By Doug Peterson
It was pitch dark, it was storming, and Seth Kerlin had no idea if he was heading toward shore or if he was being sucked out to the open ocean. If his small boat capsized or if he was swept out to sea, Seth would not survive.
The boat, just a small, 7-foot-long, El Toro dinghy, was broken in multiple ways, and it tipped sideways at a treacherous angle. Seth had to keep hurling his body against the raised side of the dinghy just to keep it from flipping over. Compounding his terror, he knew that the waters were shark infested, and that sharks fed at night.
Seth Kerlin was only 15 years old, and he was certain that this was his last night on earth.
In 1990, Seth was a freshman at University High School, or Uni High, in Urbana, Illinois, when his mom asked him if he wanted to join her and his stepfather, Mark, on a voyage to Hawaii and beyond in their sailboat. Hoping that a change of scenery would help him cope with life as an adolescent adrift, he eagerly leaped at the chance to get away and sail the world.
When Seth told the administrators at Uni High that he was leaving for a year, they said it was fine, but he would not be allowed to come back to the school. “We don’t let people take a year off and return,” one administrator stressed.
That did not stop Seth. So, in the summer of 1990, he and his mother and stepfather sailed beneath the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco and headed out to sea in the direction of Hawaii.
From Hawaii, they sailed south toward the equator, where their first destination was Fanning Island. This was a remote island that could only be reached by boat, which set it apart from modern islands with airports.
Fanning Island was actually an “atoll”—a ring-shaped island with a large body of water in the middle. The water in the center of the atoll was like a large salt-water lake with outlets that led to the open ocean.
Their boat was a 60-foot trimaran, but they had brought along a small dinghy, which Seth and Mark rigged with backstays, a jib, a new centerboard, and some good oarlocks. They also gave it a fresh paint job before Mark took it out for a test run. He sailed the dinghy several miles from one side of the ring-shaped island to the other—about two hours in each direction.
The day after Mark’s test excursion, Seth says, “I decided it was time for me to have some fun, so I bailed out the dinghy, lowered it into the water, and took off. I didn’t tell Mark or Mom where I was going. A big mistake.”
Another problem was that Mark hadn’t informed him about the quirks of the new dinghy.
“I immediately picked out a few major flaws that worried me, but I wasn’t about to turn around with my tail between my legs,” Seth says. “This was my first trip on the boat by myself, and I wanted to be a sailor. I was stupid and young, and I decided to keep sailing because it was a beautiful day and I could see the coral reef beneath me.”
As Seth sailed on, he struggled with the sheet lines—the ropes connected to the jib. When sailing a dinghy, you typically hold the sheet lines with your left hand and the rudder with your right.
“Sheet lines are very important,” Seth explains. “If the wind picks up and becomes too strong, then you let the sheet lines out. This gives the sail more slack, taking some of the wind off of it, and that means your boat has less pressure and won’t flip over.”
The problem was that the sheet lines were frayed and knotty, making it almost impossible to slacken the sail. As a result, the dinghy almost capsized twice. But Seth figured out that if the boat started to tip over in the wind, he could grab the boom and shove it, taking some of the pressure off of the sails.
“This is not a good way to sail a boat,” he says. “The maneuver takes precious time, which you don’t often have when the wind picks up.”
Nevertheless, Seth completed the two-hour voyage from one side of the atoll to the other. But then came the next predicament. Seth discovered that his centerboard had jammed.
A centerboard sticks out from the bottom of the boat, like the small fin of a fish. It prevents a boat from drifting to the side and veering off course. When you bring a dinghy ashore, the centerboard pops up into the boat so it doesn’t scrape on the beach. Then, when you take off sailing again, the centerboard should pop back out from beneath the dinghy and you’re good to go.
But Seth wasn’t good. The centerboard popped up when he dragged the dinghy on shore. But when he was ready to put the boat into the water for the return trip, the centerboard would not go back down.
“The centerboard wouldn’t budge,” he said. “I tried hammering on it forever with coconut shells, but it wouldn’t go back down. I even jumped on it. It was jammed.”
An hour later, Seth was exhausted, and his hands were raw from pounding on the centerboard. So now his dinghy posed two problems. With sheet lines that wouldn’t slacken, he risked capsizing. And without a centerboard, he risked drifting off course.
Seth says the logical decision would have been to leave the dinghy and walk back to their trimaran on the other side of Fanning Island. Because the island was shaped in a ring, he could’ve made the long hike back to the opposite side of the ring, where his mom and stepfather’s sailboat was docked. However, the island was inhabited by a tribe that Seth knew nothing about, and the idea of encountering a strange village scared him.
His other option was to stay where he was and wait for help. But Seth went with the third—and worst—option. He decided to sail back to the opposite side of the atoll in a broken boat. By this time, it was about 4 p.m., and Seth was sure that his mother and stepfather were becoming worried. So he decided to risk it.
“Getting lost at sea is a real thing,” he says. “I should have just stayed, but I didn’t.”
However, as he pushed the dinghy out to sea, matters quickly went from bad to worse. The rudder broke in his hands.
