02/09/2012 09:30 EST | Updated 04/10/2012 05:12 EDT

Canadians Rescued From Sinking Sailboat By Container Ship Horizon Reliance

Horizon Lines

First the power on their sailboat cut out, then they were knocked into the stormy waters of the Pacific by the very ship that was steaming to their rescue.

Nearly two days after they were plucked from roiling ocean waters some 450 kilometres off the coast of Hawaii, three Canadians — including a nine-year-old boy — are safe on dry land and telling a compelling story about their dramatic rescue.

"I just came to realize what this was and how incredible it was that it turned out like it did," an often emotional Brad James told reporters in Honolulu.

"There's a whole bunch of guys on a boat that saved my life, saved my son's life and saved my brother's life."

Thirty-two-year-old James, his son West, and 29-year-old brother Mitchell were sailing from the Mexican tourist destination of Puerto Vallarta to Hilo, Hawaii, when their boat lost power in weather the U.S. Coast Guard described as "extreme."

The vessel's engine overheated and its forestay — a piece of rigging designed to secure the mast — was badly damaged. When the trio of Canadians, all from Alberta, tried to rig a makeshift sail, they lost their mast.

Brad James used a satellite phone to call for help as waves rolled over the deck of the sailboat. The coast guard then contacted the Horizon Reliance, a container ship that was about 240 kilometres away, to come to the rescue of the stranded Canadians.

The ship changed direction and travelled at full speed to reach the drifting, hobbled sailboat, arriving in the area at 1:30 a.m. local time on Wednesday — about six hours after James had called for help.

But the crisis wasn't over. The sheer size of the hulking 272-metre container ship, combined with the high seas and strong winds at the time, created more problems for the struggling sailors.

"They got closer and they got bigger. I didn't really have any perspective as to how big this boat was," James recounted. "I said, 'It looks like we might hit the boat.'"

At that point two huge waves came at the sailboat, pushing them right up against the huge container ship.

The three Canadians, all wearing life-jackets and struggling to stay on deck, then saw the waves drop before a part of the container ship's underside — well below the surface of the water — shot straight up and went right through the tiny sailboat.

"I said, 'We're not going to die, but we are going to sink,'" James recalled. "The boat went down, we jumped overboard and we started swimming."

The crew onboard the container ship had thrown a rope to the Canadian sailors, but in the darkness and with a relentless rain pounding down, it couldn't be found. The would-be rescuers trained strobe lights on the water and tossed life-preservers overboard.

"The seas were 25 feet, it was raining heavily, visibility was reduced," said James, his voice cracking. "They never lost us."

James got his son into a life preserver and paddled beside him, but his brother drifted around to the other side of the ship. The ship's crew lowered a ladder into the water and rescued Mitchell James first, around 2:30 a.m., while the two others drifted away.

"We didn't know if Mitch was OK or not. He was getting on and they were trying to figure out how to get to us. Pushing that 850-foot vessel through wind sideways is not an easy thing to do," Brad James said.

"It took them an hour and a half, but they got to us."

James's son was hoisted aboard first, and James himself followed soon after.

"When I got up there, on the ladder... it was just like a gauntlet of happiness," he said.

After being treated for mild hypothermia, the three Canadians recovered aboard the container ship which brought them to Hawaii by Thursday morning.

West James, a third-grader from Calgary, thanked the crew of the container ship for rescuing him and his family.

"I just felt really cold and just thinking about how big the hole was and what it did to our boat just scares me," he said. "I just thought that people were really happy to see that we were alive."

Horizon Lines, the company which owns the container ship, said all three Canadians would be medically evaluated and debriefed by the U.S. Coast Guard in Honolulu.

"We are thankful the Horizon Reliance was in the right place at the right time to come to the aid of these individuals,” said William A. Hamlin, the company's vice-president of operations.

"We commend Captain Kelleher and his crew for their skilled seamanship in accomplishing a successful rescue despite very adverse weather conditions."

A spokeswoman for the U.S. Coast guard said the rescue was co-ordinated under the Automated Mutual Assistance Vessel Rescue Program, or AMVER.

"We often call for the vessels and container ships which transit from American to Asia or to Australia or New Zealand to help us to conduct search and rescue," said Petty Officer Angela Henderson.

"These vessels are actually able to pick them up and then they can bring them to the nearest port."

AMVER, sponsored by the U.S. Coast Guard, is a computer-based and voluntary global ship reporting system used by search and rescue authorities to help people in distress at sea.