By Ramsay Wharton
HONOLUU (HawaiiNewsNow) - "I didn't say, 'Are we going to die?' I said, 'We are gonna to die'," said 9 year-old West James of his terrifying experience at sea.
West and his Dad, Brad, and Uncle Mitch, arrived in Honolulu around 2:45 a.m. aboard the cargo ship, Horizon Resilence, after a daring rescue at sea early Wednesday morning.
"They were terrible conditions. And in the process of the rescue, conditions deteriorated from there," said Reliance Captain James Kelleher during an early morning press conference at Horizon Lines headquarters.
The three Canadians left Mexico for Hawaii a month ago but got stranded Tuesday afternoon about 300 miles north east of Hilo after the mast of their 39 foot sailboat, the Liahona, broke and their engine gave out. Brad used a satellite phone to call his wife for a phone number to the Coast Guard in Hilo. They then directed the Reliance, about 150 miles away, to the rescue.
One of the most daunting tasks for the Captain of the Reliance was maneuvering the huge cargo ship, the size of a football field, to this tiny sailboat in the cover of darkness, under stormy conditions with waves crashing as high as the ship itself.
"There were 25 foot seas and at one point the winds were 45-55 knots and so the tops of the waves were curling and spraying and it was rainy at the same time," said Brad James of Calgary, Alberta, Canada.
Before the Reliance arrived, Brad's younger brother, Mitch, was below deck with his son West. Mitch was in shock after suffering a fall with the mast while trying to fix it. Brad called them on deck when it looked like the two ships were getting dangerously close.
That's when the rough seas toppled the sailboat toward the ship, slamming the two vessels together, ultimately sinking the ship.
Captain Kelleher said, "Our ship pitched down into it and the combination of the two, when the ship came up, the bulbous bow was underneath their boat."
The large protruding bulbous bow crashed into the fiberglass hull of the ship. Brad said it started to fill with water, and they knew they were taking a swim. Brad tried to keep his son from panicking.
"I spent the first 20 minutes in the water trying to calm him down. We just kept talking the whole time. 'Look the boats right there. They're coming to get us. We're gonna be fine,' he said.
Mitch and West tried to use a surf board they grabbed before the sailboat went down, but the high winds and waves eventually ripped it from them.
They floated in life vests with strobe lights. The Reliance crew tossed down ropes and life rings to help them but it wasn't easy to get to them.
West suffered mild hypothermia.
"I was drifting down the starboard side of the ship and that's where they lowered the ladder down and picked me up," said Mitch James of Edmonton, Alberta, Canada.
About an hour later, West and Brad were plucked from the waters on the other side of ship. At one point, drifting so far out, Captain Kelleher said he thought he'd lost them.
"We came up along the side of the boat and I stuck him (West) on the ladder and he grabbed on and he just shot up on the ladder, and disappeared because I just dropped down on the next wave," said an emotional Brad.
West's mom, Megan, said she has a lot of confidence in her husband, Brad's ability to tackle challenges that would send normal people into a panic. It wasn't until after everyone was rescued, that she heard just how bad things had been. She said she knew it must have been pretty rough for them all, because her normally non-emotional husband, had got pretty choked up on the phone.
"So many things worked out in their favor. Some of it because they were prepared and some of it because someone up high was looking out for them," she said by telephone on her way to Hawaii to be with her family.
"Most of us had tears in our eyes and then from that point on, I just came to realize what this was. How difficult this was and how incredible it was that it turned out the way it did," said Brad, given the fact Captain Kelleher had never rescued anyone like this in his 35 years at sea.
Megan offered thanks to the crew and captain of the Reliance and added that she wouldn't hesitate to let her son go back out to sea with Dad and uncle, if, and when they were ready.
She said her son, the eldest of five children, will share his experience with his third grade class at Lake Bonavista in Calgary when he returns. Megan said his class is also planning to write thank you letters to send to Horizon Lines and members of the Reliance, for rescuing West and his family.
The James' plan to spend about five days in the islands to reconnect and relax before returning to their homes in Canada.