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Family has joyful reunion after ordeal at sea

Michael Tsai
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Megan and Brad James embraced when he arrived to pick her up at the Honolulu airport.

En route from Calgary to Honolulu for a hastily but happily planned family reunion, Megan James gazed out the tiny coach window at the seemingly tranquil Pacific ocean below and tried to imagine the pummeling 25-foot waves and furious 55-knot winds that nearly claimed the lives of her husband, eldest son and brother-in-law just two days earlier.

“I don’t really comprehend what they went through and how crazy it must have been,” James said, shortly after arriving at Honolulu Airport late Thursday night. “I looked out at the water and I couldn’t imagine them floating out there.”

Indeed, the James’ bizarre, wonderful high-seas survival story has spread faster than the family’s capacity to process it. Within hours of learning her family was safe aboard the 900-foot container ship Horizon Reliance, Megan James said she was inundated with interview requests from Canadian media, an endless stream of inquiry from reporters eager to know the details of how her husband Bradley, 9-year-old son West and brother-in-law Mitchell — on a month-long voyage from Mexico to Hawaii — suddenly found themselves stranded aboard a disabled sailboat hundreds of miles from shore; how the trio escaped harm when waves smashed their boat against the Reliance, which had been dispatched to rescue them; and how Mitchell was saved relatively quickly but how Bradley and West fought exhaustion and hypothermia for two hours while the crew of the Reliance worked feverishly to reclaim them from the roiling waters.

“During a stop-over in Vancouver, there was this giant TV monitor and I saw pictures of my family flashing across it,” Megan James said. “It was a little surreal.”

James’ reunion with her family was delayed by Bradley James’ frustrated attempts to navigate the airport’s maze of roadways. But when the jeep finally pulled over to the curb outside Baggage Claim Area E, the couple shared a long-overdue hug and kiss. (Alas, West, exhausted from a long day of interviews, had fallen asleep in the front passenger seat.)

Like his wife, Bradley James said he hadn’t had time (or sleep) sufficient to begin to truly reflect on what had transpired over the previous 48 hours. After arriving in Honolulu early Thursday morning, James spent the day accommodating local and international media, polishing his account of events over dozens of mind-numbingly identical interviews.

“It hasn’t really sunk in yet,” he said. “Driving over here to the airport, (West) and I finally had a chance to talk about what happened a little bit and he said to me, ‘We were swimming in the deep end, weren’t we?’”

James said the 38-foot sailboat, owned by Mitchell James, had been experiencing problems almost as soon as it left Puerto Vallarta on January 11, requiring numerous improvised fixes along the way. Still, the sailors were able to make it to within 280 miles of Hilo before experiencing truly significant problems. Shifting winds initially kept them from advancing further toward the islands. Later, the seas turned violent, leading to a torn sail and, as conditions worsened, a broken mast.

“Megan was the first one I called when we started getting into trouble,” James said. “I did what no husband should ever do to his wife. I said, ‘Honey, we’re 300 miles from Hilo and I think we may have a problem. Can you get me the number for the Coast Guard in Hilo?”

Megan James said she was concerned, but assured by her husband’s seeming confidence that everything was going to be fine.

“I figured he’d call in a couple of days and tell me what happened,” she said. “It didn’t really occur to me what might be involved. When you see these things on TV, the Coast Guard shows up and everything is fine. In reality, there is a lot that can happen.”

Megan James said she understood the seriousness of what occurred during the rescue when her husband called shortly after being brought aboard the Reliance.

“Brad is built to deal with whatever situation he might find himself in — that’s him,” she said. “He’s not very emotional, but when I talked to him he got choked up telling me what happened.”

To be sure, while Bradley James said the impact of the incident on his own life can only be understood over time, he said his gratitude to the captain and crew of the Reliance is perfectly crystalized.

“They kept their lights shining on us to make we didn’t drift away, but there weren’t sure that West was still with me,” he said. “Everybody was working together to save us and the crew told me later that the captain maneuvered that ship in ways it wasn’t designed to maneuver. I was the last one in the water and when they lifted me aboard, we all lost it. I don’t remember my mother holding me as a baby but I remember the feeling I had being on that ship,” he said. “I felt safe there.

“What they were able to do to save us was phenomenal and I’m very grateful,” he said.

Despite the ordeal, James said he is eager to help his brother secure another boat and head out on another high-seas adventure.

And Megan James said she wouldn’t have it any other way.

“I’m totally cool with it,” she said. “I don’t think that you should stop doing something just because something bad happens.”

The couple said West, the oldest of five James children, is doing remarkably well and is enjoying the media attention. Bradley James said that once home they will seek counseling to make sure he is able to deal with the trauma in a healthy way. In the meantime, however, the family finds itself in the enviable predicament of being together in Hawaii with nothing to do but hit the beach and enjoy each other’s company. Bradley James’ parents are due to arrive from Australia next week.

“We’re just going to hang out for a while,” Megan James said.

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