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'We're not going to die,' father tells son as Canadian sailors rescued

Canadians Mitchell James (left), his nephew West, and his brother Bradley describe their rescue in high seas and their sailboat sinking at a news conference at Sand Island.

Gary Kubota/Honolulu Star-Advertiser/Gary Kubota/Honolulu Star-Advertiser

It was 2 a.m. on Wednesday, in the middle of a squall that sent the wind gusting to 90 kilometres an hour over the Pacific Ocean. Left without a working sail or engine on their boat, Brad James, his nine-year-old son, West, and his brother, Mitchell, thought their troubles were over when a American freighter came to pick them up.

But as the rescuers neared the sailboat of the three Albertans, big waves heaved the smaller craft against the larger ship. The sailboat capsized.

Bradley heard his son say: "We're sinking! We're going to die!"

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"We're not going to die, but we're going to sink," he told West.

It would be another hour and a half before the 32-year-old Calgary entrepreneur and his son would be pulled from the sea, from the darkness, rain and six-metre waves.

"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," Mr. James told a televised press conference Thursday after the three arrived in Hawaii.

The trio had set sail a month ago from Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, heading for Hawaii. Mitchell, 29, had owned the sailboat for four years and named it Liahona, after the ball-like compass of his family's Mormon faith.

Brad and Mitch often vacation in Hawaii and had long wanted to sail across the Pacific, another brother, Ryan, said in an interview.

The weather was fine until Sunday. By Tuesday, the storm had damaged their forestay, one of the lines holding up their mast. In addition, the boat engine overheated and broke down.

Mitch tried to repair the forestay but he fell in the water, narrowly missing the deck, Ryan said. Though Mitch was able to get back on board, they feared he had a concussion.

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Luckily, they had a Global Positioning System device and a satellite phone from a friend before they sailed out.

Around 5:30 p.m., they reached the U.S. Coast Guard cutter Kiska and gave their GPS position. The Coast Guard asked the nearest ship, the Horizon Reliance, to divert from its course.

The freighter, which belongs to the North Carolina shipping firm Horizon Lines Inc., was on its weekly run transporting food and clothing from Los Angeles to Hawaii.

The Horizon Reliance was about 240 kilometres from the Liahona. It took six hours to catch up to the sail boat, about 520 kilometres from Hawaii.

As the freighter approached, signalling at the Liahona with lights, the James brothers strapped on harnesses. The initial plan was for the 240-metre freighter to sidle along the 11-metre Liahona. The Horizon crew then would use rockets to shoot rescue lines toward the sailboat and the three Canadians would be winched over to the larger ship.

Suddenly, two consecutive big waves tossed the Liahona onto the bow of the freighter.

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The Canadians jumped into the water wearing life jackets. Brad also had a life saver ring for his son.

He tried to swim and push his son as he told West that "you'll go in shock if you panic. Relax."

West, who was tucked in the life saver, shivered and worried that he was getting hypothermia.

The Horizon Reliance first got to Mitch but it took another 90 minutes before the ship could make another pass at the other two.

Struggling in the water, Brad saw a yellow light and swam toward it, but it was only his flashlight that was bobbing in the sea.

Finally, the freighter was able to throw a line at Brad and they pulled him and his son toward a rope ladder.

With the ship heaving up and down, Brad timed his moves so he could push his son as a wave came up.

Brad let go as the water came down and it felt like his son just shot up in the air.

"Start climbing," he shouted at West.

"Don't climb, we've got him," the Horizon crew shouted as they pulled the ladder up.

After it was his turn, Brad remembered seeing crew members in tears as he stepped up and found his son safely wrapped in a blanket.

Someone handed him a phone to call his wife. "It didn't go exactly as planned but we're fine," he told her.

Ryan said his sister-in-law is relieved that her husband and son are safe, and doesn't mind the adventure that West went through. "She's pretty big on life experience."

He has sent an e-mail thanking Horizon Lines.

"I've spoken to my brother, Brad, a couple times today and heard the crazy story and rescue. He can't tell me enough how great the captain and crew has been and the efforts you have made."

The costs of the rescue will be covered by Horizon Lines, said spokesman James Storey. "It's part of our obligations as seafarers."

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About the Author
National reporter

Tu Thanh Ha is based in Toronto and writes frequently about judicial, political and security issues. He spent 12 years as a correspondent for the Globe and Mail in Montreal, reporting on Quebec politics, organized crime, terror suspects, space flights and native issues. More

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