Successful businessman John Silverwood and his wife, Jean, both experienced sailors, decided the time was right to give their four children a taste of thrilling life on the high seas. Their year and a half-long journey aboard their 55-foot catamaran took them halfway around the world. They experienced times of excitement and adventure, times of boredom and monotony. And then one night, alone in a remote stretch of the South Pacific, they experienced what they never thought possible. Risen sat down with this couple to talk about that frightful night and the spiritual conversion that carried them through it all.
Interviewed exclusively for Risen Magazine in San Diego, California
Risen Magazine: How and when did your passions for sailing originate?
John: When I was 14 years old, I was invited to go sailing with a friend and his dad out on the Chesapeake Bay. I just loved everything about it. I sailed throughout my high school years. When I was a sophomore at Colgate, I left school and hitchhiked home to Philadelphia in February in a snow storm. My parents were pretty surprised to see me! I started a construction company and used the money to buy my first boat, which I sailed from Massachusetts down to the Caribbean and back. That took about a year and then I returned to Colgate the following January. After graduation, I built a trimaran kit-boat in my spare time and piloted it to the Bahamas. Soon I was getting jobs as a delivery captain. Later I moved to the Virgin Islands, working for a construction supply company there, and continued sailing.
Jean: I had been living and working in New York City. I was so tired of the freezing cold weather that, rather spontaneously, I decided to move to St. Croix in the Virgin Islands, thinking it would be only for that one winter season. But then I got a job on a 55-foot charter boat and it was so gorgeous down there that I ended up staying for about two years. We traveled around the Caribbean during the wintertime and up to Newport, Rhode Island for the summers. That’s how I learned to sail the bigger boats.
RM: So you met in the Virgin Islands?
Jean: No, we actually met in New York, through a mutual friend who was also my sailing partner. By that time, I was living in New York again and John had moved to San Diego. It was a long-distance courtship. We were married in 1986 at a yacht club in Long Island; the same location from which we began our voyage years later.
RM: Fast forward seventeen years to 2003. You were living in San Diego and John had a thriving construction business. Your four children, Ben, Amelia, Jack and Camille, were ages 14, 12, 7 and 3 respectively. How did the plan of sailing together for a year take shape?
John: It had always been my dream to take an extended sailing trip with my family. When I saw the handwriting on the wall for the dramatic downturn in the real estate industry, I decided to mothball my construction business.
Jean: It was a good, clean cut because Ben had graduated from junior high school, Amelia had graduated from elementary school, and it was a transition year for their schooling. The other two were young enough to adapt. I arranged for the kids to continue their studies while we were away through a homeschool program, supervised via email by teachers back in San Diego.
John: I knew that if we didn’t go then, it would never happen. Ben would get into the flow of high school, SAT’s, college prep, and we wouldn’t be able to go. Two years later, Amelia would be into the same thing. I remember saying to myself, “Even Bill Gates can’t buy back time to be with his kids.”
RM: Was there a greater purpose to the trip besides just having fun together?
John: Yes, it was to show our children God’s world in all its glory, a lasting exposure to the more eternal things in life. We wanted them to experience for themselves the contrast between the ephemeral nature of modern life and the everlasting things of the Creator and his creation. I knew I had to imprint that by allowing them to be involved in a setting with the elements. As I look back, the bulk of our fun was spent fishing, surfing, climbing mountains, or even just lying on the deck at night and gazing at the constellations— but always in connection with the elemental things.
RM: Tell me about your boat, the Emerald Jane.
John: It was a 55-foot catamaran with four separate bedrooms, which gave us plenty of room, and it carried a cloud of sail. The mast was 80 feet tall. So we could travel fairly swiftly and carry a lot of provisions.
Back when Jean and I were still making plans, I had arranged to test-sail a catamaran around San Diego Bay. Afterwards, we got into the car and Jean looked at me and said, “OK, I’ll go on this trip. But it’s got to be on a catamaran.” That was because catamarans sail flat. Then you have nettings and lifelines all around the boat so the possibility of a child falling overboard is almost nil.
Jean: We bought the Emerald Jane in Florida. John completely re-did it and subsequently sailed it up to New York. The kids and I flew to New York and met John there. That was in August of 2003. We planned to spend the summer moored in the Long Island Sound, making side trips around New England until October, then sail down to the Caribbean. It was a summer-to-summer plan, see how it went. If it didn’t work, we’d sell the boat and go back home.
