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From left, Adam Kreek, Jordan Hanssen, Patrick Fleming, Markus Pukonen arriving safely to the United States Coast Guard base in San Juan, Puerto Rico.

For the four men whose ocean rowboat had capsized in the Atlantic, the massive cargo ship that appeared on the horizon was both comforting and unnerving.

While the crew knew that the hulking freighter was coming to rescue them from their life raft, they hadn't seen anything quite so large since launching the first-ever attempt to row unassisted from Africa to North America 73 days earlier.

"It's like a big block sitting on top of the water … and we're just, like, 'Oh my goodness, if we go anywhere near that bow or anywhere near any part of it, we could get sucked in or the raft could be popped.' It was really unnerving," said Markus Pukonen, a filmmaker from Tofino, B.C.

The appearance of the 250-metre MV Heijin, an automobile carrier, was the high point of a harrowing Saturday for Mr. Pukonen, Olympic gold medalist Adam Kreek of Victoria, author Jordan Hanssen and wilderness medic Pat Fleming, both from Seattle.

About 12 hours earlier, their 8.8-metre ocean rowboat, the OAR Northwest, had been swamped by a pair of waves and failed to right itself less than 900 nautical miles from their arrival port in Miami, ending their science-based transatlantic voyage.

Although they still hope to recover their boat, they had to cut it loose to be rescued, which was "a very challenging thing for us to do emotionally, because that had been our home for the past 2 1/2 months," Mr. Pukonen said.

The rowers used their hands to paddle their emergency life raft closer to the Heijin, which aimed straight at them, coming within two metres, Mr. Pukonen said. The Heijin's crew threw ropes their way, but missed as they floated by. A second attempt was successful, but a staircase proved too high for the rowers. Instead, they climbed up a rope ladder one by one.

On board, the mostly Filipino crew greeted the rowers with blankets, towels and corn soup. They contacted their families – including Mr. Kreek's wife, Rebecca Sterritt, who is seven months pregnant with the couple's second child – and sat down to their first table meal in 73 days: chicken curry, pasta alfredo and beer. In the 24 or so hours they spent on the ship, the rowers took hot showers and relaxed, watching The Hangover Part II.

Wearing orange jumpsuits given to them by the ship's crew, the men arrived in San Juan, Puerto Rico, around 9 p.m. on Sunday.

"We … looked like a bunch of dishevelled convicts," Mr. Pukonen said with a laugh. "A lot of people were looking the other way when they saw us. I think they were a bit afraid of us."

The rowers were greeted by family and friends and celebrated with pizza and beer at their hotel.

"It's wonderful to be on land safe and dry," Mr. Kreek said.

The ordeal began with a freak series of events around 6:20 a.m. (ET) Saturday when the crew was changing shifts, with Mr. Kreek and Mr. Fleming heading into the cabin to rest, leaving the hatch open. A wave hit the boat, driving the bow into the water. The buoyancy of the forward hull pushed the bow into the air when a second wave engulfed the boat's stern, flooding the cabin through the open door.

"Once that stern cabin fills with water, it's enough to prevent the boat from self-righting and it's enough to make it flip in the first place," said Mr. Pukonen, who happened to be on the above-board toilet at the time. "It happened so fast that there's nothing we could do. It was so fast."

Mr. Kreek pushed Mr. Fleming out the door and spotted an air bubble, taking a breath before swimming to the surface. Once the men retrieved their emergency life raft, they activated their personal locator beacons, which sent signals to the U.S. Coast Guard.

The crew made several attempts to right their rowboat, singing sea shanties as they yanked on lines tied to the vessel. After they realized they needed some rest, Mr. Pukonen made several unsuccessful dives into the cabin to try to recover their communication equipment, video footage and scientific data.

While they waited, a skua, a type of sea bird, hovered over them.

"I looked at the bird, an omen of good luck for seafarers for millennia, and I said, 'You know what, someone's looking out for us.' And it was at that point that it was, like, we're all going to make it," Mr. Kreek said. "We're here, we're together, we're safe, we're experienced and we're going to do this."

With little to pass the time, Mr. Pukonen found a miniature Bible among their supplies and had just begun reading a passage from Genesis when they heard what Mr. Kreek described as a "rumble in the sky" – a U.S. Coast Guard C-130 Hercules.

"As it showed up, Pat was there, he was screaming, he was trembling and he was like: 'We're gonna be okay!'" Mr. Kreek recalled.

The aircraft dropped supplies, including food and a VHF radio, which the four men used to learn the Heijin was on the way to pluck them to safety.

After some rest, the men hope to recover their boat and the scientific data and video footage they had to abandon. During the expedition, which was sponsored by the Canadian Wildlife Federation, the crew did conductivity and density tests on the upper layers of the ocean.

"It's not completely lost," said Mr. Pukonen, who had been planning a film about the voyage. "We do have an idea of where it is floating."

Editor's note: A previous version of this online article incorrectly stated that the MV Heijin is a Chinese carrier. In fact, the MV Heijin is a Panama flag ship managed by NYK Shipmanagement, a Japanese company.