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“Capsized!” Ensign, Mar. 2001, 30


As I looked out over the expanse of white-capped waves, I knew our lives were out of our hands. Only the Master of the seas could save us now.

When Frank, an elderly friend in our ward, invited me and my two young sons on a day-long fishing trip on his 19-foot boat, I jumped at the chance. I’d been itching to take seven-year-old Trevor and nine-year-old Darion on a fishing adventure for halibut and salmon, and this seemed like the perfect opportunity.

We left the boat dock in Kenai, Alaska, at 4:30 A.M. for a 100-mile trip across the pristine, frigid waters of Cook Inlet. The previous two days had been warm and beautiful, but the water of Cook Inlet remained just above freezing.

Around 8:45 A.M. the waters started to get a little rough, with four- to five-foot swells. We had covered about half the trip when the waves became even larger, so Frank and I decided to head west for shelter toward Chizick Island. We had gone west only 15 minutes when the engine suddenly sputtered and died. Seeing the oil light on, Frank filled the oil reservoir. The engine started but died again after 20 seconds. By now we were aware of the excessive water gathering on the deck of the boat. Frank tried the motor again, but now there was no response.

I knew then that we were in serious trouble. I gave Darion a bucket and told him to start bailing water. The boys were already wearing life preservers; I put mine on and threw another to Frank. Both boys started to cry for their mother. Frank called a mayday on the radio several times before he got a response. He said our location was five miles south of Chizick Island.

“Five miles to the east of the island!” I yelled, but it was too late. I saw Frank grab Trevor’s hand as the boat flipped over. In an instant, everything was cold and dark.

I looked up through turquoise water and saw the silhouette of the boat as heavy gear entangled in my life jacket pulled me downward. As I continued to sink, the pressure in my ears was painful and I became desperate for air. Somehow I managed to pull myself free and swim to the surface.

I was only 20 feet from the boat, but it took me two minutes to swim back against the current. I found Darion clinging to a trailing rope from the boat, screaming for me and Trevor as the waves pounded him. Frank had managed to climb the railing on the bow of the boat to the surface, but he had been hit on the head when the boat flipped and had lost hold of Trevor. I felt a horrid sinking feeling when he looked at me and said, “Trevor’s not up yet.”

Desperate to find my son, I swam over to the hull and yelled for him, hoping he had come up on the other side. There was no answer.

I was reaching beneath the surface for the boat’s railing, trying to pull myself under the boat to look for Trevor, when I felt a small hand against mine. I pulled my son’s small body deeper to clear the railing, then pulled him up to the surface. I expected to see him lifeless, but to my amazement his eyes looked into mine and he didn’t even gasp for air. I felt an overwhelming feeling of thankfulness; I knew Trevor had been protected. He’d been sucked into the cabin as the boat capsized, then pulled the doors open and swam out. Unable to pull himself deep enough to clear the railing, he’d been trapped against the deck until I freed him.

I told Trevor to hold onto my life preserver and not let go. I tried to hang on to the hull, but larger waves kept washing us away from the boat. Fearing we’d be lost at sea, I desperately struggled to get back to the boat each time a wave swept us away. I knew I could not keep this up for long.

I felt myself beginning to suffer from hypothermia. The boys were shivering uncontrollably. Frank suggested we put them up on the hull. He helped me pull the boys up. I realized I was losing muscle coordination when it took me four attempts to get my foot on the railing to pull myself up. The boys lay down on their stomachs and I lay on top of them, trying to keep them warm. Every third or fourth wave would splash over us, nearly knocking us off.

This was the first chance we’d had to speak and rest. We prayed and asked Father in Heaven for help. As I looked out over the ocean and saw the endless expanse of white-capped waves and gray skies, I knew our lives were out of our hands. Only the Master of the seas could save us now; we could only wait.

Soon we heard the sound of an airplane coming from the west. Filled with hope, I rose to wave. But the searchers did not see us and passed by. I felt some comfort knowing they were looking for us, but the rescuers would be looking in the wrong place since we had given the wrong location during our mayday call.

I continued to pray in my heart, but the hull was slowly getting lower in the water. My sons had stopped crying and shivering now and were lying limply against the boat. I lifted Trevor’s face. His lips were blue, his eyes glassy, and his skin colorless. He said he wanted to go to sleep. He seemed to be dying. Darion was in only slightly better condition. I saw that Frank’s lips were also turning blue. I, too, had stopped shivering and felt completely numb. I hugged my boys close, savoring my last moments with them. I pictured my wife and tried through my thoughts to send her a message that I loved her.

The next little while was all a blur, but somehow I slowly became conscious of a small black speck on the horizon. The speck continued to grow larger, and within minutes I saw a ship near our boat launch a small inflatable raft. Soon there were two men next to the hull helping us into the raft. Once again I felt an overwhelming feeling of thankfulness; the Lord had saved our lives.

The ship’s crew pulled us on board and placed us in warm beds while they treated us for hypothermia. Within two hours we were all nearly recovered.

Later, I spoke with the captain of the vessel in the pilot room. He informed me that quite a number of boats had responded to the mayday call, but everyone had gone south of the island to look for us. He said he was also heading south when he felt something tell him to head east. He even felt impressed to go to certain coordinates.

I am grateful for a Heavenly Father who hears our prayers. I am thankful for a God who inspires through a still, small voice and for a sea captain who listened. And I am grateful for the lives of my children and for every day I have to spend with them and my wife.

  • Michael R. Johnson is a member of the Kenai Ward, Soldotna Alaska Stake.

Illustrated by Sam Lawlor