“Mayday, mayday, mayday! This is the Emerald Jane. We have struck a reef and we are sinking. We need immediate assistance.”
RM: How did it morph into more?
Jean: We met a family, the Van Zwam’s, who were also heading south to the Caribbean, as we were. They had two kids, approximately Ben’s and Amelia’s ages. We became very close. We got as far as Bermuda with them, then we split up until the following April when we met again in Grenada. That’s when they talked us into going through the Panama Canal and sailing as far as Tahiti.
RM: What are some of your fondest memories of the trip?
John: I’ll never forget when we arrived in Bermuda the day before Thanksgiving after a very rough ocean passage.
Jean: To say it was rough is an extreme understatement! We were all incredibly seasick. Out of all the distances that we sailed, some 18,000 miles, that was our worst time.
John: Immediately upon arrival, the kids recovered and demanded that we launch our dingy so they could snorkel in the clear waters. All the locals thought we were nuts because they wouldn’t swim in November. The resilience and enthusiasm of the kids were rekindled, just like that.
Jean: Some of my favorite memories were when we were together with the Van Zwam’s in Grenada, then going through islands like Curacao and Aruba, and being in Panama. I loved Ecuador, where we explored Incan ruins and hiked the Andes. We did a lot of things as two families and I really enjoyed that.
RM: You continued sailing as far as Tahiti, and then you were kind of stuck because it was hurricane season. You had been sailing for about a year and a half. Then what?
Jean: We left the boat moored in Tahiti, returned to San Diego, and put the kids in school for the January-to-June semester. We returned to Tahiti on Father’s Day and we were going to sail to Fiji and on to Australia, where we would do a little touring before returning return home in time to get the kids into school again for the fall. Ben wasn’t happy with that plan. He did not want to go back onto the boat. The night before we were supposed to catch our flight to Tahiti, he took our car and just disappeared. He didn’t even have his driver’s license yet. It was so unlike him. He didn’t show up until an hour before we were supposed to leave to go to the airport. He was nearly 16 at the time and it was very emotional for him. He didn’t want to leave San Diego and all his friends.
RM: So the whole family returned to the Emerald Jean for the trip to Fiji and Australia. That next portion of your trip turned into the most horrific nightmare of your lives. What events led up to the shipwreck?
Jean: We were in a rush to get going because we had friends flying in to Fiji to meet us. But it’s unwise to try to be on a time schedule when you’re on a boat. Our brand new auto-pilot wasn’t calibrating correctly and we left Raiatea anyway, despite some really strong winds. The boom and the mast were shaking like crazy and I think it shook something loose. A day and a half later, we’d gone about 300 miles and it was getting on toward evening. We were eating dinner out on the cockpit when suddenly the pin that attaches the boom to the mast broke off. We let down the sails and were just floating. We tried unsuccessfully to get the huge boom back on the mast and decided to wait until the next morning because it was getting dark. We put dinner away and I went down to my stateroom. John came down, knowing I was worried. Even though we had a motor, there was no way we could get all the way to Fiji.
RM: You were about to hit a coral reef and you had no idea it was there. What makes such reefs so dangerous?
John: A coral reef is part of a coral wall that extends from the surface all the way to the bottom of the ocean. The water we were sailing on was more than a mile deep. We had a pretty strong wind, about 18 knots, coming from behind us. It was a dark night and the swells were running about 11 to 15 feet. Since the ocean is so deep there, its motion is unrestricted. From our perception sailing on the surface, it created a very gradual rising and falling, virtually imperceptible when you’re used to being at sea. However, when that same wave pattern hits the coral wall, it compresses. The result is that the waves get much higher and come more frequently.
RM: When you hit the submerged reef, how quickly did you realize what had happened and how did you respond?
Jean: We felt something first. Not like an abrupt stop but kind of like something had hit the boat.
John: After the initial contact, the next wave picked up the boat and carried it further onto the coral reef, which stagger-steps up and up, closer to the surface for a distance of maybe a couple hundred yards. Within seconds, we did come to an abrupt stop and that’s when Ben, who was at the helm, yelled, “Reef!” It was about 7:00 p.m.
Jean: I was in my bedroom and John had come down to talk to me about our schedule. The younger kids were also downstairs, watching a video. When we heard Ben’s shout, we came running up the stairs from the cabin, up to the cockpit. The initial gash happened at Amelia’s bedroom and water came shooting out into the kitchen and galley.
RM: How many different methods of emergency communication was the Emerald Jean equipped with?
