How a Boat Named 'Amen' Saved Their Lives

Two teens prayed for safety while nearly drowning at sea. Then a boat miraculously appeared.  

Posted in , Mar 3, 2020

Photo courtesy Eric Wagner

Thursday, April 18, 2019.

It was Senior Skip Day at Christ’s Church Academy in Jacksonville, Florida. A big deal for 17-year-old friends Heather Brown and Tyler Smith. They had been looking forward to this high school milestone all year. Along with six other seniors, they decided to spend the day at popular Vilano Beach, near St. Augustine. Spurred on by brilliant sunshine and temperatures in the eighties, the teens had planned a full day of swimming, sunbathing and beach volleyball. There was a High Hazard flag—a red flag warning beachgoers of “high surf and/or strong currents”—hoisted on the beach’s parking lot flagpole as the teens arrived, but they rushed past it.

TYLER: We drove to the beach in my buddy’s truck, pulling straight onto the sand. We saw the red flag but didn’t think much of it. We knew what it meant but, to be honest, felt pretty invincible. A warm breeze was blowing as we unloaded our folding chairs, sports equipment and grill. The beach seemed deserted. Wow, how lucky! I thought. We have the beach almost to ourselves. I saw no more than five people out there.

From our spot on the shore, we could see a lighthouse. It stood on an island across from the beach. The waters of the inlet between the beach and the lighthouse looked calm. Heather and I and two other friends decided to swim to it. Out in the water, however, we realized the inlet ran much faster and deeper than we’d thought. Our friends turned back. “Do you still want to go?” Heather asked.

The two of us were the strongest swimmers in the group. Turning back would make me look like a wimp. I hesitated just a minute before resuming my stroke. “Let’s go!” I said.

ERIC: That warm day in April, a few friends and I were cruising up the Atlantic coast in my secondhand, 53-foot Hatteras motor yacht. The day before, we’d left Delray Beach, Florida, for Brick, New Jersey. That’s where I live most of the year. The marina in Delray Beach, where I usually keep the boat, was under construction, so I had to bring the boat home with me—even though April is less than ideal for cruising up the East Coast. I had a few friends join me for the trip north.

Engine trouble had delayed our initial departure by a day and a half. Then high winds and rough seas kept us inland, slowing our pace and adding days of travel.

As we continued north, I checked the conditions again. They hadn’t improved. But I felt an inexplicable tug to head to the open ocean. Maybe we’d be able to make up for a little lost time. Two of my friends, both experienced sailors, advised against it. Normally I would’ve listened. That day I didn’t.

TYLER: Something was wrong. No matter which way Heather and I swam, the current overpowered us, pulling us farther and farther away from shore. We never reached the lighthouse. Pretty soon, it disappeared from view entirely. The beach looked like a thin strip of sand. Heather became eerily calm. “Tyler, what’s our plan?” she asked.

I had gotten us into this mess. I had to get us out. Scanning the horizon, I spotted some breaker rocks marked with a red buoy. “See that buoy?” I said, jerking my head toward it. “Let’s swim over there and hang onto that while we wait for help to come.”

ERIC: Out on the open ocean, the wind had changed. It was no longer hitting us dead-on. We were finally cruising at a nice clip!

I wasn’t sure how long our reprieve would last, so I decided to take the boat only two miles off shore before heading north. That way, we could turn quickly into the next inlet if the wind changed back. Normally, we’d go farther out, toward the Gulf Stream, to take advantage of the current, but that day I felt that it was better to be safe than sorry.

TYLER: The buoy came and went. The water ripped us right past it. I’d held it together when I lost sight of the lighthouse. Then the beach. But when the buoy disappeared from view, I started to lose hope. Heather and I were in dire trouble.

My legs ached. They were starting to cramp up. The waves crashed over us, filling our noses with water and making us sputter and choke. It wouldn’t be much longer until I couldn’t swim anymore. Desperate, Heather and I linked arms so that we wouldn’t get separated. We didn’t try to talk. It was all we could do just to keep our heads above water.

Three times, I heard a small plane buzz overhead. “We’re down here!” I screamed, but it was no use. The pilots couldn’t hear us and didn’t notice us down in the water. The sound faded away. I heard no boats, only the wind in my ears. I thought about my mom. It’s just the two of us. She’d already bought graduation announcements. She’d be devastated if I never made it home.

I’m not someone who prays. I’d been raised in religion but fallen away from it. Between going to church and Christian school, I felt as if it had been forced on me. And I had my doubts. I didn’t think God really cared. But at this point, it was all I had left. “Come on, God,” I hollered.

“If you’re really out there, send something to save us!”

ERIC: We’d traveled for half an hour without seeing another boat. Small craft advisories kept the little boats docked, and all the big fishing vessels were farther offshore.

We skimmed along with the canvas unzipped and the windows rolled up. We were relaxing on the bridge, basking in the sunshine, talking and listening to music.

TYLER: Heather saw it first. A boat, out on the horizon. It was far away, but it was real. We knew this was our last chance. Seized with muscle cramps, I couldn’t do anything. But Heather got a burst of energy. “Stay right here!” she said and took off swimming. “Help!” she screamed.

“Help! Help!”

ERIC: We all heard it. Despite our engine rumbling, our music playing and everyone talking—a strange noise. Was it a bird? The wind? Seconds later, my friend yelled, “There are people out there!”

People? Two miles offshore? How could that be? I followed his gaze and spotted two tiny black dots—human heads—that kept disappearing in the waves. We’d whizzed right past them.

We wheeled the boat around and pulled life jackets and lines from the ship’s lockers to toss out to them.

As we got closer, we saw they were barely keeping their heads above the water. We killed the engines to pull them aboard. Without the engines to keep us steady, the boat turned sideways in the waves, rocking hard from left to right, breaking glass and shifting furniture around. Once the two teens were pulled safely aboard, we saw they were freezing—white-lipped and shivering violently. Two of us covered them with towels and blankets while the rest of us did our best to secure the furniture and throw towels over the broken glass. We contacted the Coast Guard and restarted the engines.

TYLER: The men had pulled Heather up the ladder first, then me. I was dead weight. My legs were useless. I had to be lifted into the boat. Heather and I were gasping for air. Wrapped in blankets, we just stared at each other in awe.

ERIC: With the boat smoothly cutting through the water once more, it hit me. All those delays I’d resented so much? They weren’t taking us off track. They were course corrections, bringing us closer to Heather and Tyler.

TYLER: Once I’d caught my breath, I told Eric our story. How Heather and I had nearly lost hope. My desperate plea to God. Eric started to get choked up. With his voice full of emotion, he told us the name of the craft now bringing us to safety. My prayer that day had been answered by a boat named Amen.

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