Survival at Sea

Miraculous Interventions on the Waves

By Ed Masters

There are innumerable tales of incredible voyages, surreal experiences and sorrowful tragedies above and below the ‘wine dark waves’ of the seas. A well-known hymn describes man’s fears and reliance on God for that safety and survival:


Eternal Father, strong to save

Whose arm hath bound the restless wave,

Who bid’st the mighty ocean deep

Its own appointed limits keep;

Oh, hear us when we cry to Thee,

For those in peril on the sea!

The Book of Jonah describes how Jonah tried to escape the command of God to preach at Nineveh by boarding a ship bound for Tarshish instead. God sent a tremendous storm endangering the ship. The sailors drew lots to see who was the cause of the storm, and those lots fell to Jonah. He was thrown overboard to his fate with the whale. (Featured image)

Our Lord Himself is described as calming the waters of the Sea of Galilee during a storm: “And rising up, he rebuked the wind and said to the sea: Peace, be still. And the wind ceased: and there was made a great calm. And He said to them: Why are you fearful? Have you not faith yet? And they feared exceedingly: and they said to one another: Who is this that both wind and sea obey him?

The Book of Acts tells the story of the Apostle Paul being shipwrecked on the island of Malta while on his way to Rome to stand trial before Nero. An angel appeared to St. Paul, foretelling that he and all with him would survive the tempest and shipwreck. St. Paul later states in 2 Corinthians that he was shipwrecked a total of three times.

Saints on the High Seas

Many saints feature in these tales of surviving the perils of the seas:

St. Patricia of Naples, said to have been a descendent of Constantine the Great, was noted for making pilgrimages to Jerusalem, Constantinople and Rome. After being shipwrecked on the Neapolitan shore, she settled in a hermitage on the island of Megarides, but died of disease not long afterwards.

St. Nicholas of Myra was known for many miracles. One account holds that while he attended the Council of Nicaea, sailors who were on their way to the Holy Land who encountered a storm, called upon the name of St. Nicholas, who appeared to them and guided them to land. When they gave thanks to him, he said, “My children, give honor to God. I am but a poor sinner.”

St. Walburga voyaged from Wessex to Germany to convert pagans who resided there. A terrible storm threatened to sink the ship. St. Walburga knelt and prayed the cyclone cease and the waters calm. Arriving safely in Germany the seafarers related the tale they witnessed.

St. Erasmus, also known as St. Elmo, while not directly involved, became a patron saint of sailors for two reasons. One story relates that while being tortured for his faith, his persecutors were electrocuted by lightning which left him unscathed. In another report, lightning hit the ground hear him as he preached, convincing nearby sailors to adopt him as protector. And St. Elmo’s Fire is electricity seen at the mastheads of ships, seen as a sign that St. Elmo had heard their prayers.

St. Abadon while in the captivity of Muslims managed to escape his captors and swim to France; another states he was freed by the aid of angels. He is said to have calmed a whirlpool by throwing Holy Water and the chains of his captivity into it, and making the sign of the cross.

                                                                                   Photo by Erica McCullagh

St. Anthony of Padua, like St. Paul centuries before him, was shipwrecked while enroute to evangelize unbelievers. He preached throughout Italy and France, performing miracles.

St. Francis of Paola wanted to cross into Sicily via the Straits of Messina. Being refused by a local sailor, he laid his cloak on the water and with his staff, sailed over with his companions.

St. Hardoin of Brittany is said to have been brought from Britain in a stone boat powered by angels.

St. Peter Gonzales had a special call to evangelize sailors in Spain and Portugal, and is often shown sailing on his cloak or walking on water with a torch in his hand, as nothing would stop him from preaching to sailors and fishermen. He is said to have appeared in warning of approaching storms.

St. Nicholas of Tolentino once interceded for nine passengers on a ship who prayed for his aid. He subdued the storm.

Troparion Of Budoc

Thou wast miraculously preserved from the ocean’s fury

And, being sustained by the hand of God,

Thou didst devote thyself to his service, O Hierarch Budoc.

