In His Everlasting Arms

A wind-tossed sailor is feared lost by everyone but his fervently prayerful wife.

- Posted on Mar 13, 2014

Side-by-side illustrations of a man adrift and a woman waving from shore

On Sunday, August 17, 2008, sailor Jim Nelson was missing in the waters of Lake Michigan’s Green Bay for more than 12 hours, while his wife, Mary, suffered through an unbearable and sleepless night. Jim helps us share the story of their harrowing ordeal:

Jim: “Honey, let’s go out on the water,” I said to Mary that morning. It was a sunny day with a light breeze, perfect for sailing.

I grew up along the lake, watching all those beautiful boats cruise by, so when we had the opportunity to buy a 23-foot O’Day sailboat I jumped at it. The two of us loved spending hours on boardElizabeth, relaxing and enjoying the gentle rocking of the waves.

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Mary had too many things to do that day, so she turned Jim down. He asked if she minded if he went alone. Though she said okay, she was uneasy. It was the same feeling she got whenever Jim was driving his truck long haul, spending nights alone on the dark highway.

“I’ll be fine,” he always told her. “As long as I keep praying for you,” she’d reply. She had a prayer she always said, one that had never failed her. “Be home for dinner,” she reminded him as he went out the door.

Jim: I drove to the slip and cast off. Pulled on my yellow life vest, eased the boat out of the harbor and set sail. There were other sailboats in sight—motorboats too—but none near enough to disturb me.

The water sparkled. Time to catch some rays. No point sunbathing in a life jacket, so I took it off. I might have thought twice but everything was so calm.

Around two, I started up the engine, locked the rudder in place, and set my course for home. I took a step toward my deck chair. Out of nowhere a gust of wind kicked up.

From behind I heard the mainsail boom swing toward me. I forgot to tie it down....I turned. Too late! The boom slammed me across the gut and knocked me overboard.

I splashed into the water just a few feet from the boat. I stretched out my hand. The boat was moving. I tried to swim after it but I couldn’t keep up. “Help!” I yelled. “Help me!” I waved frantically. The other boats were too far away to spot me, and soon Elizabeth disappeared toward shore.

Back home, Mary had dinner on the table, the food growing cold. She sensed that something was wrong. She called Jim’s mom, a few friends. No one had heard from him. Finally she called the Coast Guard.

“My husband hasn’t returned home,” she said, describing the boat. They told her they’d found it—motoring toward shore without a captain.

Jim: Dusk fell. I was alone, more than seven miles from shore. I swam, treaded water, floated, swam some more. The current kept pushing me back. Keep moving, Jim, don’t let the cold get to you.

I heard the sound of an engine, and saw a Coast Guard helicopter. But it was traveling away from me! The last light drained from the sky. How would anyone find me now?

For a moment my toes hit bottom. A sandbar! I stood, keeping my head just above water, thankful for the breather. But then the current grew stronger. I was swept again into the churning waves, the moon reflecting on the water the only light I could see.

Mary spread the word that Jim was missing. Friends and family flocked to their house. They waited with her to hear from the Coast Guard. Silently she said her prayer. She knew Jim was a good swimmer.

The water was in the upper sixties. If he could just survive long enough to be rescued. If he could just stay afloat. Around 10:00 the Coast Guard called. “It’s too dark to continue the search, ma’am,” the officer told her. They might as well have issued Jim’s death certificate,Mary thought.

She repeated her prayer, the words coming from the depths of her soul. And again, that same prayer, the same words. Minutes later, another call came through. A Michigan Coast Guard helicopter crew with night-vision goggles had volunteered to aid in the search.

Mary’s heartbeat quickened. And she went back to waiting for her prayer to be answered.

Jim: In the distance, I saw a tiny green light. A buoy. I lunged toward it, desperate now, but it seemed only to slip further away. I started to sink. God, please, don’t you hear me? I pleaded. I know Mary is praying for me. If you don’t want to listen to me, listen to her!

My legs felt like cement. My arms were jelly. Chills vibrated through my body. A swell crashed over my head and dragged me under. I choked. This was it. I gave in to my fate. But somehow, I shot back up, coughed, sucked in a sweet breath, glimpsed a glint of moonlight.

I sank again—and again I popped to the surface. Startled, I felt something around my waist, something holding me up in the water. Was I hallucinating? No, hallucinations couldn’t keep you afloat. This feeling, these...hands—I didn’t know what else to call it—gripped me tight. Held me. It almost hurt.

I don’t know how much time passed, but eventually, a low, droning sound got my attention. Another helicopter! I raised my arms, shouted, and started to sink again.

No one wanted to tell Mary the truth, but in the early morning light, her hands tired from being clutched in prayer, she knew what her friends were thinking. After 12 hours, the Coast Guard wouldn’t be searching for a tired swimmer; they’d be looking for a body.

In that moment of utter despair, the phone rang. The sound seemed to freeze the world in place. Mary picked up, expecting to hear that her husband was dead. Instead, the officer told her Jim was being rushed to the hospital. They’d found him, alive.

Jim: I was in bed, an IV in my arm, groggy, dazed, listening to the doctor explain how I was suffering from dehydration and hypothermia, when Mary came in. Seeing her worried face, I nearly cried.

She clutched my hand. “I was praying, Jim,” she told me. “As hard as I’ve ever prayed. One prayer: Lord, keep Jim safe in your everlasting arms.”

Everlasting arms. I looked up at her. “Every time I didn’t think I was going to last, every time I sank down beneath the waves, I felt something lift me up,” I said. I touched my sides. They were still tender around my waist, where I’d felt that strong grip, those arms that held me tight and wouldn’t let me go.


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