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Elder experiences miracle on the ocean near Panama

Jul 19, 2016 09:37PM

By Dennis McGraw

It was like any other Sunday, except this Sunday, I was on my own. I was running Sacrament Meeting alone this week — well, without my normal companion, anyway. One of the locals agreed to be my companion for a few days while my regular companion was off-island attending some branch meetings. Sacrament went smoothly: I taught several lessons in both Spanish and Kuna and we broke for the day. I wandered to the other end of the chapel, which had also served as my home for the past eight months.

My companion called and said they were going to meet me at the shore line to head to the next branch meeting on an adjoining island - “Oh, and grab the life jackets, it’s a little windy out today,” he said. I quickly changed into shorts and a T-shirt - I hated traveling between islands in my Sunday clothes. I carefully folded them up and stuffed them into a garbage bag to keep dry on the boat ride.

When I arrived at the beach, my companion and five other missionaries, including a local who was the branch president, awaited me in a boat on the outer edge of the break. The waves were pretty big, so they did not want to drive into the beach to pick me up. They motioned to me to row out in a small fishing boa. My temp companion and I paddled out to the larger boat, which had a motor and was about 15 feet long and wide enough to seat three across (or two comfortably). It had a semi-hard top to keep the sun and rain off the travelers and was used mostly for private taxi service from island to island.

I waved goodbye to my temp companion as he paddled back to my home island. We didn’t get far before we started taking on water. I bailed water out with a make-shift one-gallon milk jug as a bucket. Soon the water was above my ankles. I passed the bucket to a forward elder and began bailing water with my hands. Everyone was bailing with their hands. I looked back at the driver just as a wave hit us from behind and engulfed the small outboard motor, flooding the boat. I looked at the branch president. Our eyes met, and we both had a look in them asking, “Is this really happening?”

As the water flooded up to my knees, I realized the boat was going down, and I quickly grabbed my garbage bag of clothes and bailed out the side. We all huddled together watching in horror as the boat upended and went straight down, leaving nothing behind except some floating debris and the gas tank. We prayed feverishly and vowed to be okay. We were quickly separated by two large crashing waves. Now in two groups, we were fending for ourselves. I glanced out to the outer channel, saw a large Colombian supply boat and realized we were too far off from the shipping channel and would not be seen by any passing boats. Boom! A wave pounded me. I desperately searched and found my companion, and we both knew it was time to head for land.

I could see the beach in the distance - maybe two miles out - and kicked with all my might toward it. Another wave and another pounded me, and my companion and I were separated by a large distance. The motion of the monstrous waves hitting and tossing me to and fro made me nauseous. I threw up again and again. Choking down sea water, I threw up yet again. The life jacket felt like a brick around my neck. It was water-logged and practically sinking, so I took it off and added it to my garbage bag of clothes that had enough air trapped inside to float. My legs were cramping at this point, and I lost sight of my companion. But every now and again at the crest of a wave, I could make out his figure before I was shoved down into the trough of the swell and saw nothing but massive swells and black seas.

Up ahead, I saw the reef of my island, the waves crashing against it like a head-on collision over and over. The violent spray and wash was eerie and devilish. There was a narrow slot about 20 feet across. “Could I make through?” I wondered. The waves were too big, the current too strong - I’d never get in place. I began back-stroking to jockey for position. I caught a glimpse of my companion; he was way out of position. He would never make to the slot. Suddenly, I saw a Colombian boat stopping to pick someone up, and the person was pulled in. I couldn’t see who it was. At the crest of a wave, I screamed and threw my arms in the air. They turned away from me. “Are you kidding? Why aren’t they picking me up?” I thought.

I had to get in position. Nobody was coming for me. I decided I’d swim all the way in. Four hours had passed and I was so sick. I would have been dry-heaving if it weren’t for the sea water I was chugging, and my legs were cramping so badly I wasn’t sure if they were even moving. For the first time, I begin to have serious doubts about whether or not I was going to make it.

Suddenly I heard a motor. I saw a local fisherman waving me on. They pulled me in just outside the reef. They turned to the beach - and I yelled, “MY COMPANION IS OUT THERE!”

“We can’t get him yet, the boat is riding too low,” they said.

I’m dropped on the beach 30 minutes from my pueblo. I fall to the ground, my legs and body so exhausted I cannot stand. I lay on the beach for 30 minutes waiting for my circulation to normalize. I crawl to a nearby fresh-water river and spend the next 45 minutes laying in the river, thanking Heavenly Father that I have lived through the experience and praying for the safety of my friends.

We would all come together later that night and realize for the first time that we were all okay.

Thank you, Panama, for the experiences, and thank you, natives of San Blas. I owe my life to you.

Que Dios les bendigan siempre.

An experience of Elder Brannon McGraw