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Anatomy of a rescue - from the Ship Captain

'Horizon Reliance - position of rescue'    .

Last week on Sail-World Cruising we published the story entitled 'Anatomy of a Rescue - from the helicopter' (see story). This week we present another rescue anatomy article, this time from the perspective of the Ship's Captain. Tony Munoz of Maritime Executive spoke with Captain James Kelleher of the AMVER-participating Horizon Reliance container ship, who was responsible for saving the lives of three cruising sailors.

The rescue itself:

Three Canadians, including a nine year old boy, were rescued by the Amver participating container ship Horizon Reliance after their 38 foot sailboat Liahona sank 280 miles northeast of Hilo, Hawaii Wednesday February 8, 2012. The three survivors are from Edmonton, Canada.

The sailors, on a voyage from Puerto Vallarta, Mexico to Hilo, Hawaii, contacted the Coast Guard Cutter Kiska Tuesday afternoon after their sailboat became disabled. The crew reported damage to their top forestay and engine. After trying to rig a makeshift sail they lost the mast in the extreme conditions.

The Horizon Reliance crew lowered a ladder to conduct the rescue. A 29 year-old-man was rescued first, but the others, a 32-year-old man, and a 9-year-old boy, drifted away. Both were rescued shortly thereafter because they were wearing lifejackets with strobe lights attached, which enabled rescuers to keep them in sight.

All three were reportedly in good health and will remain aboard the Horizon Reliance until it arrives in Hilo, Hawaii at approximately 4:00 am local Hawaii time.

Horizon Reliance - an AMVER participating ship -  .. .  

However, it is in the interview later of the rescuing captain that the incredible difficulties and the passion by the Captain and crew to save the lives of the three sailors plays out:

MarEx: You were out at sea and sailing from the U.S.West coast on the Hawaiian run. Tell us what happened.

Shortly after 18:00 on Tuesday the seventh I got a call from the mate on the bridge – telling me to come right away. The bridge is only seconds from my room and I went to the bridge immediately. I thought that someone had been injured on the ship – but when I got up there the mate was on the computer and he was calculating something. He told me that he had received a call from Petty Officer Hudson at the JRCC in Honolulu telling him that there was a sail boat in distress. He would call back but in the meantime he gave us the sailboat’s last position and we were figuring out our distance and ETA to that position. Although the sailboat wasn’t on our track it was in our general direction just southwest of us and the calculated distance was about 148 miles away.

We figured out an ETA to that point. We received another call from the JRCC, a fella named Mike Cobb. We spoke and he told me the situation; it was a 38-ft sailboat, and three persons onboard ages 9, 27, and 31. They were dismasted, all the sails were destroyed. The engine was seized and they were basically adrift in extreme conditions. The weather was very bad. Their position being 150 miles southwest of us, I had assumed according to my weather maps that it was the same weather we were experiencing. We were seeing the wind was south-southwest blowing at a steady Force 8 sometimes a Force 9. Seas were 20-25 feet. It looked to only get worse with the approach of a cold front.

I said ok, we’re on our way. We were 7 and a half hours away and we were doing 19 – 19 and a half knots – full sea speed to make our ETA in Honolulu. We got off the phone and we plotted a new position to the sailboat and we altered course and proceeded immediately in the direction of the sailboat. We had about 7 or 71/2 hours to plan and prepare. We began our preparations. I talked extensively to the Chief Mate, Steven Itson, and he prepared the deck. I went below and spoke to the Chief Engineer, John Williams and the First Assistant engineer, Robert Curran, and told them the situation and our plans. We all did it as a team and we figured out what the best approach would be and how to best prepare the deck.

The crew on the sailboat had been onboard for between 3 and 4 weeks, so we had to assume that they were very fatigued and weak. We didn’t really know what the conditions were until we got up there – they were dismasted; the mast was lying on the deck. Until we got up there we prepared, we got life rings ready and a line throwing apparatus ready. We got the pilot combination ladders rigged on both sides of the vessel and we got the Deck gang up on the deck to test everything. We prepped the decks as best we could. About 2 hours later I received another phone call from JRCC with more information and an updated position. Mike Cobb said he had been speaking with Bradley James onboard the sailboat and he got an updated position and the disposition of the three persons onboard and what the situation onboard was.

