THE TRAGEDY OF DAVID PONTIOUS: Did a Scopolamine Patch Drive Him to Suicide?

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I know I’m not the only one interested in the legal adventures of skipper Rick Smith, recently acquitted in federal district court in St. Thomas on a manslaughter charge in the death of David Pontious (see image above), one of his crew members. This truly was a horrible situation. Smith, who sails a 43-foot vintage yawl Cimarron back and forth between Maine and the Virgin Islands each year, took on Pontious as pick-up crew, and within three days of heading offshore Pontious was hallucinating madly and was effectively psychotic. After brutally assaulting Smith–both punching him in the face and strangling him–Pontious jumped overboard and was lost as sea.

This happened three years ago, in October 2015, on Smith’s annual southbound jaunt to St. John, where he runs Cimarron as a charter boat. It wasn’t until three years later, in November 2018, that Smith was arrested in St. John and charged under federal law with “seaman’s manslaughter.” The question raised, whether Smith should have done more to try and rescue Pontious, was never answered at Smith’s trial, which took place in January. Instead the judge directed an acquittal, ruling that the rather obscure statute Smith had been charged under applies only to cases arising on commercial vessels.

I discussed this sad story with David Pontious’s father Frank last week and he raised an interesting point as to what might have triggered his son’s wild behavior. Newspaper accounts have suggested David Pontious simply wasn’t fit enough to go to sea, but the fact was he was the most experienced sailor on the boat at the time, absent only Rick Smith. He had sailed all his life, starting with his dad at age 7, had been a sailing instructor in California, had done offshore deliveries on the West Coast, had gone on bareboat charters in the Caribbean and Mediterranean. As came out at trial, one of the other crew, Jacob Pepper, was just learning to sail at the time, and the other, Heather Morningstar, though she knew how to sail, had never done a long offshore passage before.

Pepper and Morningstar had originally set out with Smith aboard Cimarron from Camden, Maine, with another very experienced crew member, Candace Martin, an old friend of Smith’s. Martin, however, wasn’t able to do the whole voyage down to St. John, so had arranged to get off at Beaufort, North Carolina, and had lined up David Pontious to take her place there. She had never met Pontious, but knew his father Frank, who is well known in sailing circles around Beaufort, South Carolina, where David was also living at the time. Smith also had never met David Pontious before.

After driving all day from “Bew-furt” (SC) to “Bow-fort” (NC), David Pontious joined the boat and first met the crew and captain at around 2300 hours on Wednesday, October 21. The most contemporaneous account of what happened after this is a report prepared by Coast Guard lieutenant Jacob Hopper, who interviewed Smith, Pepper, and Morningstar after they arrived in St. John without Pontious several days later. According to Hopper’s report, the crew and skipper’s initial impression of Pontious was “that he was a nice guy,” a self-described tech geek.

Cimarron departed Beaufort bound for St. John early on the morning of Thursday, October 22. Pontious was soon feeling seasick. According to his father this had happened before. David did not often get seasick sailing offshore, he told me, but he sometimes did. The crew offered him a scopolamine transderm patch, but Pontious turned this down. The following day, on Friday morning, Pontious was still feeling quite ill and was offered a patch again. This time he accepted and placed it behind his ear.

What was not known to the crew at that time was that Pontious was on several different prescription medications. He was taking three different heart medications to treat high blood pressure, an antibiotic to treat a skin condition, and an anti-depressant that is also used to treat insomnia. Smith in fact had asked Pontious prior to departure if he was taking any drugs, and Pontious had answered no, assuming Smith was only concerned about illicit drugs.

The fact is scopolamine is itself a prescription drug. In respectable medical literature it is well documented that one of its possible side effects can be the onset of hallucinations, usually described as being “mentally and physically unpleasant.” At high doses hallucinations are much more likely, enough that it is occasionally abused for recreational purposes. In less respectable literature, scopolamine is nicknamed “Devil’s Breath” and is allegedly used to drug people during the commission of crimes and in hostile interrogations. There is also, of course, a long list of medications it reacts badly with.

Consider then the following train of events, as described in Lt. Hopper’s report. Pontious put on a scopolamine patch at about 1030 hours on Friday. By that afternoon he was hearing voices. That night he had to be pulled out of the watch rotation as he couldn’t see the compass properly while steering. He also started experiencing visual hallucinations. Throughout the day on Saturday his hallucinations, both visual and auditory, intensified.

