Editor’s Note: In celebration of our 25th year of preparing and supporting lay missioners, we’re sharing stories from the archives of ourWorld Care newsletter. Today’s post was originally published in 2000 and is by lay missioner Steve Grube (Brazil, 1999-2000) about traveling to his mission assignment in the interior of Brazil.
We pushed off from the dock in Belem around 10 o’clock at night. What had started as a light rain became quite heavy by the time the Rondonia, with its 150 passengers and six crew, was fully underway and gliding out into the deep, dark water of the Amazon. Earlier the captain had given me permission to be in the control room , or the bridge with the helmsman on the uppermost deck.
There was no point in looking out the window. There was nothing to see but pounding rain and dark, dark water… By the time I left the bridge at eleven thirty the Rondonia was in 90 feet of water and heading upstream at twelve knots.
It had been a long and exciting day and I was tired, or so I thought. I climbed into my rede (hammock) and pulled a light sheet over me, more to keep the mosquitos off than for warmth. I could feel myself being rocked to sleep, listening to the rain pelting down on the walkway just a few yards away.
At one-thirty a.m. I’m back in the control room, as wide-awake as a human being could possibly be. I have no idea why I woke up or what woke me, but there I am wide-awake standing in the control room again, staring out in the murky night. There’s a different helmsman on duty. He says you’re not supposed to be here on the bridge. I decide to leave the control room. I take a quick glance at the depth meter. Unbelievably, we are in 170 feet of water! and this is a river!
I decided to stay on the top deck, next to the railing under a canopy, on the port (left) side of the boat, breathing in the fresh, cool air coming off the Amazon. I can feel the faithful engines hammering away under my feet. As I look to my left, upstream from whence we came. I can just barely make out the lights of another boat. I think, hmm, I wonder if she just passed us going the other way downstream, or is she heading in same direction as we are? I watch her for ten, maybe fifteen minutes.
Two things are becoming abundantly clear: 1) she’s moving faster than the Rondonia; 2) she’s a very, very big ship, an ocean going type, maybe three or four times longer than the Rondonia and many, many thousands of tons heavier. I can hear her props churning water from two miles away.
Time goes by. Big Ship draws closer. Even with the pounding rain I can hear her cutting through the water. Closer and closer. Her enormous hull looms up out of the darkness and rain, and she’s even bigger and taller than I imagined. I walk back to the bridge a casually as I can. The radar screen is green hash. Big Ship is not on radar, at least not that my untrained eye can detect.
I scurry back to the railing under the canopy. What I saw was a misty mountain of hissing, bubbling black death bearing down on us with such speed and precision that [I think] Satan himself must surely be at the helm. We are going to collide! I don’t know how much time I stood paralyzed with fear at the railing. Maybe it was two seconds. Maybe it was thirty. I don’t know.
But as I turned to run back to the bridge, I was at that precise moment overtaken by the captain of the Rondonia running at full gallop in the same directions. In fact, he shoved his way past me, screaming for all he was worth. I learned later that he, too, has seen—or rather heard—the black mountain of hissing death from his cabin, where he was playing poker with three other crew members.
So now the captain is on the bridge. He is very excited… screaming because he knows it’s not good when two ships collide in the night, in two hundred feet of water, especially if you happen to be aboard the (much) smaller one. The captain seizes hold of the helm lever and jams it over to the right. I can feel the Rondonia lumbering away from Big Ship. Now the whole crew is on the bridge and everyone is screaming and running around. All the passengers are up and running to the port side of Rondonia to see what all the fuss is about.
I’m just outside my eyes on Big Ship. [She] is, oh, maybe thirty yards away from us when finally, finally, she starts to bear away oh so slowly. I doubt she even saw us or detected us on radar. The captain is absolutely luminescent with fear, indignation and anger.
After an hour or so, the rain stopped. We all climbed back into our ‘redes’ and more or less calmed down.
I imagine there were many Our Fathers and Hail Marys silently prayed that night out of thanksgiving. Personally, I wondered why, oh why, out of all the people on board, did our good Lord wake me from such a profound sleep. Just to scare the living daylights out of me? [Or] maybe it was just a backup plan in case the captain got too involved with a good hand in his poker game.