“I’m still not sure exactly what happened,” he says. “I didn’t hit anything. One second I’m holding the tiller, true to the course, and the next moment I was holding the entire rudder in my hand. It popped out.”
Maybe someone was trying to send a message: Don’t sail.
So Seth dragged the dinghy back to shore, sat on the beach, and cried. “I was far from home and it was getting late. I was a kid.”
Finally, Seth found some tools and made rudimentary repairs to the dinghy, but it was still a mess. Then he untangled the sails, freed the sheet lines, and tried to bail out as much water as he could using a tiny tin can.
“By this time, I was shaking,” he says. “I was so exhausted and sunburned that I must have looked like Tom Hanks from Castaway.”
Once again, Seth took off in the dinghy, not calculating that it would get dark before he made the two-hour trip back. He also didn’t count on a storm.
“Unfortunately, by the time I realized a storm was coming I had already been sailing for about 10 or 15 minutes,” he says. “I saw the clouds gathering, but I didn’t know what to do. I couldn’t go back because I was committed by this point.”
The wind picked up, and it began to rain, but not a torrential downpour. And then came the darkness. With this being a remote island, there were no lights anywhere. Occasionally, Seth spotted the flicker of a single fire, but then it was gone. He sailed into the dark with the boat continually threatening to capsize, and no centerboard to keep him moving straight ahead.
“I realized that if I capsized, nobody was going to find me,” he says. “It was too far to swim to land.” Once the dinghy capsized, it would be impossible to raise it back up. It wouldn’t take long for the dinghy to eventually sink, leaving Seth paddling in shark-infested waters.
For a while, he could see the faint outline of the shadows of trees on shore, and he used that as a reference point. But soon, even that landmark was swallowed up by the darkness.
“Very quickly I became disoriented,” he says. “For all I knew, I was heading directly out to sea. There was no moon and no stars because clouds covered the sky. That was part of the terror. To be in a storm at sea at night when it’s pitch black was a very existential experience. It was all a matter of how long I could hold on.”
Although Fanning Island formed a circle, various outlets led to the open sea, and Seth was afraid he was moving out of the protective ring of the atoll.
“At one point, I got this feeling that I was going in the wrong direction,” he says. “So I literally turned the boat around 180 degrees and went in the opposite direction. But I had no idea if I had made the right choice or not.”
With strong wind smacking the sails, the dinghy spent the entire trip tilted at a steep angle, threatening to tip over. Because Seth had to keep hurling his body against the side of the boat as a counterweight, he became bruised and battered.
“It was like running a marathon while someone was beating you with a stick,” he says.
Then, as if his boat didn’t have enough problems, a jib cleat broke. The jib holds the rope, transferring some of the power from the sail to the boat. When the cleat broke, Seth had to wrap the rope around his hand, which soon became rubbed raw.
After two hours of torture, Seth says, “I was sure that I was going to die alone, drowning in the ocean.”
In the darkness, his dinghy smashed into something solid, pitching Seth forward, and he cut his forehead on the mast.
Seth was stunned by the crash. But when he looked up, he was even more shocked. Some how, some way, his seven-foot dinghy had sailed directly into the side of his mom and stepfather’s sailboat. What’s more, it had been so dark that he didn’t even see the boat until he ran into it.
“It was a miracle,” he says. “The odds of hitting our boat in the dark were one in a million. Fanning Island was a huge atoll—a huge circle.”
The irony was that his mom and stepfather had assumed Seth had hiked to the nearby village. They weren’t worried because they had no idea he had taken off sailing.
Seth’s mom and stepdad were having dinner when they heard the thump of something strike their sailboat. And when they heard a scream, they scrambled to investigate. They were shocked to find Seth, who looked like he had just crawled off a battlefield. Blood streamed down his forehead, the palm of his hand was rubbed ragged, and he was sunburned, shaking, and crying.
Seth did not believe in God at the time, but he sensed that “something beyond” had saved him. “I had no language for this experience,” he says. “I had never been to a church, so I probably thought of it in a New Age sort of way. It was some karma in the universe.”
Seth had been raised as an atheist, but today, looking back, he says that God had surely saved him.
“God had a purpose for me,” he says. “He was not ready for me to go.”
After that experience, Seth says he was no longer the same person. He felt like he could not look at life the same way again.
“I think this was the beginning of a spiritual search beyond myself and beyond my peer group,” he says. “What does life mean? Does it have a purpose?”
Although Uni-High had told him he would not be allowed back into school, Seth showed up at school the next year anyway, and they never questioned it. This was yet another providential turn of events because back in school he got to know his history teacher, Bill Sutton, a Christian. Bill invited Seth to his church and the rest was history.
Today, Seth Kerlin is pastor of a small church in Urbana—Cornerstone Fellowship. And as he looks back at that night alone in a storm, he sees it as one of the key turning points of his life.
“After that experience, I wondered why I was saved,” he says. “Even as a teen, I absolutely felt like I had been saved. And slowly but surely I realized that this meant Somebody had saved me for something.”
* * *
Save me, O God, for the waters have come up to my neck. I sink in the miry depths, where there is no foothold. I have come into the deep waters; the floods engulf me. (Psalm 69:1-2)