Things came to a head after midnight that night, in the earliest hours of Sunday morning. Pontious by now was paranoid and delusional, worried the crew had drugged him and was kidnapping him. He grabbed the boat’s spotlight to look for a door he thought he saw in some clouds. He became aggressive with Smith and the other crew, and ultimately assaulted Smith and started strangling him after Smith refused to steer left toward the door in the clouds. With help from Pepper, Smith was released from Pontious’s grip. Pontious also physically assaulted Pepper and announced: “If you won’t go left, I’ll go there myself.” Whereupon he climbed over the portside lifeline and jumped overboard, hitting the back of his head on the gunwale as he went down.

He was never seen again.

The route of Cimarron (image courtesy of the Portland Press Herald)

It’s impossible of course to know for sure if a dose of scopolamine was responsible for all this. As Smith’s attorney, Michael Sheesley, noted when I asked him about it, with no body recovered there can be no toxicology report. Given Pontious had been vomiting because of his seasickness, there’s a good chance much of the medication he was taking wasn’t retained in his system, so any speculation about drug interactions is just that… pure speculation. The vomiting wouldn’t have affected his receiving scopolamine via the transdermal patch, however, and it may be its effects were amplified by Pontious’s dehydration and the lack of food in his stomach. We’ll never know for sure.

Personally, I think there’s a good chance the scopolamine was largely to blame, but then I’ve always been prejudiced against the drug. It does have a reputation for being very effective, but of all the seasick remedies I have experience with, it has the strongest side effects I have witnessed, and I never recommend it to anyone. The first and only time I tried a patch myself I was soon feeling so weird and anxious that I quickly pulled it off again. I’d rather be seasick, I thought, than feel like this.

One time I also had a crew member who put on a patch to ward off seasickness, only it didn’t work, so he slapped on another one. I told him this was a bad idea, because scopolamine is a powerful drug, but he wouldn’t listen to me. He soon started feeling very anxious and disoriented, but believed this was the result of his seasickness. Finally he passed out cold–so cold I was able to peel the patches off his neck while he slept. When he woke up hours later, he announced cheerfully that he felt much better. When I pointed out I’d removed the patches, he thanked me.

Frank Pontious, who first put this idea in my head, that scopolamine might have been the proximate cause of his son’s death, seems less convinced than I am. He is, even in his grief, a very moderate, reasonable man and will concede only that “it might have been a contributing cause.” This in spite of the fact that he has anecdotal evidence much stronger than mine.

“I have a friend who had a crew member have exactly the same thing happen,” Frank told me. “This crew member, his personality changed dramatically [after he put on a patch]. He had hallucinations, he was delirious. He jumped overboard. Thankfully there was a boat following them that picked him up.”

What Frank does know for sure is that the David who did those terrible things aboard Cimarron that night was not the David he knew.

“David was a super nice guy and a very experienced sailor, and he’s been nothing but trashed through this whole scenario,” Frank told me. “Somehow I’d like to get some of the record straight.”

David, who was 54 when he died, had never been psychotic or violent prior to this, and though he was heavy, he had recently shed 20 pounds and was looking forward to sailing down to the Virgin Islands.

“He sailed all his life. He knew exactly what he was getting into. He was going through a job change. He had been downsized from his job [in healthcare IT]. He took the chance to sail down to the Virgins hoping he’d find a new career down there. He was excited about the trip. He had a girlfriend who was planning to fly down as soon as he got down there, and they were going to look around together and see what the opportunities were.”

Rick Smith at the helm of Cimarron

Whether scopolamine was a factor in David Pontious’s death was not explored at Rick Smith’s trial, which was concerned solely with Smith’s own culpability in the matter. For what Smith did immediately after Pontious went overboard that awful night was pretty much nothing. According to Lt. Hopper’s report, Smith did not stop the boat, but did order Jacob Pepper to use the spotlight to look for Pontious in the boat’s wake. Smith also made emergency calls on his VHF and SSB radios, but received no responses. It wasn’t until well over a day later, during a radio call with weather-router Chris Parker on Monday morning, that Smith finally succeeded in reporting what had happened.

Parker passed word to the Coast Guard, who immediately sent a C-130 search plane to Cimarron’s location. After a radio conversation, the plane flew off to search for Pontious, and as it departed–according to public reports prior to Smith’s trial, and as sworn to by Heather Morningstar in testimony during the trial–Smith tossed a life-ring overboard and made a remark to the effect of “at least it will look like I tried something.”

