"Please God, help me!" I wept in the darkness, gripping the wheel tighter as the waves broke above me. Even in Vanuatu, it can be cold in a storm, and my foul-weather gear did not protect me completely against the salt water that smashed across the bows and into the cockpit. I had been hand-steering for hours and was exhausted.
My husband, Bob, and I lived aboard a sailboat, in our first year as residents of Vanuatu, and were still adjusting to life at sea. It had been a huge leap from owning a Hobie 16 to a 12-metre catamaran. We were at Port Sandwich on Malakula, working our way south for a commitment in Port Vila, when the warnings first sounded.
"Securit�, Securit�, Securit�! A strong wind warning is current for the Vanuatu group." Port Vila Radio continued to forecast bad weather for a whole week, while we looked out every day on untroubled blue seas and brilliant sunshine.
"Let's go!" Bob said, finally. A gentle breeze filled the sails that Thursday morning. Around sunset after a perfect day, a pod of pilot whales passed us, splashing their way slowly north. And then the wind died completely, so we turned on the anchor light and slept, relying on the GPS alarm to warn us if we drifted too far. During Friday, a southerly wind began to rise. We sailed west, planning to tack when we gained enough latitude to be able to make it to Port Vila. I suggested to Bob at sunset that I take first watch while he got some sleep and he could relieve me later on. Hours passed and we fought into higher and higher seas. The wind howled around the rigging as one squall after another passed and I fervently wished to be somewhere else! Bob surfaced. "This is the cold front that has been forecast," he announced. "We're in the middle of it!" He decided we should tack but after the tack we were actually being blown backward. Catamarans do not sail particularly well to windward. So we began to motor, our progress painfully slow. And then, suddenly, the port engine stopped. With only one engine in windy conditions, a catamaran cannot maintain its course, and swings further and further around in one direction. Bob went below and discovered that there was an air leak into the saltwater strainer on the affected engine. Every time the boat was thrust upward and came down with a bang, water was sucked out of the strainer, which then filled with air and the engine overheated.
Bob had to watch the strainer constantly. Every time we went over a wave, he had to quickly loosen the cap and allow the strainer to fill with water before the engine stalled. Several times he had to call to me to stop the engine, while we bobbed around at the mercy of the waves. Now the wind had increased to 40 knots and the waves were breaking at more than four metres. The autopilot was unable to handle the conditions, so I switched the controls to manual and wrestled with the wheel. Bob had his hands full below and I felt very alone and afraid.
I prayed constantly. A small circle of stars appeared ahead and the clouds continued to part around them for almost an hour. Then another squall struck and I was dismayed when my guiding stars disappeared. Had God abandoned me? My prayers became desperate as I begged Him to give me a sign of His presence.
It seems that when we are the most helpless, God can do more for us and all of a sudden someone took the wheel from me. There was no more need to strain against the elements; we remained perfectly on course.
Our boat was guided by another as we passed through the storms and through it all, an amazing sense of peace surrounded me. After 70 sleepless hours, I thanked my Father for His care as we anchored at five o'clock Sunday morning, .
Seven years later, I cannot say that our life at sea has been troublefree but when things don't go well, I think back to that time in the storm and am reassured that God cares. In every situation, I am aware that our time is really His and that He is in control.
Some went off in ships. . . . They, too, observed the Lord's power in action, his impressive works on the deepest seas. Judy MacDonnell and her husband, Bob, spend about six months each year in Vanuatu, assisting the volunteer medical work of Pacific Yacht Ministries and live in Murrumba Downs, Queensland.