“God is our refuge and strength, an ever-present help in trouble.” (Psalm 46:1)
The January 2 message in the Reflecting God devotional booklet was entitled “The Lord Is Our Refuge.” Little did Church of the Nazarene General Superintendent Emerita Nina G. Gunter know when she wrote that devotional message long ago what would transpire on the denomination’s Asia-Pacific Region in the 48 hours leading up to January 2.
At 11:30 a.m. local time on Saturday, December 31, a 23-foot fiberglass boat with a 40-horsepower outboard motor departed in rough seas from Aitape, a small town on the north coast of Papua New Guinea. At least seven people were onboard the boat, including four Nazarene young men – Knox Kiap, George Pungal, and two others – bound for the Third Wave Nazarene Youth International conference in Bangkok, Thailand.
They never arrived.
The boat was supposed to follow the coastline from Aitape in a north westerly direction and arrive in the town of Vanimo near the Indonesia border by 4 or 5 p.m. Saturday evening.
At 6:32 p.m. on Sunday evening, January 1, the Asia-Pacific regional office in Singapore received word that the group had not checked in at Vanimo and was now more than 24 hours overdue. Fears were growing that they were lost at sea, a serious concern considering the rough seas and that most small boats are not equipped with life jackets.
A prayer request was immediately sent to the Nazarene Missions International Prayer Mobilization Line. The request was posted and reposted multiple times on Facebook and printed off by pastors and used in church services on New Year’s Day.
The circles of prayer rapidly expanded like ripples until hundreds of people around the world were praying for the safety of the boat’s occupants.
At first light on Monday morning, January 2, the PNG Defense Force launched a search and rescue operation originating in the towns of Vanimo and Wewak.
At 9:46 a.m. local time, the electronic message was sent out: “THEY HAVE JUST BEEN FOUND – ALL ALIVE!!”
Subsequent reports from East Sepik District Superintendent Yambe Sika in PNG revealed a string of miracles that allowed the boat’s driver and passengers to survive.
At some point after departing Aitape the boat lost power and was pushed by prevailing conditions sideways into oncoming waves, swamping the vessel.
While fiberglass boats of this size are well-built, they are not designed for travel in the open ocean.
“If this model of boat is swamped, it will barely float at – or just under – the surface depending on the weight of the engine and other attachments,” said Harmon Schmelzenbach, a field strategy coordinator on the region and veteran traveler. “Many people across the South Pacific and Melanesia use this boat for open ocean travel between islands. And many die.”
All passengers in the boat bound for Indonesia were not only able to hold on to the partially submerged boat, but waves carried them 1-2 miles to a portion of the coast where there were no reefs and they could safely come ashore.
Since it was an isolated area, it took the group 36 hours to get to where they could make contact with civilization. They found a road and caught a ride to Vanimo. There, Kiap, who suffered a leg injury but could walk with a cane, was able to make a call to Sika. The district superintendent received the call while he was giving final instructions to the pilot of the “Good Samaritan” float plane he arranged to help in the search.
He and other leaders were overcome with emotion to hear Kiap’s voice and to learn that everyone was safe.
Due to lost passports and luggage, the group was not able to continue on to the Third Wave gathering in Bangkok. They returned home with the strong assurance that God truly is their “refuge and strength, an ever-present help in trouble.”
“There is much crying and praising going on in PNG right at this moment!” Asia-Pacific Regional Director Verne Ward wrote on Monday. “Thank you for praying!”
—Church of the Nazarene Asia-Pacific Region