Prosecutors at trial tried to highlight the fact that Smith never activated the distress signal on his DSC-VHF radio, nor did he light off his EPIRB. Former Coast Guard rescue swimmer Mario Vittone, who appeared as an expert for the prosecution, told me later he felt Smith should have at least stopped the boat and stayed on the scene. “If he’d stayed long enough to make contact with someone they never would have tried him,” he pointed out.

Vittone also said he felt Smith’s first mistake was not taking action when Pontious started hallucinating: “My overarching feeling was that as soon as he started to hallucinate then what Smith had was a medical emergency on his boat, and that’s when you start calling. I wouldn’t have called a mayday, but I would have put out a pan-pan. Maybe I have options. Maybe there’s a Coast Guard cutter 30 miles away that can take him off the boat. Who knows?”

Evidently Smith did realize soon after the incident that he perhaps should have responded more proactively. Candace Martin testified at trial that Smith told her at the time that he had stopped and searched for Pontious for several hours. Pontious’s brother Andrew, who flew down to St. John with family members immediately after the tragedy, also testified that Smith had told him the same thing.

When I spoke with Smith recently, however, he said in retrospect he’s not sure he would do anything differently now.

“I don’t know what I could have done for him,” he told me. “I mean, he sank and never came back to the surface. If we had seen him it would have been a different story. But he rapped his head hard on the gunwale. It was like taking a sledgehammer to someone’s head. He hit his head and literally went straight down. There was a full moon. There was bioluminescence. I saw the bubbles. I saw him sink. We had a brilliant spotlight, a 2-million candle-power floodlight. So I know he never surfaced.”

I asked Smith if he thought scopolamine might have contributed to Pontious’s breakdown, and he agreed: “It’s very possible. I’ve heard from a lot of people since then it might have been part of the problem. I’ve never personally known anyone who had an issue with it, and I always keep it on the boat.”

Smith explained he wasn’t aware that Pontious had put on a scopolamine patch, but that he and the other crew were all wearing patches. He said he keeps a drawer on the boat full of seasickness medication for crew to use–Dramamine, Bonine, and Stugeron, as well as scopolamine patches.

Mario Vittone also agreed that scopolamine might well have been a cause of Pontious’s psychosis. “That does make a lot of sense, “ he said. “But it’s mostly just tragic.” He added he guesses there was a less than 4 percent chance that Pontious might have been found and recovered, even if he had remained on the surface.

Whatever the chances of Pontious’s survival, there’s absolutely no doubt that Rick Smith was not the proximate cause of his death. And his primary argument against bringing Pontious back aboard, even if it had been possible, is a compelling one: “People say oh, I could have tied him up. But how? How do you tie up a guy who’s trying to kill you? You’re just risking yourself and the remaining crew, and at that point my duty was to the remaining crew.”

It is worth noting, however, that Smith’s decision to not stop the boat did not necessarily assuage his crew’s anxiety. Heather Morningstar testified at trial that she felt they should have stopped to search for Pontious, and when Smith failed to do so her fear of Pontious turned into a fear of Smith.

S/V Cimarron. Wood construction, built in 1969. Rick Smith has owned her for 35 years

I do know some people have had strong reactions to this story and believe Rick Smith behaved very badly. I discussed the matter briefly in my regular Waterlines column in SAIL, to illustrate the simple point that you’re always taking a risk when you sail with people you don’t know, and received a scathing response from one obviously agitated reader. It’s too long to publish in the print magazine (so I’m told), but I’ll share all of it here:

Editor —

I’ve been a regular reader of
SAIL for more than 35 years, and I’ve never read a more deplorable essay than Charles Doane’s Waterlines column in your March 2019 issue. In addition to Doane articulating who he considers to be fit enough to go sailing, he condoned a skipper actively abandoning a crew member who had fallen overboard. This is reprehensible behavior from the captain, and even worse behavior from a respected member of the sailing community. 

In case anyone had doubts, any captain has a responsibility to try and find a missing crew member, whether the captain likes him/her or not. It is the mantle one takes on when he decides to captain a boat and asks others to put their lives in your hands. Rick Smith made the decision to take David Pontious as crew, he made the decision not to return to port when Pontious was obviously unsuited for the journey. And then he made the decision to let Pontious die without making even a cursory effort to save him. That is a reckless and grotesque act for any member of a crew, much less a captain, and I hope that anyone who ever considers sailing with him in any capacity is made well aware of the fact that as a captain, Rick Smith made the conscious decision not to recover a crew member who fell overboard. 

