One of three Canadians picked up by a giant container ship at sea overnight after a storm damaged their Hawaii-bound sailboat is calling their dramatic rescue a "gauntlet of happiness."

Brad James, 32, told CBC News on Thursday morning after the rescue that he felt great, despite the dramatic chain of events that left him and his nine-year-old son, West, floating in the dark sea for 2½ hours.

James's brother, Mitchell James, 29, who lives in the Edmonton area, was rescued from the 12-metre sailboat.

All three are now safe and in port in Honolulu.


[I’m] great, just incredible," said Brad James, who lives in Calgary with his son. "There was a while there we didn’t think we’d step foot on land and we’re here now."

Rescued 450 kilometres northeast of Hilo, Hawaii, they had been travelling from Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, to Hilo on a sailboat named Liahona when they ran into trouble. The weather became increasingly rough, with strong winds. The boat's mast broke around 4:30 p.m. Tuesday, and the boat's engine stopped working after overheating in the storm. The sailors had no other form of propulsion.

'There was tons of people there, and it was all these grown men, and most of us had tears in our eyes.' —Brad James, rescued boater 

As the evening progressed, winds gusted to 75 km/h and the sea swelled to the six-metre range.

The three were saved by the crew of a 272-metre container ship, the Horizon Reliance, that happened to be in the area.

"At about midnight, we saw the freighter approach us," James said. "It was huge compared to us and as they got closer and closer, we got an idea of how huge this boat was."

Container ship happened by


Brad James (right) and his son West James talk about their rescue from the storm Pacific Ocean during a press conference in Hononlulu. (CBC)

The container ship is owned by Horizon Lines. The U.S. company said in a release that it had responded to a call in the pre-dawn on Wednesday from the U.S. Coast Guard under the Automated Mutual Assistance Vessel Rescue Program to help the crew of the sailboat.

They spoke with the container ship's captain, who explained what they planned to do.

"They were going to bring us alongside and fire lines across our boat and were to winch up to the side of their boat and they were just going to pull us up the gangway," Brad James said.

The winds picked up as the ship approached and James, his brother and son were asked to slide down the side of the boat. They prepared to do that until two large waves hit them from behind and pushed them to the bow.


The Canadians were rescued by a container ship 450 kilometres northeast of Hilo, Hawaii. (CBC)

"Those waves also brought the bow of that freighter up, and there’s a big bulb underneath the surface about 28 feet [just over nine metres] down and that thing came out of the water and went right through our boat," he said.

'We're going to die'

The boat was already filling with water and beginning to sink, so the three started swimming. James said as they were coming around the front of the boat, it disappeared within two minutes.

James and his son became separated from Mitch, who had grabbed hold of a surfboard strapped to the side of the boat.

The two men and boy were all wearing life-jackets with strobe lights attached, so the crew of the ship was able to keep them in sight.

The rescuers reached Mitch first and then it took about 50 minutes to manoeuvre the ship to pick up the two others.

During those harrowing minutes, James said he repeatedly comforting his son, who kept saying, "We're going to die.'"

James said once all three of them were safely aboard the ship, there was a swell of emotions.

"When I got up there on the ladder, they got me out of the life ring and got me ready to board the boat. And it was just a gauntlet of happiness. There was tons of people there, and it was all these grown men, and most of us had tears in our eyes. And from that point on, I just came to realize what this was. And how difficult this was. And how incredible it turned out the way it did."


The Horizon Reliance rescued the three Canadians despite winds that gusted up to 75 km/h and sea swells in the six-metre range. (Horizon Lines)

They were reported to have mild hypothermia, but appeared to be in good health, according to U.S. Coast Guard Cmdr. Mark Morin. They were medically evaluated in Honolulu. 

"Two people started carrying me to the room because I had mild hypothermia," West said. "And I just thought that people were really happy to see you, that we were alive."

"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, Horizon Lines senior vice-president of operations, in a release. 

"We commend Captain [James]

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

Horizon Lines had gift bags containing clothes, chocolates and a camera waiting for the three when they arrived in Honolulu.