'If one bad thing goes wrong, it just seems like it gets worse and worse and worse and that's what happened.' These were the words of rescued sailor Mitchell James, the Canadian skipper of the catamaran lost to the Pacific Ocean after he, his brother Bradley and nine-year-old nephew West were rescued over two hundred nautical miles off the coast of Honolulu.
Mitchell, West and Bradley James being interviewed by CTV after the incident
'Worse and worse' could be described as an understatement. A family of three, who had previously done only coastal sailing, were attempting their first voyage across the Pacific when they ran into 40 knot winds and six metre seas.
First, they were dismasted, then tried to rig a jury sail, but the balance of the mast came down too.
They tried to motor, but finally the motor overheated in the high seas. Now they were drifting and called for help.
A ship came to the rescue, but collided with their yacht and they were thrown into the ocean. The yacht sank, leaving them at the mercy of the six metre seas.
The trio from Alberta, Canada, had been on a four-week journey, sailing from Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, to Hilo, Hawaii, when they ran into the series of storms which were to prove fatal to the catamaran. The U.S. Coast Guard described the storm's intensity as 'extreme.'
The three used their satellite phone to issue a call for help to the U.S. Coast Guard around 5:30 p.m. local time Tuesday and waited for rescue.
The Coast Guard called on the crew of a 34,000 tonne 273 metre container ship, Horizon Reliance, about 120nm away. The ship is owned by Horizon Lines, which is a member of the greatly respected www.amver.com!AMVER group, a worldwide association of ships that provides voluntary assistance to boats and ships that become stranded at sea.
As a result of the company's participation in the scheme, Capt. James Kelleher and the crew of the 893-ft. Horizon Reliance container ship were directed by the U.S. Coast Guard to alter course at full speed to assist the 33-ft. sailboat and its crew of three, according to Horizon Lines.
Shortly after 1 a.m. Wednesday, the ship located the trio, bobbing aboard their boat in the dark waters.
'Weather conditions were poor, with southwesterly winds gusting to 40 knots and sea swells in the 20-ft. range,' Horizon Lines said.
But then was the final straw. Just as the rescue began, the waves dashed the men's sailboat up against the massive tanker, badly damaging the sailboat and causing it to take on water.
Within minutes, the boat went down, throwing the trio into the sea. As the sailboat was destroyed, nine-year-old West James prepared for the worst, 'We're gonna sink. We're gonna die,' the boy said, according to his father, Bradley James.
The first piece of positive news was that the sailors were all wearing lifejackets with strobe lights, which enabled rescuers to keep them in sight in the dark.
The crew of the Horizon Reliance dropped a rope ladder over the side of the ship and threw a life ring in the water. They were able to pull Mitchell James over so that he could climb up.
Meanwhile, the waves had pushed Bradley James and his son around to the other side of the ship.
'While they were dealing with Mitch, we just got further and further away,' Bradley James told reporters in Honolulu Thursday.
While the ship tried to maneouvre around, James' son, Wesley, started to suffer the effects of the cold water.
'It didn't help that he'd done all these Cub Scout things and had learned about hypothermia and so he knew what was happening to him and he was a little bit worried,' James said, choking back tears.
'But I just kept saying, ‘You're fine.'
After close to another hour, the crew of the tanker was finally able to pull James and his son from the water. James said the entire crew of the ship was there to greet them aboard.
'It was just a gauntlet of happiness. It was all grown men and most of us had tears in our eyes,' he said, again choking back his own tears.
The crew gave the trio warm blankets, a place to sleep, and a hearty breakfast the next morning.
Jim Storey, spokesman for Horizon, which owns the cargo ship, said the company would be putting up the trio in a Honolulu hotel.
The Jameses set sail from Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, and headed for Hawaii. The boy's mother and teacher gave him permission to take the trip if he documented the journey, Storey said.
He'll certainly have a story to tell when he gets back to school!
The story suggests that the ship, instead of approaching the catamaran from the windward side, approached from the lee. This is unusual, as most ships in rescue situations attempt to put the yacht into the lee of the ship.
Of particular interest to sailors is that the story points out the importance of having strobe lights attached to life jackets