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

Published Nov 21, 2012 11:13 AM by Tony Munoz

"Unfortunately Mother Nature had other plans for us."

Just as I slowly began this turn a much larger set of waves came in and they may have been - it's tough to estimate - I was on the bridge wing giving my orders and had just very slowly begun to come left to go around them and they were picked up by this huge wave - I would estimate in the 30-ft. range. The boat rose up and as it went down the trough it was picked up by the next sea -it ran astern and went to the right - it was picked up by the second wave and the same motion occurred. As it slid aft along the face of this wave it came right into the ship. I had already slowly begun my turn and the wind was now catching me a little on my starboard bow. After we went over the second wave - which was a very big wave - the ship rose up and pitched down. Now, my forward draft is 28-ft. - and when we came out of that second sea the bow came completely out of the water, the entire bulb was exposed - I could see this from the port bridge wing. At that point the sailboat, along with the motion of the vessel- had positioned itself and was moving from left to right from port to starboard and as the bow came up it came up directly underneath their sailboat.

That's when we contacted the forward portion - fortunately for everyone involved- the forward portion of the sailboat. We made contact with their boat and they slid off as we pitched back down - they slid off the bulb and then the ship continued left and they slid aft right along the starboard bow alongside the foc'sle head down the starboard side. They were lying off of the ship perhaps 40 or 50-ft. from the starboard bow. The whole crew was assembled - we shot lines over the boat. I guess they never saw the line or were unable to retrieve it. Nonetheless - that was ineffective. At this point the boat got lower, lower and lower until it went under the surface. The boat sunk. So now I had three persons in the water. Of course plan A and B were now shot to hell. We had them in the water alongside the vessel- not far off. Something strange happened at this point -as the seas heaped up again and of course the wind is blowing 40 - 50 knots and you need to understand you could not stand on deck without being blown over - you couldn't stand stationary on the deck. I mean I was on the starboard bridge wing and I couldn't stand there without holding on - this is how strong the winds were. It was blowing hard. It was moonlit - the front hadn't approached yet. I had a moon over head - we were fairly well lit, we could see what was going on. Which was great. It wasn't pitch black.  We had lights trained on them from the bridge wings, we had lights on deck, the sailors began preparing to throw life rings over the side - we had 6 or 8 life rings in the water with water lights on them bobbing around. But the sailboat went down and as it went down the seas are picking them up and they're thrashing about - they became separated. I didn't know the names of anybody at this point - nor could I determine who was who in the water but Mitchell basically remained in position - the other two (Bradley and his son West), as it turns out, they drifted towards the ship and forward. I'm heading into the wind and I have to maintain my position - the whole time I'm ringing bells and using the thruster and the rudder - I can't have stern way or headway on this ship because I have people alongside. So I had maneuvered the ship and I had stopped it at that point. I had checked the motion and I had them alongside. The bow is heaving up and there's this huge wash - it's a cauldron up there by the bow. We have this huge bulbous bow and it's coming down and throwing water off of it and spray and then it's sucking water towards it as it goes down. Young West and Bradley were pushed towards the ship and forward and the next thing I know they're gone. They went around the bow and they went over to the port side of the ship. They're no longer visible from the starboard side.

"...I told him do not take your eyes off him - we can't lose them - we can't."

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

Now I had my whole crew up on the foc'sle head and the starboard side - so we had plenty of eyes on the one still on the starboard side - who turned out to be Mitchell. But I had to see what happened to the other two. I ran over to the port side and I could see them. They were alongside but drifting very fast away from the vessel - we were losing them. Now I had Mitchell very close on the starboard side so we were going to get him, but I immediately assigned the third mate to keep the spotlight on him - I told him do not take your eyes off him - we can't lose them - we can't. If they got away from the ship - we couldn't see anything in this weather. If we lost sight of them- they were gone.

MarEx: Were the other two hanging onto each other or were they separated too?

They were tight against each other - we came to find out later. To be honest with you I only saw one person - I only saw Bradley.  I didn't know if 9 year old West was with him. I was just hoping that he had his son with him. I didn't know. Now I came to find out later that the chief mate did exactly the same thing I did. If somebody's in the water you have to have a lookout. He did exactly as I had done - he assigned an AB to keep an eye on Bradley - he had him up on the foc'sle head so he was lower to the water than I was up on the bridge wing. And this is a forward house ship - you know we've got a bird's eye view of all this. We're not all the way back aft.  I had the second and the third mate up there with me and I had both of them watch - I ordered them to not lose sight of the light. We couldn't see the people; we could only see the light. We would lose them in the spray and then we would pick them up again as they got lost in the troughs of these waves. Then once I knew that they had them and they were going to watch them, I immediately ran over again to the starboard side and maneuvered the vessel to hold my position and get Mitchell onboard. That whole evolution took another 15 or 20 minutes until they got a line to him. They got a line to him from the foc'sle head and we walked that aft and we had to run that line all the way outboard of the superstructure of the forward house, then down to the main deck, then we brought him aft and we got him under the ladder, he climbed the ladder and the Bosun was at the end of the combination gangway and he grabbed him- he had them on the steps and up the steps they came. The chief mate reported to me - "We've got one man onboard".

I said "Ok, great". As soon as he said that I immediately ran into the bridge - I rang the telegraph ahead, put the wheel hard over, put the thruster hard to port - I had to get the other two. I began turning the ship and we still had them in sight - thank goodness we still had them in sight. We we're losing them at one point but we had them in sight.