Jean: We had a single side band radio, a VHF radio, a satellite phone, and an EPIRB, which stands for Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacon. It transmits a signal to a satellite, which then relays it back down to earth, and eventually it is picked up by the Coast Guard station in Alameda, California.
John: I came down in the radio room and Jean handed me the mike to the SSB because it’s the most powerful radio on the boat. I tuned it to an emergency frequency and then I began to broadcast, “Mayday, mayday, mayday! This is the Emerald Jane. We have struck a reef and we are sinking. We need immediate assistance.” Then I gave our position. I did that over and over again. I picked up French voices, but they weren’t answering me. Meanwhile, Jean was calling out on the satellite phone and Ben was transmitting on the VHS radio. All three of us on three different phones… and none of them worked. The last thing, like the Hail Mary, was to activate the EPIRB, which I did. Last, because on the EPIRB you don’t get a real-time response, you don’t get to talk to someone and receive acknowledgement. All you get is a blinking light.
Ben and I went up to the foredeck to inflate the life raft. Just as I pulled the tether, all the lights on the boat went out. The water level had flooded the battery banks, killing all power on the boat. No chance of radio contact after that.
RM: Your only hope was the EPIRB message?
John: Yes, and because satellite coverage is so poor in the South Pacific, the only part of the message that got through was the name of the boat. Fortunately, that was enough to bring up the information we had filed with the FCC. It became the responsibility of the Coast Guard station in Alameda to figure out our position. Their initial search box was 2.1 million square miles! Next, the French authorities in Tahiti had to be contacted. At first, no one answered the phone. An hour later, someone answered. But they couldn’t begin their search until sunrise.
RM: What they couldn’t have known was the extreme peril you were in, that every passing minute was precious. The ship was sinking, being literally smashed to bits by the waves that pummeled it against the coral reef. And then, something even more horrific happened.
Jean: The mast came crashing down. It grazed Ben’s head and knocked John to the deck, with his left leg pinned underneath. A metal fitting called a spreader had chopped through his skin like a cleaver. His lower leg was dangling by a tendon. He went into shock and was losing blood rapidly, even though we applied a tourniquet.
John: In addition to the excruciating pain and loss of blood, each time a wave washed over the deck, I was underwater and had to hold my breath until it receded again. Each wave shifted the mast and then dropped it down again, pulverizing my leg. This pattern continued for probably three and one-half hours.
RM: Were you tempted to just give up? Where did you find the strength to hold onto hope?
John: I went into deep shock but I never lost consciousness. I was shivering violently, my teeth were chattering to the point where they literally cracked. I was trying to sort through a million thoughts. What began to occupy my consciousness was an acceptance of the certainty that I was dying. I decided to confess all my sins aloud as I was lying on the deck. Then Ben came over on his knees and apologized for his disrespectful words and selfish actions during the trip. It occurred to me that he also believed I was dying. I asked Ben to bring the younger kids over. I said to them, “If I go to sleep, I don’t want you to worry about me. I won’t hurt anymore, I won’t be cold, so don’t worry.” Then I went into my own thoughts, entering a really dark place of despair, like a black abyss and I was endlessly falling. I thought about having brought my wife and children out to this god-forsaken reef. I was going die and then one by one they were going to die after me. It was by my own hand that this was happening and there was nothing I could do to stop it. What finally brought me out of it was the awareness of Ben’s voice, and the other kids too, yelling, “Big one coming!” meaning the next big wave, so that everyone could grab hold of something attached to the deck and not be swept into the sea. The strength of the family bond and their faith sank deep inside me and it rallied my soul. A voice spoke to me and I gave word to the voice and that word was “No!” I wish it was something more eloquent, but I knew I was saying no to the devil, to evil. I was divinely inspired to hang on. I was praying the whole time, out loud and I could hear the prayers of my wife and children.
Despair is a slap in the face of God. God did not forsake me! I had given up, but He still bore me up.
RM: Do you think it was significant, the fact that you spoke those words aloud?
John: Yes, God drove me to speak aloud all my prayers. It was difficult to do, because I was chattering and shivering so hard. I’ve been asked so many times why I’m still alive. I’ll tell you; it was by that chain of words that God bound me to life. In the wake of that, I became re-interested in saving my life.
RM: You mentioned Ben’s voice as the one that primarily broke through your despair. How did Ben help hold everything together?
John: Early on, Jean was very disoriented and for a while Ben was completely in control. He changed from a boy to a man, in a second.
