It was Sunday, July 4, 1976 and we were out of ice. Old Hickory Lake, about 30 miles northeast of Nashville, was white capping that morning from the gusty winds. Our modest houseboat was tied securely to some trees in a protective cove. Leaving Mom behind, Dad, my older brother and I hopped into our little runabout for a quick trip. Mom would start worrying if we were more than five minutes late. She would worry a lot this day.
Dad cranked the 85 Evinrude and off we went. I sat behind him in the back right corner. My spot. A single seat where I felt secure, almost tucked in. I loved letting my hand hang in the water and feel the wind on hot summer days. I always sat there and today would be no different. Older brother Tim took his customary spot beside Dad.
We eased across a few miles of water to the boat dock, got our supplies, “nickeled and dimed” our father to death and headed back to camp where Mom was making lunch. Between the wind gusts and rough water, Dad kept the throttle about half way as we bounced and bobbed along.
Suddenly, another boat came up close behind us. Real close, like the distance a skier would be. It was an older V-shaped wooden boat with a substantial outboard motor and single occupant, standing at the steering wheel. He had shaggy hair, a beard and no facial expression.
I guess he got bored with our slow pace so he gunned it and came roaring up beside us, passing on our right. He passed so close I could have reached him with a cane pole! He then headed up the lake the same direction we were going. I breathed a sigh of relief that he was moving on.
Then something unexplainable happened. I changed seats. Without announcement or permission, I stood up, walked thru the middle of the bouncing boat, opened the windshield against the wind, carefully closed the windshield, then sat down, front left, holding onto the rail and staring straight ahead.
As I gazed out over this large lake made by the Cumberland River, I spotted the wooden boat again, way up there, almost out of sight. My pulse quickened and I felt uneasy. He made a big sweeping turn and headed back toward us.
When he quickly cut the distance between us, I turned to my Dad and pointed at him to make sure he saw him. He did. We were still a safe distance apart.
With my eyes locked on this boat the entire time (something I would later regret), he closed the gap in what seemed like a flash. Dad naturally started to bear right so we could pass each other but he turned the same way!
At the last possible second, Dad turned hard left and gunned the motor full throttle. I gripped the rail, closed my eyes and braced for impact. I was sure death was upon me, a mere two weeks shy of turning twelve.
A loud, jarring, terrific impact followed. His boat smashed into our boat. He took out the back right corner. But given his higher speed, he was setting up higher in the water, while we were lower than normal, so somehow our boat became a ramp for his. When I opened my eyes and looked back, his boat was fully airborne! It somehow rotated in mid-air, landed capsized and immediately sank.
Now I couldn’t take my eyes off the back right corner of our sinking boat. No one sitting there would have lived. The impact of the boat, followed by the roaring propeller on the motor would have been a fatal 1-2 punch indeed.
We drug our wounded boat to shore, taking on a lot of water but the motor was still running fine. After caving in the side, he used our motor for the rest of his ramp, only crushing the fiberglass cover. Some good Samaritans quickly came to us, having witnessed the whole thing. Someone called the proper authorities while others rushed to save the bearded man, whose boat was nowhere in sight.
They fished him out of the water and then joined us on the bank. Could this day get any stranger? Wet and dazed, he didn’t have a scratch on him. And then most surprising to this eleven year old – Mr. Bearded Man had no idea what just happened. Dad said he was “all pilled up”. I wasn’t sure what that meant, but I knew it wasn’t good.
When we finally got back to Mom, who had been worried sick of course, I burst into tears. It still gets to me now, some 43 years later. For a long time every boat in the distance coming toward me made me uneasy.
That day on Old Hickory Lake in Hendersonville, Tennessee will be forever etched in my mind as a day that God preserved my life from physical death until Jesus came and saved my soul ten years later. Since then, I’ve been ready to die.
Why did I change seats before any real threat? How did Dad have quick instincts to react the way he did? If he hadn’t turned and gunned it, I would have been sitting in the worst possible seat, instead of out of harm’s way.
What happened is called common grace, where God spared all of us from even a scratch. How did He do it? Perhaps angelic intervention. Hebrews 1:14 says of angels, “Are they not all ministering spirits, sent out to render service for the sake of those who will inherit salvation?” Perhaps His providential control of all things, putting into my heart an urge to change seats. However He did it, I’m forever grateful.
Chris McKnight is the pastor of Kerrville Bible Church. His column appears monthly in The Kerrville Daily Times. He welcomes feedback and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.