As luck would have it my Chief Engineer John Williams is a very experienced sailing racer and offshore sailor. He said first of all we want that mast gone – cut the rigging and get rid of that mast. We thought it was a good thing for us, that with any luck we’d be able to fire the line throwing device over the boat and get a line to them. With the mast in the way it would have been very difficult to land a line on deck, so we said this may work out in our favor. We had a back-up plan in case they were too fatigued – that once we got them alongside they could use the pilot accommodation ladder.

I received a second phone call from Mike Cobb at JRCC. We told Mike to instruct them to cut away the mast and tell them to remain calm. We got some more information from him and we continued to make plans to get there as soon as possible. What concerned me the most was the weather. We were in extreme conditions for a small boat. It was just flat out horrible. During the second phone call we made plans to speak again later and Mike Cobb planned to patch me in with Brad onboard the sail boat.

Shortly after 2300 I was able to speak with Brad I told him what our plan was, how I planned to approach him and what I expected to do. I told him that I planned to get a line to him and that we had a pilot accommodation ladder. I told him that I wanted the boy to come onboard first and then the two adults. I told him that if they were too fatigued or unable to climb the Jacob’s ladder – because in seas that rough the ladder would be going up and down alongside the hull, it would be difficult- we had stores cranes further out on the ship and we would get them with the stores cranes individually.

Brad understood and he seemed very composed – he listened and he understood everything I said. I had a good feeling. I thought he sounded good after being out to sea in a small boat for 3 weeks in those conditions. That was a huge factor, if these people are panicking, especially seeing a ship of this size come alongside – it’s pretty daunting. They didn’t know what to expect and I tried to reassure them that we were on our way. He gave me another position, fairly close to the previous position, but another updated position.

I said we’re on our way. From what I could gather, the boat was in rough shape – they were simply adrift out there in these massive seas. They had 5 inches of water in the cabin, but they were not sinking – the seas were washing over the deck. The boat was not in great shape but they were still afloat. Had this front approached while that boat was still there – I really don’t think that the boat would have made it through that frontal passage and the ensuing seas and winds that came with it. The seas got much, much worse. It was a good thing we were nearby.

When I thought I was about 45 min away from their position – this being a steamship- I began our slow down procedures. I slowed the ship down until about 0100. I had the ship down to maneuvering speed. I could use the engines, ahead and astern. The ship was fully manned, we had a full engine watch, the First Assistant on the throttles, the deck gang on the deck, the ship was all lit up and now we were just looking out to see if we could see the boat. At 0103 we spotted the boat, we saw a light. We tried to ascertain its distance but it had no mast and the boat was so low to the water with a fiberglass hull, there was no way we could pick it up on either my S-band or X-band radars. We couldn’t see the boat at all. We tried and we tried. But I couldn’t ascertain the distance other than using my own judgment. There was a light we could see. We never picked up the boat on radar, even when we were in very close proximity; it just kept getting lost in the troughs of the waves. Every maneuver was done visually and just with my best judgment. I slowed down as we approached the boat. Things were shaping up nicely. I had the wind basically dead ahead, I approached the boat from the downwind side and I had it on my port bow. My plan was to approach at bare steerageway. Obviously I can’t approach it at 6 or 8 knots like I was boarding a pilot because I would just blow right past them. I had to get the ship moving as slowly as possible but still maintain steerageway – which was becoming very difficult. I had the ship down to a dead slow bell and because of the wave and sea and wind action – the speed was at 1 or 2 knots – it got closer and closer and closer. Fortunately it was still clear out – other than the spray from the waves visibility was fairly good.
We could see the boat now and once it got under a mile away we could see it clearly. The boat was lying in the troughs basically perpendicular to our approach course. The boat was extremely low to the water. There was very little freeboard. It appeared that it had taken on a serious amount of water if it was that low. I mean I don’t know this boat, I don’t know how it normally lies in the water but it appeared to be a boat that should be seaworthy and ocean going, but it had very little freeboard that they were rolling violently. They were being picked up by these seas and thrown on their side- just rolling horrendously. All three occupants were back aft – they had their lifejackets on and they were aft in the boat in the cockpit. As I made my approach into the wind i got closer and closer and closer. The boat was very close to me- broad on my port bow – my plan was to make a slow turn to port and bring them into the lee of my vessel. Now doing this – this being a single screw container ship, if I were to bring it around upwind of them the vessel could set down upon them, I’d be able to bring them alongside – hopefully I would be able to control the vessel using the rudder, the engine, and the bow thruster to bring them alongside.