Some of those waves were just towering, like 20 or 25 feet. At one point Jean decided to go below deck to get the medical kit. Ben just picked her up, saying, “Mom, I can’t let you go down there.” A moment later, a wave broke over the top of the boat and it broke so hard that it exploded all of our one-inch thick, hurricane-proof windows. The concussive impact would have killed Jean if she had been below deck. So you’ve got this typical teenager and then all of a sudden, his backbone is made out of steel, he won’t yield, and he’s protecting the whole family. Was God’s hand in that? Absolutely!
Jean: Ben put it really well when he got the Honor Medal for Boy Scouts: “I just went into autopilot.”
RM: After you got past your initial shock, could the same thing be said of you, Jean, that you just went into autopilot?
Jean: When you think about it, neither of us had the physical or mental strength to do what we did, to be a driving force, not giving up, to just keep going at it until it happens.
One of the two hulls of our boat broke off and went back, like a pair of scissors. The life raft had blown off the deck and was wedged in the water between the two hulls. Everything was flying around in the surf, moving constantly, yet I had to get into the water to pull it apart and release the life raft. It was crazy with all the sharp edges and heavy surf and I practically drowned trying. I had to stop and rest for a while, and then I went back at it a second time before I finally succeeded. There was definitely a supernatural force involved. Then too, when Ben and I were pushing and pulling on the mast to get it off John, we weren’t thinking, we were just doing it. If we had stopped to analyze the situation, we would have said, “There’s no way we can do this. It’s pointless to try.”
RM: From an earthly perspective, the situation appeared hopeless. The boat was sinking and John was still trapped under the mast. You needed help but no one was coming to the rescue. How did you finally get free, John?
John: Ben and Jean just kept trying. While Ben pushed the mast, Jean was on her back on the deck, trying to lift with her legs. A huge, black wave came and hit at precisely the right angle, allowing the mast to be lifted off me. That one wave was so critical that we later named our book Black Wave. Without that wave, it was certain death for me. I had lost seventy percent of my blood and my body was shutting down.
Jean: As the tide went out, the size of the waves diminished and more of the coral reef was exposed. Ben spotted a place of refuge and urged us to get off the boat. We were able to get John into the life raft and float it from place to place as the surge allowed. We got to a small lagoon that was protected from the waves.
RM: How long did the family have to wait there?
Jean: At dawn, the French Navy sent a plane from Papeete, Tahiti. Of course we jumped and waved when we saw it, and Ben set off a flare. They signaled that they had seen us and flew off. But they kept coming and going. That really confused us. We found out later that they had dropped a note in a bottle to the family that lived on the island of Manuae, eight miles away. The note said, “Follow us.” Hours later, seven Polynesian men arrived in a small motorboat. They were part of an extended family of 16, the sole residents of Manuae. None of them spoke English. They took us back to their island and made an urgent call on their radio to the rescue center in Papeete. They were extremely generous, offering us food, dry clothing, and even jewelry. Hours later, a helicopter came to transport us to Bora Bora, and from there a jet flew us to Tahiti. The French doctors and medical facilities there were very good. They operated on John to amputate his leg below the knee. It was about 5:30 p.m.—nearly 24 hours after the accident. The doctors later said John was literally within moments of dying; indeed, it was a miracle he was even alive.
When John was finally being cared for in the hospital, I felt a huge sense of elation, like nothing I had ever felt before. I thought initially it was because I was alive. I didn’t realize until years later that what I experienced was being filled with the Holy Spirit. And it was like that for the two weeks we were in Tahiti… a constant high. The doctors kept trying to give me valium and anti-depressants, but I didn’t need anything. I was truly filled with joy and happiness.
When we got back home to San Diego, John still needed hospitalization and in fact underwent another surgery to amputate his leg above the knee. I had responsibility for all four kids, plus running back and forth to the hospital, and there was no time to pray, no time to really just sit and talk to God. So that feeling slowly went away. It was even more overwhelming when at last John got out of the hospital and I had to take care of him too. Finally he got well enough to take care of himself and to some extent the kids too, and I knew I needed some way to be by myself and process everything. I learned meditation, but I changed it into a Christian meditation. Since then, I meditate every day, twice a day, for about 15 minutes. That has kept me grounded and has given me time to be with God. It gives me a lot of peace.
The doctors kept trying to give me valium and anti-depressants, but I didn’t need anything. I was truly filled with joy and happiness.
