The Kindness of Strangers

By Pamela Varma Brown

Stephen J. Brown at the helm of his 38-foot sailboat Southbound.

On the 13th anniversary of the disappearance of my friend and brother-in-law, Stephen J. Brown, I think back with gratitude for the kindness of the captain and crew of the container ship Horizon Reliance, who found Steve’s sailboat drifting, unmanned, 800 miles off the coast of California.

Two months earlier, Steve had completed his second solo sail around the world on his 38-foot Northwest Southbound. He spent a month in San Diego, repainting Southbound’s hull and replacing her sails, then set sail for Morro Bay, approximately halfway up the California coast. It was a two-day trip he could have made in his sleep. He never arrived.

Three weeks later, the Horizon Reliance, a 900-foot-long, fully-laden cargo ship, was rapidly making its way from Oakland, Calif. to Honolulu, Hawaii when its chief officer spotted a sailboat with a torn mainsail and no running lights on, a dangerous combination that far out to sea.

The chief officer, Klaus “Nick” Niem, asked himself rhetorically, “Why would you put to sea with a hole in your sail?” He knew something was wrong.

In the first of several compassionate acts, Reliance’s captain, Rick Domnitz, contacted the U.S. Coast Guard and gave them Southbound’s position, in case someone had reported the boat missing, as one of Steve’s brothers had done.

Over the years, Domnitz and his crew had checked on seemingly-abandoned boats out at sea, only to be thanked with the “international salute” from the boats’ occupants. Thankfully, they made the effort again this time.

After several hours, the Coast Guard finally responded, saying that it needed Reliance to turn around and confirm the identity of the boat. Amazingly, within 20 minutes, the Reliance crew executed an almost-180-degree turn — not an easy feat for a ship that size and weight — and retraced their ocean path. Somewhat miraculously, they found Southbound again.

Klaus “Nick” Niem climbing down Horizon Reliance’s pilot’s ladder to board Southbound.

In 15-foot seas, Domnitz maneuvered Reliance around Southbound a couple of times to create a circle of calm in the water, eventually bringing his ship so close to the smaller boat, that Niem was able to board it by climbing down the pilot’s ladder.

What Niem found aboard Southbound raised more questions than answers: Steve was not on board and there were no signs of foul play.

Niem retrieved Steve’s log book, in which Steve had written daily. His last entry was dated July 8, nearly 2½ weeks earlier.

After 10 minutes, Niem left Southbound, wanting to get back aboard Reliance before the ocean became rough again. Both he and Domnitz agreed that it would not be possible for their huge ship to tow Southbound without destroying the smaller boat.

So they left it where they found it, adrift at sea.

When Reliance anchored in Honolulu two days later, my then-husband, Tom, (one of Steve’s younger brothers), and I flew from Kauai, where we lived, to meet with Domnitz and Niem. They graciously took time from their schedule, while preparing to sail for Guam, then Hong Kong.

Niem gave us Steve’s log book and a CD containing about 60 photos that had been taken while Niem was aboard Southbound. They took us to the bridge of their ship, showed us on their sea charts the spot in the ocean where they had found Southbound, and relayed the series of events that had taken place since originally spotting the smaller boat. They were respectful, both of our grief, and also for the expert sailor they recognized Steve had been.

Before we left Reliance, we gave the two men a handful of our favorite contemporary Hawaiian music CDs, music that Steve had enjoyed listening to during the several years he spent in Hawaii. Captain Domnitz seemed almost embarrassed to accept the CDS, and actually tried to give them back, until we explained that we already had our own copies of them at home.

When we thanked Domnitz and Niem for their time and compassion, Domnitz replied, “Any sailor would do the same. Any human being would have done it.”

In this world of suicide bombers, and people who often feel so busy they can’t take a moment even to smile, no, not any human being would have done it. We are forever grateful.

There is more to be told of this story, but how, I don’t know yet. What I do know is that every time I tell it — or even think about it — fascinating synchronicities happen.

On Labor Day in 2003, just hours after I augmented this story on my computer, but months before I made that addition public, Nick Niem telephoned to say “Hello,” and to let us know that Reliance was in back Honolulu again.

Nine years later, as I was posting this story on my original website (but had not sent notification to anyone that the story was online), I thought about these two men and their kindness. I wondered if they still enjoyed the Hawaiian music we gave them.

Three hours later, I received the following email from Nick Niem. It had been at least five years since we had been in touch.


Mele Kalikimaka and a Happy New Year.

This is Nick, the former Chief Mate of the Reliance who found the Southbound back in 2003. I would like your permission to have your article reprinted in the Council of American Master Mariners magazine “Sidelights.” Our magazine is read worldwide. I am still listening to the beautiful Hawaiian music you gave Rick and me. Mahalo.

The following month, I decided to read this story during a writer’s open mic night at a coffee house on Kauai. An hour before leaving home for the coffee house, the following comment popped up in the comment section under this story on my website:

“I found your site while researching the rescue of two men and a boy from a disabled sailboat in heavy seas this week near Hawaii. The rescuing vessel was the container ship Horizon Reliance.”

Today, July 8, on the 13th anniversary of Steve’s final entry in his log book, I am posting this story on my new website, and wondering how the rest of the story will unfold.

Pamela Varma Brown is a writer, editor and publisher. Read more of her stories at .

Southbound aglow off the coast of the Hawaiian Island of Niihau in 2001. (Photo by Tom Brown)