’s manslaughter and is being detained in the U.S. Virgin Islands while he awaits trial.
Richard Smith, 65, of St. John was arrested on Nov. 2 on a charge of seaman’s manslaughter stemming from the 2015 death of a crew member who jumped overboard from Smith’s vessel, the S/V Cimarron, according to a news release from the U.S. Attorney’s Office.
For the last 10 years, Smith has spent summers running sailing charters out of Camden Harbor on the Cimarron, returning to St. John, U.S. Virgin Islands, in November where he and the vessel spend the winter doing sailing charters, according to his company’s website.
Smith was arrested when he reached St. John this month — the final stop on his annual sailing trip from Maine to the Virgin Islands.
On Oct. 25, 2015, a crew member, David Pontius, “allegedly became disoriented, climbed over the rail of the boat and jumped overboard,” according to the U.S. Attorney’s Office release. The indictment alleges that Smith, as captain, “through his misconduct, negligence and inattention to duties” caused Pontius’ death.
The indictment was handed up by a grand jury in July of this year, however it was sealed until Smith was arrested in November and court proceedings began.
An investigative summary report from a U.S. Coast Guard lieutenant included in the court documents describes a frantic scene aboard the Cimarron in the early morning hours of Oct. 25, less than four days after Pontius joined the crew at a stop in North Carolina as the vessel made its way from Maine to St. Thomas.
The Nov. 2, 2015, report, filed in U.S. District Court, is based on interviews with Smith and two other crew members.
Pontius joined the Cimarron crew on Oct. 21, 2015, to replace a crew member who had to leave. Neither Smith nor the other crew members previously knew Pontius, though the departing crew member knew his parents.
After leaving Beaufort, North Carolina, at 9 a.m. the following day, Pontius became “very seasick” about two hours into the trip, according to the report, and was unable to keep food or liquids down. Pontius refused medication offered by the other crew members initially, but took the medication the next day, on Oct. 23, since his condition was not improving.
Later that day, Pontius allegedly began “hearing voices,” the report stated, and “asked [a crew member], ‘Do waves ever sound like voices to you?’” Smith took Pontius off of night watch that evening because he was having trouble keeping a directional heading. That night the crew also noticed that Pontius was apparently starting to see things, such as black spots in the clouds, according to the report. The crew assumed his state was caused by his sickness and dehydration.
On Oct. 24, crew members said Pontius’ hallucinations were intensifying. Pontius did not seem to know where they were going or who the other people aboard the vessel were, according to the report.
Between midnight and 2 a.m. on Oct. 25, Pontius allegedly became aggressive, thinking that the crew drugged and kidnapped him. Crew members said they tried to calm him and “bring him back to reality” without success, the report stated.
Pontius allegedly punched Smith in the face twice and began choking him, according to the report, and another crew member intervened. After Smith refused to turn the vessel in a direction Pontius requested, “he then climbed over the wire railing and jumped port side into the water,” the report stated. He allegedly hit his head on the railing of the vessel as he went overboard.
Smith said he watched Pontius sink into the water and saw a bubble trail following. In a subsequent report, another crew member said he was not able to see him in the wake of the boat.
The report states that Smith made several attempts to radio for help, “but only got static.” He then told the two other crew members, “There is nothing we can do,” according to the report.
Report of the incident did not happen until the next day on Monday, Oct. 26, when Smith was able to get in contact with the individual who was giving the crew weather reports Monday through Friday. Smith requested that the individual contact the Coast Guard and gave the location where Pontius jumped off the vessel.
According to court documents, a crew member said that on Monday afternoon, Smith allegedly threw a life ring into the ocean and said, “‘Well, if they ask if I threw over a life ring, I guess I could say I did.”
The Coast Guard summary report also states that Pontius was taking medications to treat high blood pressure, among other conditions. Lt. Jacob Hooper, who authored the report, wrote that he believed Pontius’ “medical condition made him at high risk alone without the complications of being seasick.”
“It is a sad and terrifying event that occured for the family of the deceased as well as the crew on board the Cimarron,” Hooper said in the report.
Prosecutors are arguing that Smith, as captain, failed to stop to render assistance, failed to deploy the emergency position indicating radio beacon and failed to undertake a search and recover pattern.
The terms of Smith’s bail currently bar him from leaving St. Thomas, where he is restricted to a court-ordered curfew. His attorney has filed a motion to amend bail conditions to allow Smith to return to the mainland of the United States.
If convicted, Smith faces a maximum sentence of 10 years in prison and a $250,000 fine. A trial date is tentatively set for January.
According to the Cimarron website, Smith has sailed the coast of Maine for more than 45 years, 35 of which were spent on the Cimarron.