Waves of Grace
A gripping testimony of salvation in the midst of a hurricane.
I sat just inches above the churning water contemplating the power of the approaching storm. Very few people before me had ever seen a hurricane from this vantage point, and even fewer had survived. I was frightened and even more so when I realized that I had never answered life’s most pivotal question, “Where did I stand with God?”
Thirty-eight days earlier, in June 2004, I had set out from St. John’s, Newfoundland with a four-man crew, aiming to become the fastest rowing boat to row the North Atlantic Ocean and make landfall in Great Britain. It was risky. Five other men had drowned attempting this, but I relished the danger. The journey had been brutal. The day we embarked, 1,400 icebergs surrounded us, and that night the wind chill factor reached minus ten. We rowed across the Grand Banks, a notorious stretch of water made famous by the Hollywood movie, “The Perfect Storm,” on a course that would take us close to where the Titanic went down.
"It was terrifying."
The crew included a former SAS man, Pete Bray; Dr. John Wills, our navigator, journalist, Jonathan Gornall, of the “London Times” and myself. Our boat was called “Pink Lady” for our sponsors, the famed apple producers. We rowed in pairs, rotating in shifts of two hours on, two off, a pace that drained us physically and mentally.
We had fought hard for every mile of the 1,800 we had rowed; and though every muscle screamed and every bone ached, we were 13 days up on the record. We were just 300 miles to the finishing line in Cornwall. The record looked like it could be ours. We were in high spirits, until the bad news was broken to us by satellite phone. Our weather router in North America had told us that Hurricane Alex was expected to reach us at about seven o’clock that night.
As I sat strapped to the deck, waiting for the storm to set in, I started truly thinking about my life for the first time. I knew that my chances of survival were slim. From the beginning of my life, adventure had been my heart’s joy. I had pushed myself to the limit through many harrowing experiences, always living by the motto: “One life? Live it!” Since the Falklands war, where at 18 years old I had lost close friends on the battlefield and had my first brush with death, I had been faithful to this creed.
But now in the face of Alex, other things seemed more important: my beautiful family and what would happen to me in eternity. I finally had to face what all the adventure had kept me from facing, the hole in my heart, a space that remained empty that no amount of adventure could fill.
I had seen the change in my family when they had become Christians two years earlier. Every Sunday since then, they would come home from church content and filled with God’s presence. Becoming Christians had given them a deep experience of the Heavenly Father’s love in their hearts, which only highlighted the emptiness in mine.
I realized how self-driven I had become and thought, ‘Perhaps I should go on an Alpha course and find out more about God,’ that is, if I got back safely.
As I sat and watched the awesome beauty of the ocean explode as an amazing tribute to God’s glory, there was a feeling of impending doom. The sea was getting more and more violent, in just 2 hours the waves were now twice the height of a double-decker bus dropping directly onto Pink Lady. Riding each crest was like being on top of a mountain looking down the vertical face of a black wall of water...down... into the valley below. The sheer force of each breaker sounded like an earthquake, rumbling and then exploding with a loud bang. I decided it was too dangerous to sit on the deck any longer.
"For five hours, my life was suspended over eternity."
Then at 1:30 in the morning of the 8th of August, Alex hit us with everything it had. The boat capsized followed by the sound of an explosion. A huge freak wave tore our tiny boat in half. Within seconds, freezing water began pouring into the cabin. We tried desperately to right the boat but it was useless. We had one choice and that was to take a deep breath and dive into the blackness of the cold, brooding sea.
We had to scream to communicate. I got everyone together and then made plans to get the life raft and the ‘grab bag’ containing the emergency equipment and the satellite phone, which was still inside one of the flooded cabins. Pete Bray, our SAS survivor specialist, in an act of unselfish bravery, dived into that dark hole. It seemed like forever before he surfaced. He held onto the grab bag and thrust the life raft into my hand. Just as I let go of my line to grab hold of the raft, a wave washed me away from the boat at high speed. I had no line, and I dared not let go of the raft; and there was no way I could swim back against the wind.
My thoughts went back to the night I left home when I had kissed my daughter Victoria, good night and goodbye. She asked me to say a prayer asking for Jesus into my life if I thought I was going to die. The moment had come. Yet I could not bring myself to say the prayer because I did not know who God really was! Suddenly there was a little lull, and I was able to swim back to the boat. That was the closest I had ever come to dying, and I felt very alone.
