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Container ship crew rescues 3 sailors stranded in giant waves, high winds off Hawaii coast

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HONOLULU, Hawaii - A container ship crew on Monday rescued three men who were stranded in a sailboat off the Hawaiian islands for about 24 hours as Hurricane Julio battered their vessel with giant waves and high winds that ripped off one of its hatches.

The sailors made it onto the container ship at about 8 a.m. and were in good condition, Coast Guard Chief Warrant Officer Gene Maestas said.

The men got into trouble while sailing the 42-foot Walkabout from California to Hawaii, 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, 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 co-ordinated the rescue with the Matson Inc. container ship, which started out in Long Beach, California, 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 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 up to the ship. No other information was immediately available about the sailors, their voyage or what caused their vessel to take on water.

Julio had passed through the area but left behind gusting winds and sea swells.

The Manukai embarked on its journey to Honolulu before Tropical Storm Iselle and Hurricane Julio became threats, Matson spokesman Jeff Hull said. It was diverted a bit because of Julio.

The ship and the sailors will continue on to Honolulu, Hull said. They are expected to arrive early Tuesday. The ship has medical equipment if the sailors need it.

The Coast Guard issued a warning Monday afternoon notifying mariners that the Walkabout remained adrift.

Container ships often come to the rescue of sailors in distress.

In 2012, a container ship crew rescued a 9-year-old Canadian boy, his father and his uncle after they encountered rough weather while sailing from Mexico to Hawaii. Last year, a container ship crew rescued an Australian mariner after his vessel's autopilot failed while sailing from California to Christmas Island in Kiribati. He had manually navigated the boat for four weeks and was too fatigued to continue.

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