RM: One could almost explain away your elation as pure relief that the burden of life or death wasn’t all on you. But when you had been on the boat, and everything really was on your [and Ben’s] shoulders, you also felt the Holy Spirit. Tell me about that.
Jean: When John was pinned under the mast, I walked past my kids to the bow of the boat. I kept looking in the water, preparing to die. I was talking to God and justifying dying. Suddenly a voice told me not to give up. I began having a conversation with God. I said, “If you do get us out of this mess, I’m going to make it count, make my life worthwhile. When the kids are grown and off on their own, John and I are going to have a ministry on a boat.” Isn’t that weird? I said that, and all of a sudden things started to change. I had a peace I had never known before and the despair was gone. I knew with complete clarity what I had to do. I turned around and walked back to Ben, who was leaning over John. With blood dripping down his head, Ben looked at me and said, “Mom, I was really, really scared but now I have this overwhelming sense of peace like I do at Christmas.” I knew exactly what he meant because I felt the same way. It happened to both of us at the same time, we had just been in different places on the boat. The atmosphere had shifted.
RM: It’s so easy to be overwhelmed by a spirit of fear after a traumatic event such as this. Were you afraid to sail after the accident?
Jean: John has always gotten subscriptions to sailing magazines and he loves to read sailing books. While he was recuperating from the accident, he wasn’t reading and I got kind of worried. I told our sailing friends, the Van Zwam’s, and they invited John to join them. Like me, they were worried about John “getting back on the horse.”
John: My first trip was to fly to New Zealand and sail out of Auckland with the Van Zwam’s. That was in August of 2007, so two years after the shipwreck. It was an eight-day sail up to the Bay of Islands, in north New Zealand, and then to New Caledonia. I’ve been sailing ever since.
RM: And the kids? Do they still enjoy the water?
John: Yes, all of them. In fact, Amelia is currently working as a chef on a mega-yacht berthed Puerto Vallarta, in route to Alaska and back this summer. Jack attends college in northern California and loves surfing the big waves.
RM: After the accident in 2005, the media got a hold of your dramatic story of survival. The San Diego newspaper ran a lengthy account and you were featured in Reader’s Digest’s “Drama in Real Life.” Random House published your book, Black Wave, and there were several TV documentaries as well as interviews and appearances. All that lasted several years and then everything seemingly quieted down. What has happened since then, and why do you think it is being rekindled now?
Jean: There were some hard times for us as a family. For John, dealing with the prosthetic leg has been a constant battle. It’s not as easy as people think. It takes a lot of concentration and physical stamina even to walk and if your weight varies at all you have to get it re-fitted. Each time a significant alteration is made, he has to go through more physical rehab.
After the accident, the whole family was diagnosed with PTSD. John had the worst case and that affected Jack too because of their close relationship. The close bond unraveled and Jack started rebelling. It took a lot of Bible study to realize it was the enemy causing the trouble and I began to fully seek God’s help again. I stopped blaming John. John saw what I was doing and followed suit. He began to forgive himself. Then things just completely changed.
We were disappointed that the book didn’t go to paperback and we didn’t get the movie that was “supposed” to happen but it wasn’t the right time for a number of reasons. When we were writing the book, we were coached to appeal to mass audiences, and the supernatural aspects had to be watered down. That has changed now. I think God had a hand in the delay so that things would be the way He wanted. Interestingly, we have just started working with screenwriters and a producer for a feature film.
RM: Tell me about the new sailing outreach you’re starting, GodSwell.
Jean: God keeps throwing people in front of us and they all want to go sailing with John. John loves to be out on the water, sailing and just talking to people. It is what makes him truly happy. Sailing on the ocean or in the bay is the perfect place to experience God’s peace.
John: Our backgrounds enable us to take this in so many different directions. I was a crew member and volunteer with Challenged America. I coached people with disabilities and saw how the whole charitable operation worked. Jean is a volunteer at UCSD Moores Cancer Center and we see opportunities to take cancer patients out for a day of sailing. We are involved with several different churches and ministries. We’re looking into doing Christian weddings and funerals on board. There are lots of open doors, but in order to grow it as a ministry, we need donations and help from volunteers.
RM: Do you have a boat now?
John: Yes, a 38-foot cutter named Espiritu Santo, which is Spanish for Holy Spirit. We’ll be using the boat in our ministry.
RM: What advice do you have for someone facing a seemingly impossible situation?
Jean: Pray hard, and pray until it happens!