Now I had my whole crew up on the foc'sle head and the starboard side - so we had plenty of eyes on the one still on the starboard side - who turned out to be Mitchell. But I had to see what happened to the other two. I ran over to the port side and I could see them. They were alongside but drifting very fast away from the vessel - we were losing them. Now I had Mitchell very close on the starboard side so we were going to get him, but I immediately assigned the third mate to keep the spotlight on him - I told him do not take your eyes off him - we can't lose them - we can't. If they got away from the ship - we couldn't see anything in this weather. If we lost sight of them- they were gone.
MarEx: Were the other two hanging onto each other or were they separated too?

They were tight against each other - we came to find out later. To be honest with you I only saw one person - I only saw Bradley. I didn't know if 9 year old West was with him. I was just hoping that he had his son with him. I didn't know. Now I came to find out later that the chief mate did exactly the same thing I did. If somebody's in the water you have to have a lookout. He did exactly as I had done - he assigned an AB to keep an eye on Bradley - he had him up on the foc'sle head so he was lower to the water than I was up on the bridge wing. And this is a forward house ship - you know we've got a bird's eye view of all this. We're not all the way back aft. I had the second and the third mate up there with me and I had both of them watch - I ordered them to not lose sight of the light. We couldn't see the people; we could only see the light. We would lose them in the spray and then we would pick them up again as they got lost in the troughs of these waves.

Then once I knew that they had them and they were going to watch them, I immediately ran over again to the starboard side and maneuvered the vessel to hold my position and get Mitchell onboard. That whole evolution took another 15 or 20 minutes until they got a line to him. They got a line to him from the foc'sle head and we walked that aft and we had to run that line all the way outboard of the superstructure of the forward house, then down to the main deck, then we brought him aft and we got him under the ladder, he climbed the ladder and the Bosun was at the end of the combination gangway and he grabbed him- he had them on the steps and up the steps they came. The chief mate reported to me - 'We've got one man onboard'.

I said 'Ok, great'. As soon as he said that I immediately ran into the bridge - I rang the telegraph ahead, put the wheel hard over, put the thruster hard to port - I had to get the other two. I began turning the ship and we still had them in sight - thank goodness we still had them in sight. We we're losing them at one point but we had them in sight.
MarEx: After you got Mitchell onboard - how far was Bradley and his son?

I don't know. We could see the lights - I would estimate maybe a half mile away. It took me a while to get to them which is the reason I think that. There's no way to judge the distance of this light.

Right at this moment the front hits. The sky goes black, the rain starts coming down torrentially - the winds kick up 50 or 55 knots. The rain is in the spot lights, you can see the rain, its horizontal. It's raining torrentially and visibility shuts down. I can't see anything but I could still see the light. We were still able to see the light. Because of the brightness of the light, because of our proximity and our high vantage point -all of these factors played into us being able to see the light. We would lose it every once in a while as he would move in and out of the troughs. I closed in on that position - I brought the ship over as quickly as I could and I had kicked the ship ahead and we started making way. You know the rudder was more effective at high RPMs and I was able to head up towards what I thought to be at least one person - and I was just praying that there were two. I kept asking the Chief Mate, Steve, 'Are there two people?' The next half hour of my life was just pure hell. I didn't think that the kid was with him. I thought it was just Brad. I had no way of knowing at this point. So I continued to get closer to them and I didn't want to be up wind of him and put him on the lee on my port side, because now I have people in the water - this is not a boat.

If the ship would have set down on them- we could suck them under the ship and they would be finished. My plan was to stay downwind and then bring the ship around. I was able to accomplish that. I put the light dead ahead and then I fell off the wind to port. So now I had him on my starboard bow. Now I tried to bring the ship up into him on my starboard hand and I couldn't do it. He just kept moving away from me. The drift rates for a ship and a person floating in the water are entirely different in these high winds. I couldn't get the ship alongside him. As hard as I tried to will the ship to starboard, she wouldn't go. She just would not go into the wind. At that point I didn't know what I was going to do. I didn't know how I was gonna get to them - but I knew I had to get to them.

