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Stranded sailors describe 'perfect storm,' rescue

By Gregg K. Kakesako

POSTED:
LAST UPDATED: 11:32 a.m. HST, Aug 12, 2014


Three grateful California sailors, whose sailboat was ravaged by a "perfect storm" of high winds and seas from Hurricane Julio, arrived safely in Honolulu before dawn Tuesday morning, after being rescued by a Matson container ship.

Ben Neely, captain of the Walkabout sailboat, his son Lee, 23, and Lee's friend Mike Vanway, who turns 24 Wednesday, described a harrowing ordeal as they stood on the solid ground of Pier 52 at Honolulu Harbor.

"It kind of look like the 'Perfect Storm,'" said Ben Neely, referring to the 2000 movie. He said they were "probably close to the eye with winds up to 90 miles per hour.

"As the storm was passing, it kept sucking us in with it," Neely, 61, said.

He expressed gratitude to the container ship Manukai's crew, who diverted 200 miles to rescue the three men Monday, and to Matson and the U.S. Coast Guard, which coordinated the rescue.

He said he was trying to wait-out Hurricane Julio but with each storm track update he received, the storm kept moving "further and further east."

The three men, all from Stockton, Calif., were stranded in the sailboat north of Hawaii for about 24 hours after a huge wave swamped the boat and broke the hatch, causing the boat start filling with water. 

"I am not a real nervous person until the galley was half-filled with water," said Neely, who estimated that the wave was about 50 feet and the boat was leaning about 90 degrees after being hit.

He said at one point he was slammed into the ship's galley, hitting his chest and losing his breath. One of the other two men, fearing that Neely was more seriously injured, radioed a distress call that the captain may be suffering a heart attack. The elder Neely said the confusion was understandable considering the chaos.

The Manukai, with captain John Blomingdale leading a crew of 22, rescued them Monday morning.

"I am thrilled it went as well as it did," Bloomingdale said.

Ben Neely said they tried to board the Manukai Sunday night but conditions were too rough so they waited it out until the next morning. He said other than some bumps and bruises, the Walkabout's crew was fine.

The Manukai docked at Sand Island Pier 52 after 4 a.m. Tuesday. The Walkabout sailors were debriefed by the Coast Guard and had a quick medical exam before speaking with reporters.

The men got into trouble while sailing the 42-foot Walkabout from California to Hawaii, Coast Guard Chief Warrant Officer Gene Maestas said. The Coast Guard said it received their message for help Sunday morning after the boat became disabled and started taking on water about 400 miles northeast of Oahu.

The sailboat was stranded in 30-foot seas and winds of 92 to 115 mph from Hurricane Julio, according to the agency. The rough conditions broke the vessel's mast, tossed its life raft overboard and blew off one of its hatches, worsening the flooding, said Petty Officer 2nd Class Tara Molle.

"Those are pretty much some of the worst conditions you could be in," Molle said. "The fact that they were rescued and there were no injuries reported -- that's amazing."

The Coast Guard coordinated the rescue with the Matson container ship, which started out in Long Beach, Calif., and was on its way to Honolulu to deliver goods.

The sailboat was "so far away we could not send a helicopter that could make the journey," Petty Officer Melissa McKenzie said. The container ship was the closest vessel that could help.

While the container ship was en route, a Coast Guard HC-130 Hercules plane from Oahu unsuccessfully tried to drop supplies to the sailboat, including water pumps and life rafts.

In normal conditions, the plane's crew can drop a sandwich bag full of sand from 75 feet in the air with pinpoint accuracy, but dropping the supplies in hurricane conditions was futile, said Chris Canales, the plane's navigator.

When the Coast Guard crew made radio contact with the sailboat's captain, he reported having high blood pressure and chest pain from trying to bail water out of the boat, said avionics electrician technician Graham Gentry.

"There was some relief, but still he was on edge, obviously, considering the circumstances," Gentry said. "You could hear stuff clanging around. You could almost hear them bailing water out."

The Manukai, which was nearing Honolulu, had to retrace part of its route more than 200 miles to reach the distressed Walkabout.

The container ship reached the Walkabout around 10 p.m. Sunday, but the 661-foot container ship needed better conditions before it could save the stranded sailors.

Operations specialist Andrew Lincoln said crews had to wait until dawn to start the evacuation because performing the rescue before first light, in the midst of rough weather, was too dangerous.

"The seas were really bad, and it's kind of windy so they didn't want to do it in the dark," he said.

Conditions eventually improved to 20 mph winds with 13-foot seas, allowing crew members to position the massive container ship so it wouldn't knock over the sailboat. They then tied a rope around a life raft and sent it to the sailboat, McKenzie said.

The sailors got in the raft, and the container ship "reeled them in, essentially," McKenzie said. The sailors then climbed a 30-foot ladder from the fiberglass deck of the Walkabout to the deck of Manukai.

The Manukai and its crew are scheduled to leave for Guam Wednesday.

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The Associated Press contributed to this report.






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