The waves rocked the sailboat like a toy in a bathtub, splashing water over the sides and onto the deck.
Water had already poured into the engine room and galley of the Irvmiren, and a distress signal had gone out. Five adults and a 6-year-old boy in life vests were in trouble, sinking on a cloudy night 25 miles off the coast of Cape May.
"There was no moon. There was no star in the sky. It was pitch black," said the Coast Guard's William Jacob Harker, 30, who responded after 10:45 p.m. Wednesday on a boat with four other Coast Guard members. A helicopter joined in the search.
About 2:30 a.m., after failed attempts to pump water out of the sinking boat, the six people were transferred one at a time to the rescue vessel without injury. Authorities did not identify them.
The 68-foot sailboat had left Fort Lauderdale, Fla., on Friday and was headed to Nantucket, Mass.
Harker said the rescue crew spotted the sailboat when they were about a half-mile away. On cloudless nights with calm conditions, visibility can be up to three miles, he said.
With the helicopter lighting the way, the crew drifted toward the troubled boat. At one point, a Coast Guard member was lowered from the helicopter onto the sailboat, where he tried to pump out water. But the boat had taken on too much already.
Rough conditions further hindered the operation, pulling the rescue boat away from the sailboat as it tried to get near.
"It was hard getting alongside it," Harker said. "We had a tough time."
Once the boats were secured, the Coast Guard member already aboard the sailboat helped transfer the passengers, which Harker said took about 30 minutes.
The crew then returned to the Cape May station.
Harker said the boat was still adrift Thursday.