Three men who sailed into the eye of Hurricane Julio had to watch three rescue attempts turn away as their sinking boat was battered for 24 hours by towering waves and hurricane force winds.
Waves that rose 30 feet high had dismasted the sailboat and ripped away one of its hatches, allowing wave after wave to fill the boat. Winds that reached speeds of 115 mph tore away the vessel's life raft. The boat wallowed in the troughs as waves slammed into it.
“It was very intense,” Ben Nealy told ABC News affiliate KITV in Honolulu just hours after being rescued. “We were probably pretty close to the eye at the time we got stowed in.”
Nealy, 61, was en route from Stockton, California, to Honolulu along with his son Lee Nealy, 22, and Mike Vanway, 22, when their 42-foot sailboat the Walkabout began to take on water, according to the U.S. Coast Guard. The three men were 414 miles northeast of Oahu.
The distress call from the sailors came in at 7:15 a.m. on Sunday.
“We were being drawn along the storm,” Nealy told KITV. “The storm was passing, and it was also sucking us with it, so we weren’t getting out of it nearly as quick as I had hoped...We finally just ended up in front of it.”
The Joint Rescue Coordination Center in Honolulu sent an airplane from the National Hurricane Center to locate and make contact with the stranded sailors. At 10:49 a.m., the air crew could hear the Mayday calls from the boat.
With Hurricane Julio in full force, winds roared at 92 to 115 mph and 30-foot waves had taken on a toll on the sailboat. One of the hatches had been ripped away and the boat was rapidly flooding. The life-raft had also been blown overboard.
“You’ve got white caps that are blown vertical,” Neely told KITV. “The white water will break, and instead of having it fall into the water, it goes horizontal.”
“Visibility is very limited and it looks like snow on the water,” Neely said. “It kind of looks like the perfect storm.”
An aircrew launched at 11:10 a.m. to deliver a life raft and pumping equipment, but the fierce winds blew it off into the sea. The aircrew was forced to return to base due to a shortage of fuel.
Hours later, at 5:15 p.m., another aircrew attempted to deliver the survival supplies, but severe conditions once again thwarted any attempts at assisting the three stranded men.
“We were dealing with an 800 foot ceiling,” Lt. Mike Koeher, the Aircraft Commander of the second rescue plane, told ABC News. “The winds were between 30 and 40 knots it was getting pretty dark.”
“By the time we got on scene, the sailboat captain, [Ben Nealy], said they had about 300 gallons of sea water on board,” said Kohler.
With the second rescue aircraft still flying over the stranded vessel, the Coast Guard directed a container ship named the Manukai that was in the area to heard towards Nealy's boat. The ship found the floundering sailboat at 10 p.m.
"We arrived on scene, the situation was dire. It was far from ideal conditions," 1st Capt. John Bloomingdale told ABC News affiliate KITV.
Attempts to bring the men aboard were considered to dangerous to try in the dark and still stormy seas.
“They tried to get us aboard, but it was too dangerous. Visibility was really down,” Ben Nealy told KITV. “So, we called it off at about midnight and they sat there all night long using their fuel, and their time, and their equipment to wait until they could take us aboard in the morning."
Finally, at 7:52 a.m. on Monday, a 661-foot rescue ship pulled alongside the battered sailboat, reeling it in and dropping a ladder to the three men, who had finally been saved.
The three men had been successfully rescued after more than 24 hours stranded at sea, with no serious injuries reported.