All our training and experience told us never to use a life raft. Many people at sea have died in life rafts; but we had no choice. Our boat was ripped in half. We didn’t know how long we would have to wait, it might be 12 hours. The life raft was our only option.
We hoisted ourselves into the life raft as I watched the shadowy outline of Pink Lady duck out of sight behind a mountain of water. The sea had claimed her. What had all our preparation, all our training been worth?
"The wind and water had won."
Pink Lady had been my most precious possession, after my family. I had invested six years of my life in her, and she was worth about £100,000. I just said good-bye, zipped up the flap of the life raft up, turned to the lads and said, “Whatever happens now doesn’t matter — we are alive!”
Five hours later, at 7 in the morning the drone of a low-speed Nimrod plane rose above the sound of the sea as it circled to coordinate our rescue by the merchant ship, Scandinavian Reefer. A rescue in these seas was not going to be easy. The Reefer drew gradually closer until we were close enough to receive a rescue line that they fired at us. It was hurling us toward the ship, a wall of steel that was rocking so violently sometimes we were at one moment level with her deck and next moment dipped close to her barnacle-covered bottom. Of all the dangers we had faced, our rescue could be the killer.
When I finally made it to the deck, I looked back to see the wind and waves clawing uselessly at the side of the boat, like a big cat that had lost its prey. My legs couldn’t support me, so I crawled across the deck to the sailors who had labored to help us and shook their hands in gratitude. I had survived.
KEEPING MY WORD
When I saw my family again for the first time, I couldn’t find words worthy of the happiness I felt. On the car journey home, I spoke of promise I had made to God to find out more about Him. They all started cheering.
True to my word, a few weeks later, I embarked on an Alpha course in somebody’s home. There were about 20 people there, and we spent a long time talking about religion and its values. The questions on my heart needed answers, and Alpha was my guide in exploring them. I had always taken the rational view of life, really. I felt that I couldn’t take any leap of faith in terms of opening my heart to a God I still did not know.
Near the end of the course I was still undecided. However, when John and Carol Arnott came to Bath, England, in October 2004, I resolved to go and see if I could gain anything from this so-called “Toronto Blessing.”
"Now everyone is surprised by the change in me—especially my colleagues at work."
When Carol asked, “Is there anyone here who would like to give their life to the Lord?” Jesus finally captured my heart. As the words left her mouth, I felt like a magnet began to pull me to the front as though God were reeling me in. I was the only one who went forward out of about 1,000 people. Carol led me in a prayer of salvation. Afterward, I lay down on the floor of the church and for two hours couldn’t move, under the influence of the Holy Spirit. It was an incredible experience.
As a new Christian, I focus on soaking in His presence and building a relationship with God. I have been growing in faith everyday. Prayer has become a big part of my life and after finishing 40 days of fasting, I took part in a 3 week Leaders School of Ministry at Catch The Fire (previously Toronto Airport Christian Fellowship).
There were 50 people attending from all around the world. It was a time of great spiritual growth for me. The school has changed my life: I felt that I was in a safe place of fellowship, learning to communicate with God, opening up my heart to deal with life’s hurts. I now better understand the Father’s heart and His unlimited love for us.
"My life has just become the exciting adventure I had always sought and this is only the beginning."
During that time, I had many encounters with Jesus, but one I found particularly convicting happened as I was prophesying over a fellow Leaders School attendee. I saw a vision of Jesus clothing him in a magnificent robe, like the coat of Joseph. He was encouraged by this, but even more so when he next spoke to his wife. She told him that she had had the same vision, as she was journaling the same day. This has given me confidence that God is speaking His Word into my life.
Thanks to the experience of the leaders and speakers at that school and their teaching, my journey with God has become natural and progressive, I try to follow the simple message: fix your eyes on Jesus and focus on the Father’s love while walking in God’s love and giving it away. I have decided that I’m going to let God make the choices about my future.
I have always been a happy person, but God has shown me that there is more to life than adrenalin rushes and overcoming physical obstacles. In fact, my life has just become the exciting adventure I had always sought and this is only the beginning.