Reliance at Sea: Captain Kelleher Tells the Tale of a Rescue

Published Jan 4, 2013 2:50 PM by Tony Munoz

Recently, I had the opportunity to speak with Captain James Kelleher of Horizon Lines. Captain Kelleher is responsible for the predawn rescue of three sailboat passengers who were adrift in a Pacific storm, including a 9-year-old boy. (View original report here.) The in-depth interview with Captain Kelleher follows:

Tony Munoz (TM): Tell us about yourself. How long have you been sailing the Hawaiian trade?

I graduated from Kings Point in 1977. I’ve been at sea for the last 35 years. I’ve sailed in all capacities from 3rd mate through master. I’ve been working for Sea-Land - CSX Lines - Horizon Lines– been with this company for 24 years, the last 20 as a master.

TM: 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 7th 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.

(L-R): Chief Engineer John Williams, Bradley James, Mitchell James, West James, Capt. James Kelleher

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.

(L-R): Bradley James, West James, Mitchell James, Capt. James Kelleher

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.

"Unfortunately Mother Nature had other plans for us."

Photo (thumb): (L-R): Mitchell James, West James, Blu (Capt. James & Anita Kelleher's new Silky Terrier!), Capt. James Kelleher

Part 2 of the Horizon Reliance Rescue: Reliance at Sea: Captain Kelleher Tells the Tale of a Rescue - PART 2

The opinions expressed herein are the author's and not necessarily those of The Maritime Executive.