Being showered with both temporal and spiritual honors both in Armagh and in Dol,

Thou didst labour to win souls for Christ,

Therefore we implore thine aid, begging Christ our God that he will save our souls.

The story of the birth of St. Budoc bears resemblance to the story of Perseus in Greek mythology. Budoc’s mother, Princess Azenor of Brest, was accused by her stepmother of adultery, which was not true. Her enraged husband, the King of Gruello, exiled Azenor by throwing her into the sea in a cask. While at sea, Azenor gave birth to St. Budoc, and she is said to have been aided at the birth by a miraculous intervention by St. Brigid of Ireland. Budoc was raised and educated at the Monastery of Youghal, eventually becoming its abbot. Azenor’s stepmother admitted her lies on her deathbed and Budoc became the Bishop of Dol in Brittany, and held the see for twenty-six years.

St. Brendan the Navigator (c. 484 – c. 577)

St. Brendan’s coming was reportedly foretold by St. Patrick around the year 430, thirty years before Brendan’s birth. Brendan was well known for his travels as well as for founding monasteries, and was said to be guided over the seas by visions of angels.

Navigatio Sancti Brendani Abbatis (dating from second half of the eighth century) says that Brendan and his companions sailed for the ‘Isles of the Blessed’, perhaps referring to North America. Foreshadowing the age of the explorations of the Vikings nearly five hundred years later, the Navigatio describes them surviving a number of perils including celebrating Easter Sunday on the back of a whale!

Scholars cast doubt on this tale until explorer Tim Severin followed the instructions in the Navigatio in a hide-covered Curragh, sailing from Ireland to Newfoundland via Iceland and Greenland, and thereby showing the accuracy of the saga’s descriptions and directions. In addition, inscriptions in Old Celtic in various places found along the North American coast show it is possible.

Ave Maria Stella

Hail bright star of ocean,

God’s own Mother blest,

Ever sinless Virgin,

Gate of Heavenly rest.

One of many of Our Lady’s titles, Our Lady, Star of the Sea, or Stella Maris in Latin, was first adopted due to an error in translation of her Hebrew name, Miriam, which became the Greek Maryam, “drop of the sea.” Mary became known as the star guiding the faithful to her Son.

A number of devotions to this title of Mary are found in the hymn, Hail Holy Queen, the Ocean Star, and the ancient prayer, Ave Maris Stella. The song “Sicilian Mariners Hymn” O Sactissima,  is yet another hymn which honors the Blessed Mother under this devotion. She is invoked under this title by sailors and fishermen all over the world for safe voyages.

Modern Witnesses

The WWII hero Eddie Rickenbacker and his B17 Flying Fortress crew famously strayed from their course and crashed in the Pacific Ocean. For twenty four days, Rickenbacker and nine of his crewmen were adrift at sea, their food supply running out after three days. On the eighth day, a gull landed on Rickenbacker’s head, which he grabbed and killed, dividing it among the surviving crew and using the rest as bait to catch fish.

It was the fish plus the collected rainwater which allowed them to survive – as well as many prayers, with three St. Christopher medals and a crucifix that the daughter of a friend had given him though he was not Catholic. But Rickenbacker believed his fate was connected with these; he believed that God had sent an angel to send the gull.

Three Fishermen

And in October, 2005, five Mexican fishermen from San Blas, on a three day shark fishing expedition, ran out of fuel and their engine broke down, leading to nine months of aimless drifting. During the ordeal, two men died, but the other three survived by drinking rainwater and eating from the sea and gulls. They passed the time by reading the Bible during the 289 days they were adrift. The Catholic Church’s League of Bishops declared their survival a profound miracle, an “example of the power of faith.” The three fishermen credit their survival to “a miracle from God.”

There are many stories which over the centuries of those who by rights should have perished, but survived with no other explanation other than that of heavenly intervention.

Many whose livings depend upon the seas still rely upon this intervention to this day.

Images from wikipedia

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