Crew aboard the Matson cargo ship Mahimahi learned just after lunch on July 6 that a sailboat transiting from San Francisco to Hawaii was in trouble.
The trimaran Third Try failed to make a 24-hour report, and the Coast Guard requested the cargo ship divert toward its last known position almost 190 nautical miles away. By dawn the next morning, all three sailors from Third Try were safe aboard the ship.
“It was perfectly uneventful,” Mahimahi Capt. Tim Kalke said of the rescue in a phone interview from his ship docked in Honolulu.
But the successful rescue was no foregone conclusion, particularly in that desolate corner of the Pacific Ocean some 825 miles northeast of Oahu.
Third Try left San Francisco on June 25 hoping for a nonstop circumnavigation with two men and one woman. Four or five days later, it encountered 10-foot seas and 25-knot winds that damaged the 50-foot vessel, causing it to slowly break apart. A friend on shore reported the possible distress at 0800 on July 6 when the crew failed to check in.
The Coast Guard contacted Mahimahi through the Automated Mutual-Assistance Vessel Rescue (AMVER) system. Mahimahi crew learned about the situation at 1340 on July 6 as it steamed toward Hawaii loaded with containers.
The initial Coast Guard report was short on detail, Kalke recalled. The Matson crew didn’t know the condition of the vessel, whether anyone on board was hurt, and if they were, how badly. There were also concerns about possible COVID-19 exposure.
“Between 1340 and 1900, we were running through every worst-case scenario,” Kalke said. “Were there people in the water? Were there kids on board? Do they all have COVID? Did someone have a heart attack? How are they going to get on board?”
In the meantime, Third Try’s owner recognized the vessel’s situation was untenable. He activated the EPIRB, which gave authorities a clear idea of where it was. A Coast Guard HC-130 from Air Station Barbers Point located the vessel and made contact with its crew.
The Coast Guard gave Mahimahi an update at 1900. They let the crew know the three people on the sailboat were in good physical condition, and that Third Try could make 7 knots. That eased a lot of Kalke’s concerns.
“Once we found out we were dealing with a boat that could make way, that there were three healthy people, that they were able to come along the port side in perfect weather, everyone breathed easier,” he said.
Mahimahi crew planned to recover the sailors from a pilot ladder connecting to the side port on the port side. The rescue plan called for using the ship to make a lee allowing the sailboat to come alongside. From there, the sailors could climb up the pilot ladder onto the ship.
As Mahimahi closed on Third Try’s position, crews aboard the two vessels confirmed the plan over radio. The rescue happened exactly according to plan. By 0337, all three sailors had climbed aboard and Third Try was left adrift. Given its compromised condition, Kalke said towing it hundreds of miles at 21 knots seemed imprudent. The three sailors disembarked a couple of days later when Mahimahi reached Honolulu Harbor.
“One of our greatest challenges out here in the Pacific is distance,” Lt. Diane French, a Joint Rescue Coordination Center (JRCC) command duty officer, said in a statement. “First responders are often days away and we regularly rely on merchant vessel crews like Mahimahi’s to assist with search and rescue cases. We are always grateful for their help.”
Kalke, a three-year Matson captain with 22 years at sea, offered high praise for his crew during the “all hands” event. “Every one of the crew was involved and carried out their duties professionally,” he said. Quartermaster Allan “Gonzo” Gonzalez, 69, earned special recognition.
“Gonzo did an excellent job on the helm maneuvering the ship during the rescue,” Kalke said, adding that the crewman has been sailing U.S. merchant ships since 1969, the same year he was born.
Third Try’s owner contacted Kalke a few weeks after the rescue. The sailboat arrived on Oahu, albeit a little later than planned. A fisherman found it drifting 30 miles north of Oahu’s rugged North Shore and towed it to the island on July 6. As of late August, it was moored three blocks from Kalke’s house.