It’s not every day that a guided-missile destroyer performs what’s traditionally a Coast Guard rescue mission, but 26 passengers plucked from a rickety sailboat probably are glad the James E. Williams came to help.

On March 8, the destroyer was underway off the coast of Florida, returning to Norfolk from five days in Mobile to participate in the Alabama city’s Navy Week and Mardi Gras celebrations.

That’s when officials say the officer of the deck heard over the warship’s bridge-to-bridge radio about a vessel in distress about 42 nautical miles southeast of Long Key, which was about 30 nautical miles from the destroyer’s position.

"The OOD called me with his intentions to render assistance to the vessel in distress,” said Cmdr. Joe Fals, the destroyer’s commanding officer, in a press release. "I concurred with his plan and we set out to reach the vessel.”

The Coast Guard’s Miami Operations Center told Navy Times that the vessel was described simply as a “rustic sailboat” and that it was carrying migrants.

In a prepared statement sent late Tuesday afternoon to Navy Times, Coast Guard officials added that another “Good Samaritan” vessel reported the dilapidated boat dead in the water to watchstanders at Sector Key West, which is how the call ended up being relayed to the destroyer.

The Mobile Azalea Trail Maids watch as the guided-missile destroyer James E. Williams arrives in port to participate in Mobile Navy Week (and Mardi Gras) on March 1. (Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Caledon Rabbipal/Navy)
The Mobile Azalea Trail Maids watch as the guided-missile destroyer James E. Williams arrives in port to participate in Mobile Navy Week (and Mardi Gras) on March 1. (Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Caledon Rabbipal/Navy)

On the scene, the destroyer deployed a crew in a rigid-hulled inflatable boat to reach the sailboat.

They discovered several passengers who appeared to be ill so they provided bottled water and stayed with the vessel until the Coast Guard fast response cutter Charles Sexton could arrive from Key West.

After helping to transfer the sailboat’s passengers to the cutter, the destroyer’s sailors sank the vessel so it wouldn’t become a hazard to navigation and the Charles Sexton ferried the migrants to port.

“From start to finish, the James E. Williams crew demonstrated top-tier professionalism,” said Fals in the release. “They exercised mission command, quickly developing and communicating a solid plan which they smoothly executed. As a result, the boat crew performed extremely well. I couldn’t be prouder of them.”

Coast Guard officials later determined that the migrants were from Cuba and their journey was unlawful.

“Illegal migrant ventures on unsafe and ill-equipped vessels are not only against the law, but incredibly dangerous,” said Capt. Jason Ryan, chief of enforcement for the Coast Guard’s Seventh District in Miami, in a statement emailed to Navy Times.

“It is fortunate that the vessel did not capsize or end in tragedy, as we have seen all to recently in the Florida straits, and we are grateful for the assistance by the Good Samaritan and the U.S. Navy in this case.”