MarEx: After you got Mitchell onboard - how far was Bradley and his son?

I don't know. We could see the lights - I would estimate maybe a half mile away. It took me a while to get to them which is the reason I think that. There's no way to judge the distance of this light.

Right at this moment the front hits. The sky goes black, the rain starts coming down torrentially - the winds kick up 50 or 55 knots. The rain is in the spot lights, you can see the rain, its horizontal. It's raining torrentially and visibility shuts down. I can't see anything but I could still see the light. We were still able to see the light. Because of the brightness of the light, because of our proximity and our high vantage point -all of these factors played into us being able to see the light. We would lose it every once in a while as he would move in and out of the troughs. I closed in on that position - I brought the ship over as quickly as I could and I had kicked the ship ahead and we started making way. You know the rudder was more effective at high RPMs and I was able to head up towards what I thought to be at least one person - and I was just praying that there were two. I kept asking the Chief Mate, Steve, "Are there two people?" The next half hour of my life was just pure hell. I didn't think that the kid was with him. I thought it was just Brad. I had no way of knowing at this point. So I continued to get closer to them and I didn't want to be up wind of him and put him on the lee on my port side, because now I have people in the water - this is not a boat.

If the ship would have set down on them- we could suck them under the ship and they would be finished. My plan was to stay downwind and then bring the ship around. I was able to accomplish that.  I put the light dead ahead and then I fell off the wind to port. So now I had him on my starboard bow. Now I tried to bring the ship up into him on my starboard hand and I couldn't do it. He just kept moving away from me. The drift rates for a ship and a person floating in the water are entirely different in these high winds. I couldn't get the ship alongside him. As hard as I tried to will the ship to starboard, she wouldn't go. She just would not go into the wind. At that point I didn't know what I was going to do. I didn't know how I was gonna get to them - but I knew I had to get to them. The only other thing that I knew to do was to start backing and filling. I had to get the bow to starboard, so I ordered the engine half astern and I got some stern way on the ship. I can't even begin to describe to you what the motion on the vessel was like, the propeller is coming completely out of the water - the ship is cavitating, the entire after section of the ship - the flat bottom is slamming down into the ocean as were trying to go astern. It was horrible, but we had to do it because there they were on our starboard hand. I had to get over there. I had the engine hard left half astern then hard right half ahead and I tried to bring her around. Well it worked. The backing and filling maneuver worked. I had to repeat it at least one more, maybe two more times. Ever so slowly she started to come into the wind and right some more and right some more. He came closer and closer and closer. As he got close enough - we still couldn't see them but we could hear them.
That's when we heard the kid- along with his father and I knew I had them both. Boy I'll tell you that was a moment.  I was thinking 'oh thank God.' I finally brought her around into the wind - we were closing on them. You have to understand, I can't get too much headway on the ship- I've got people in the water. I have to keep the ship basically dead in the water but I have to keep it moving in 30-foot seas and 50 knot winds.

It was something else.

MarEx: It took all your seamanship and all your master abilities to pull this one off.

I'll tell you; to this day I don't know how I did it. You just have to do it. She came over and she came over some more and she finally was truly moving to starboard. Of course at this point I have to check the movement of the vessel because we're going half ahead - which on this vessel is a 9 knot bell. I can't be bringing the speed up - I have to check the motion, I have to run the engine astern again, I have to thrust full to port now. Because were closing on them and I'm going to suck them right to ship. I had to stop the motion of the vessel ahead, I had to stop the motion going to starboard because now he was drawing alongside, and as fate would have it I stopped the ship and there they were five feet off the hull and they grabbed the line. We walked them aft and I think it was 0324 at this time, on the 8th. First, the Dad Brad put his son on the ladder and as soon as he did he got sucked away as the sea heaved up another 20 or 25 feet, but the kid was on the ladder and he climbed up and the Bosun was right there and he grabbed him on the gangway. Then Bradley was able to grab the Jacobs ladder and he climbed up a few steps and we grabbed him and we had them both onboard.

MarEx: Amazing story, what an amazing story.  Tell me about your crew - they performed at a high level?

Unbelievable, everybody was. You've got to understand, the wind was so bad you had to hold onto the rail to keep from blowing down the deck, the rain was coming down side ways - torrentially. The absolute worst conditions you could ever imagine. Of course everybody is dripping wet, soaked, blown all apart. The whole gang - from what Bradley said he saw as he was coming up the ladder- was in tears.  It was a pretty emotional moment. Because, well you know you don't want to say it, you don't want to think it - I'll tell you this could have easily gone the other way - we could have lost them forever, and we had all of them onboard without a scratch.

We have pictures of them; they look like they just came off a cruise to Caribbean.

MarEx: How long did it take to get to Honolulu from there?

We were back up to speed right after we got Bradley and West onboard. At 0330 we set course for Honolulu and it was 22 hours later that we had the pilot onboard - Thursday morning. The total delay with the diversion and the rescue was 5 hours and 24 minutes.

MarEx: Was this your first rescue at sea?

My first rescue as Master? Yes. We did what we had to do and I'm sure anyone in the same situation would have done the same. I have a great team on here- I can't say enough. The Chief Mate, Steven Itson, did an outstanding job. I've been working with him on this ship for about 7 years. The Chief Engineer John Williams, and the First Assistant, Robert Curran all did an outstanding job - the whole crew did an outstanding job.

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


Read Part 1 of this heroic tale here. 

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