The sailors were in good condition as they made it on to the container ship, Coast Guard Chief Warrant Officer Gene Maestas said.
The three people got into trouble while sailing the 42-foot Walkabout from California to Hawaii, Maestas said. The Coast Guard said it received their message for help Sunday morning after the boat became disabled and took on water.
The sailboat was stranded in 30-foot seas and winds of 92 to 115 mph, according to the agency. One of its hatches blew away, and on-board pumps couldn't keep up with the flooding. Gusts also carried the vessel's life raft overboard.
The Matson Inc. container ship was on its way to deliver goods to Honolulu and was the closest vessel that could help. It reached the Walkabout around 10 p.m. Sunday.
"It was so far away we could not send a helicopter that could make the journey," Petty Officer Melissa McKenzie said about why the Coast Guard had to coordinate the rescue with the container ship.
But the giant vessel needed better conditions before it could save the stranded sailors.
Operations Specialist Andrew Lincoln said crews had to wait until dawn to start the evacuation because performing the rescue before first light, in the midst of rough weather, was too dangerous.
"The seas were really bad, and it's kind of windy so they didn't want to do it in the dark," he said.
Conditions eventually calmed, and crew members positioned the container ship so it wouldn't knock over the sailboat. They then tied a rope around a life raft and sent it to the sailboat, McKenzie said.
The sailors got in the raft, and the container ship "reeled them in, essentially," McKenzie said. The sailors then climbed a ladder up to the ship. No other information was immediately available about the sailors, their voyage or caused their vessel to take on water.
Julio had passed through the area but left behind gusting winds and sea swells.
The Manukai embarked on its journey to Honolulu before Tropical Storm Iselle and Hurricane Julio became threats, Matson spokesman Jeff Hull said. It was diverted a bit because of Julio.
The ship and the sailors will continue on to Honolulu, Hull said. They are expected to arrive early Tuesday. The ship is equipped with medical equipment if the sailors need it.