And they also might keep in mind Charles Doane condoned that decision. Maybe because Pontious was, in Doane’s mind, too fat. 

As the premier publications covering sailing, I hope
SAIL decides to show a little more empathy towards the departed in the future, or at least to their family and friends. Any loss at sea is a tragedy and should not be used as a wacky anecdote to make a point [about?] acceptable sailing standards.

Matt Adams
Conifer, Colorado

This gentleman clearly despises me and what I wrote. I urge you to read the column yourself and draw your own conclusions.

In my defense I will say I think Matt Adams has misconstrued me. I certainly did not mean to condone Rick Smith’s behavior, and I think it is clear that I instead posed a series of open questions to readers, asking what they would have done in those circumstances. I do not think the answers are necessarily easy ones.

I will say also, however, that I believe Adams has a valid point, in his last paragraph, about the manner in which I presented the story of what happened to David Pontious. It deserves much deeper treatment than I could ever have given it in a 700-word column on SAIL’s back page. This is one reason why I’ve taken the trouble to write this oversized blog post.

I have to be very honest about something else. I’m not absolutely certain, if I’d come to the situation cold, that I would have behaved very differently if I’d been in Rick Smith’s position. If one of my crew went crazy on passage and tried to kill me, posing an obvious threat to me and everyone else onboard, and then suddenly jumped overboard, a big part of my brain would be thinking this was a very big problem that just solved itself. And even if I could somehow find and recover the missing crew member, as Smith has pointed out, how could I possibly do that without jeopardizing the rest of my crew?

Preparedness is everything, however, when it comes to going to sea, and therein lies the true value of David Pontious’s story. It gives the rest of us a chance to think deliberately and carefully about what we’d do in similar circumstances. I have long fretted about the possibility of having to deal with a medical emergency while at sea, which is why I carry a sat phone and a large medical kit when I sail offshore. But I had never contemplated what I would do if I had a crew member who became violently psychotic.

Thanks to David I now have some basic guidelines in my head:

1) I totally agree with Mario Vittone. As soon as a crew member on a small yacht shows any sign of a psychotic break you need to make a pan-pan call and let people know what is happening. Not just a Coast Guard cutter, but any large vessel in the vicinity is apt to have much better resources for coping with this person than you do.

2) If the person in question is wearing a scopolamine patch, take it off. (Given my own experience, I think I might well have tried this anyway.)

3) If they jump overboard and effectively commit suicide, stay on the scene and contact authorities ASAP, even if this means setting off an EPIRB. (It would be much better, IMHO, to have at least some basic sat comms capability, like a Garmin InReach unit. They are not that expensive.)

Though Rick Smith told me in our conversation he’s now not sure he would have done anything differently, I’m willing to bet he will in fact think twice in the unlikely event there ever is a next time. He will remember, at least, the $105,000 he spent defending himself at trial, and even if it seems pointless standing by, I think that memory alone may harden his resolve.

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1 Response
  1. John S

    Charlie, You’ve posted another interesting story.

    Well, I wasn’t there. So hard to say what one would do. But, I think he should have stopped and looked for Pontious. “If” they could have located Pontious (a big if) they would have the advantage. He is in the water and they are on the boat.

    Throw him a float…get a line around him and pull him up to the gun’le. That alone is a major event. He might have drowned before that could even be accomplished. No way he is getting up on to the boat until the crew allows it. He is wet and exhausted. Zip tie his hands lash him…whatever. Shoot him in the face with pepper spray…use your imagination. Call the coast guard. Tell them you have a crazy man on the boat.

    But to sail off and leave a crewman in the water without looking for him? Takes a strong case to to make a convincing argument that to look for him would imperil the ship. There is no moral high ground there. Leaders that surrender to the darkside will seldom get support or empathy when it comes time to be judged by their subordinates and peers. I don’t know what Smith’s reputation is today.

    But again, I wasn’t there.

    BTW, I have seen Cameron down here in the VI many times. She is expertly handled. Smith knows that boat like it’s part of him. Have watched him sail her up into croweded mooring fields a number of times and pick up a mooring under sail like he has been doing it all his life. She looks very good too. Well maintained and cared for.

    I can’t associate the man in the story with the skipper I have seen sailing here. Weird.

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