The only other thing that I knew to do was to start backing and filling. I had to get the bow to starboard, so I ordered the engine half astern and I got some stern way on the ship. I can't even begin to describe to you what the motion on the vessel was like, the propeller is coming completely out of the water - the ship is cavitating, the entire after section of the ship - the flat bottom is slamming down into the ocean as were trying to go astern. It was horrible, but we had to do it because there they were on our starboard hand. I had to get over there. I had the engine hard left half astern then hard right half ahead and I tried to bring her around. Well it worked. The backing and filling maneuver worked. I had to repeat it at least one more, maybe two more times. Ever so slowly she started to come into the wind and right some more and right some more. He came closer and closer and closer. As he got close enough - we still couldn't see them but we could hear them.

That's when we heard the kid- along with his father and I knew I had them both. Boy I'll tell you that was a moment. I was thinking 'oh thank God.' I finally brought her around into the wind - we were closing on them. You have to understand, I can't get too much headway on the ship- I've got people in the water. I have to keep the ship basically dead in the water but I have to keep it moving in 30-foot seas and 50 knot winds.
It was something else.

MarEx: It took all your seamanship and all your master abilities to pull this one off.

I'll tell you; to this day I don't know how I did it. You just have to do it. She came over and she came over some more and she finally was truly moving to starboard. Of course at this point I have to check the movement of the vessel because we're going half ahead - which on this vessel is a 9 knot bell. I can't be bringing the speed up - I have to check the motion, I have to run the engine astern again, I have to thrust full to port now. Because were closing on them and I'm going to suck them right to ship. I had to stop the motion of the vessel ahead, I had to stop the motion going to starboard because now he was drawing alongside, and as fate would have it I stopped the ship and there they were five feet off the hull and they grabbed the line. We walked them aft and I think it was 0324 at this time, on the eighth. First, the Dad Brad put his son on the ladder and as soon as he did he got sucked away as the sea heaved up another 20 or 25 feet, but the kid was on the ladder and he climbed up and the Bosun was right there and he grabbed him on the gangway. Then Bradley was able to grab the Jacobs ladder and he climbed up a few steps and we grabbed him and we had them both onboard.

MarEx: Amazing story, what an amazing story. Tell me about your crew - they performed at a high level?

Unbelievable, everybody was. You've got to understand, the wind was so bad you had to hold onto the rail to keep from blowing down the deck, the rain was coming down side ways - torrentially. The absolute worst conditions you could ever imagine. Of course everybody is dripping wet, soaked, blown all apart. The whole gang - from what Bradley said he saw as he was coming up the ladder- was in tears. It was a pretty emotional moment. Because, well you know you don't want to say it, you don't want to think it - I'll tell you this could have easily gone the other way - we could have lost them forever, and we had all of them onboard without a scratch.
We have pictures of them; they look like they just came off a cruise to Caribbean.

Horizon - three rescued -  .. .  

MarEx: How long did it take to get to Honolulu from there?
We were back up to speed right after we got Bradley and West onboard. At 0330 we set course for Honolulu and it was 22 hours later that we had the pilot onboard - Thursday morning. The total delay with the diversion and the rescue was 5 hours and 24 minutes.

MarEx: Was this your first rescue at sea?
My first rescue as Master? Yes. We did what we had to do and I'm sure anyone in the same situation would have done the same. I have a great team on here- I can't say enough. The Chief Mate, Steven Itson, did an outstanding job. I've been working with him on this ship for about 7 years. The Chief Engineer John Williams, and the First Assistant, Robert Curran all did an outstanding job - the whole crew did an outstanding job.

About The Maritime Executive:
The Maritime Executive was created with industry leaders in mind and today is the most trusted resource available for maritime decision-makers. Each edition features top executives and their businesses from around the world and provides in-depth analyses of the critical issues of the day. Readers count on The Maritime Executive as their number one source of marine industry insight.

by Tony Munoz/Sail-World Cruising


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