Rick Smith has been chartering sailboat trips for 45 years – more than two-thirds of his life – but he worries he’ll forever be branded by one ill-fated voyage more than three years ago.

Can Smith ever shake the notoriety of being a captain who lost a crew member at sea and then was charged in connection with the death?

“I was ready to give it up,” he said of charter sailing. “But I really have to work. I’ve lost a lot.”

Smith, of Camden, spoke a little more than a week after he was acquitted of seaman’s manslaughter by a federal judge in the U.S. Virgin Islands. It was an unusual ending to an unusual case that posed the question: Did Smith bear responsibility for the October 2015 death of David Pontious, a crew member aboard Smith’s sailboat Cimarron?

“I’m not saying I was lucky, but I fully expected to go to prison,” Smith, 66, said from a restaurant overlooking the Portland waterfront. “I was not planning on walking away. They (the government) spent so much time and money on this case.”

Prosecutors in the U.S. Virgin Islands have declined to discuss the case or the judge’s decision. In court documents, they alleged that Smith failed to do enough to stop Pontious from jumping to his death and then failed to do enough to try to save him. During the first two days of the trial this month, they called witnesses and experts who testified that Smith, as captain, did have a responsibility to ensure Pontious’ safety. He faced up to 10 years in prison.

But the judge didn’t rule on any of that. Instead, he ruled that, because of a precedent set in 1976, Smith should never have been charged with seaman’s manslaughter in the first place because the statute applies only to commercial vessels. Although Smith operates Cimarron as a charter boat for most of the year – both in the Virgin Islands and Maine – the October 2015 voyage was a pleasure cruise. Neither Pontious nor the other two crew members were paying customers.

“The judge didn’t rule in my favor,” Smith said. “He ruled in the case of law. That was the best thing about it.”

Rick Smith says he will not sell his 43-foot, two-masted sailboat Cimarron, which has been his home for the past 12 years. He will return to the Virgin Islands soon, but isn’t sure how the seaman’s manslaughter case will affect his charter business.

The acquittal cost Smith about $100,000 in legal fees. He’s eager to earn that back, but acknowledged that may be difficult in the Virgin Islands, where his story is now well-known.

One thing he won’t do is sell his boat.

MONDAY MORNING QUARTERBACKS

The details of the October 2015 incident that resulted in Pontious’ death have been told in court documents and were repeated at trial.

Smith’s account is the same.

He was sailing Cimarron from Maine to the U.S. Virgin Islands, something he does every year. There were three other crew members with him – Jacob Pepper and Heather Morningstar of the Virgin Islands, and Candace Martin, who had to leave the voyage in North Carolina. That’s where the Cimarron picked up Pontious – on the recommendation of Martin, who knew his family.

“He got seasick, but that happens on almost every trip I’ve ever been on,” Smith said. “When we first left (North Carolina), I said, ‘I’ll turn around,’ but he said, ‘No, I’ll power through.’ ”

Pontious, who investigators later learned was taking multiple prescription medications, grew sicker and started to hallucinate. Asked whether he thought about bringing the boat to port then, Smith said he didn’t.

“We were 350 miles away. It would have been four days to the nearest port in any direction,” he said.

The morning of the day that Pontious jumped to his death, he was doing better, Smith said. He had eaten breakfast and dinner and had held two watches on the boat.

But something changed later in the evening. Pontious was adamant about turning the boat around and ended up attacking Smith when the captain wouldn’t. After a tense and violent exchange, Pontious climbed over the boat’s railing and jumped into the sea.

“I saw him sink straight down under a full moon with bioluminescence,” Smith said.

Prosecutors later questioned why Smith didn’t throw a life ring or turn the boat around or work harder to contact the Coast Guard. Smith said none of that would have mattered.

“I’ve heard from so many Monday morning quarterbacks on this,” he said. “Everyone’s an expert.”

TRIAL SEEMED ANTI-CLIMACTIC

Smith said he did contact the Coast Guard – repeatedly – but couldn’t reach anyone for about 30 hours.

When he pulled Cimarron into port in the Virgin Islands, investigators were there to greet him. They were polite, he said. There was no indication that they were pursuing criminal charges. Members of Pontious’ family even flew down to speak with Smith about what happened. They were pleasant, too, he said. Pontious’ father, Frank Pontious, has declined to speak to the Press Herald about his son’s death or the case involving Smith.

In early 2017, more than a year after the incident, Smith was notified that a grand jury was convening. He was invited to testify but declined.

“The grand jury failed to indict me, so I just assumed it would go away,” he said.

It didn’t. Prosecutors and investigators kept working.

“They knew what I had for lunch when I was 12,” he said. “They knew everything I’ve ever done.”

When he was arrested in November shortly after he arrived in the Virgin Islands, Smith said he was shocked. He was even more shocked after he and his attorneys finally received a Coast Guard investigative report – prepared in November 2015 about two weeks after Pontious’ death – that seemed to conclude Smith did all he could.

Smith said he was lucky he didn’t have to spend more than a few days in jail. He was released on bond and ordered to stay under house arrest until the trial ended.

The trial itself was anti-climactic. The prosecution laid out its case and called several witnesses, who were cross-examined sharply by Smith’s attorneys, who didn’t even get a chance to mount their defense before the judge ruled that the charge couldn’t be supported.

On Jan. 9, Smith was free.

‘I’VE JUST GOT TO MOVE ON’

That first night, he slept on Cimarron, which in addition to being his livelihood also has been his home for the past 12 years. Then he flew to Boston to visit his daughter, grandchildren and other family members. They hadn’t gotten a chance to come down and see him since his arrest.

He said he plans to head back to the Virgin Islands soon, although he’s not exactly looking forward to it. He feels notorious. While he’s received support from the small sailing community there, he doesn’t know how the ordeal will affect his business.

And he doesn’t relish the idea of running into his former crew members, Pepper and Morningstar, who testified as government witnesses and who both live there. He uses the past tense to describe his friendship with them. Going forward, he said he’ll be a little more careful about who he takes on as a crew member.

“I’ve just got to move on,” he said.

So far, that has been difficult.

“I still haven’t slept yet,” he said. “It’s just going to take time. I’m not anywhere close to feeling normal.”

Smith said he needs to keep working to earn back the money he spent to secure his acquittal. If he can’t do that in the Virgin Islands, maybe he won’t return next year. Or maybe he’ll stop altogether.

“It’s not going to be the end of the world giving up sailing,” he said.

As a career, he quickly clarified.

He’ll never give up the boat.

Eric Russell can be contacted at 791-6344 or at:

[email protected]

Twitter: PPHEricRussell

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