HONOLULU — West James beamed as he showed off a new entry in his journal: “I survived a dangerous rescue.”
Some 30 hours earlier, the 9-year-old, along with his father and uncle, was plucked from the Pacific Ocean in a harrowing rescue made all the more difficult by a container ship that came to their aid — but capsized their disabled sailboat.
“It was scary. I thought we were going to die,” West said Thursday in Honolulu.
A series of mishaps over five days left West, his 32-year-old father Bradley James, and 29-year-old uncle Mitchell James drifting in their boat about 340 miles away from Oahu. It also was storming — one of several bursts of bad weather the three encountered since they’d set sail for Hawaii from Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, on Jan. 11.
“There were waves crashing all over the place. We had no engine. We had no sail,” Brad James said, describing the last few hours aboard his younger brother’s sailboat. They had a leaky exhaust, a broken water pipe, an overheating engine, and ultimately a snapped mast, which made sailing to land impossible.
It was their first time crossing the ocean, but the trio from Edmonton, Canada, were experienced sailors and had come equipped. A working satellite phone helped them reach the U.S. Coast Guard, which redirected a commercial ship from about 150 miles away.
By early Wednesday, the Horizon Reliance was in sight of the stranded sailors.
As the 900-foot ship maneuvered into position, James’ 39-foot sailboat bounced off it. Then two massive waves — 25 to 30 feet, Brad James estimated — forced the big ship’s bow onto the sailboat.
“It just crushed it,” Brad James said.
Less than two minutes later, the sailboat sank and the three were in the water with the life jackets and headlamps the Coast Guard had instructed them to put on.
The Horizon Reliance crew dropped life preservers and strobe lights into the water. They were able to rescue Mitch James in about a half-hour, using a marine ladder hung from the side of the big ship.
But Brad James and his son had drifted away. The crew tried firing rocket-propelled ropes, which made for spectacular viewing but didn’t reach their targets.
“It looks awesome, but we never found it,” Brad James said.
With time running out, Horizon Reliance Capt. James Kelleher had to figure out how to maneuver his ship close enough to get a line to them.
“It took some doing,” Kelleher said. “I have to hold my position, but how do I get my ship over to Bradley and West in the water, with the wind blowing 50 knots and the seas rolling at 20-25 feet?”
He managed it by working the engine, rudder and the bow thruster in unison.
“It was about an hour after we got there, but it seemed a lot longer. The conditions were so bad, and the rain began, and we couldn’t see them and he’s going up and down in the seas — we could never see him, we could just see the light,” Kelleher said.
The crew got them into dry clothes, fed them soup and sandwiches, gave them hot water bottles and brought them to Honolulu by Thursday morning. The owners of the Horizon Reliance got the James family a hotel room.
West said he was looking forward to seeing his mother, who was flying in to meet them. He also planned a trip to McDonald’s and a swim in much safer water — the hotel pool.
As for whether he planned to go in the ocean during the remainder of his vacation, the third-grader said: “I’m not sure.”