Perilous Journey: Mussau-Emira NT Series

Author: Karen Weaver
Photo Credit: John Brownie
Part 1 of 3 in the Mussau-Emira NT series. The Mussau-Emira New Testament Dedication is planned for 29 May, 2019. This is part of the story.

When John and Marjo Brownie set out from the island of Mussau on Wednesday morning, 26 February 2014, they had no hint of the challenges that lay ahead. Nor had they any idea of the many ways God would care for them in the events that were about to unfold.


John and Marjo have been living on the island of Mussau off and on for the past 18 years, translating the New Testament into the heart language of the people. For most of that time they were able to fly in and out of Mussau, but more recently they have needed to travel by dinghy to the airstrip on a neighboring island and fly to the mainland from there.

Having completed a month of translation work, the Brownies set off at 8:30 a.m. in a 20-foot boat, accompanied by four Papua New Guineans. As they traversed the waters from Mussau to Emirau that Wednesday morning, the winds and waves increased in intensity. Forty-five minutes after departure, two large waves swamped the dinghy, sinking the small craft, and leaving its occupants in the waters of the Pacific Ocean. With the help of the boat driver, John and Marjo were able to free a locator device from the cargo and send off a satellite signal, indicating their need for help.

However, God was already intervening to meet their needs through nature itself. The sky stayed clear enough that they could see the island fourteen kilometers ahead, yet it was overcast enough to offer a bit of protection from the equatorial sun. Though it was not uncommon to see sharks in that area, none came near the group floating on the water. Ocean currents are never stagnant, and this particular morning they were flowing toward the land on an incoming tide, pulling the stranded travelers in the direction they needed to go.

Local people also were an invaluable help in the crisis. Marjo quickly became separated from her husband in the ocean swells. However, three younger men from the boat stayed with her, all offering reassurance through four hours of swimming in the open ocean, “Look, we can see the island. It’s right there. Keep going!”  When Marjo’s strength was depleted, Donny, a faithful friend, encouraged her to hold onto him as he swam the last several kilometers to shore. These men were familiar with the islands and knew the closest point of approach to the land.

Once they reached shore, a kind young mother invited Marjo into her home. Although this was the first time they’d met, this Mussau woman welcomed her unexpected guest with a hot drink, stoked up the fire for warmth, and gave her dry clothes to wear. The men walked across an inlet and one of them borrowed a bicycle to find the driver of the only truck on the island. He came and drove them to the medical aid post.

Meanwhile, at the SIL center in Ukarumpa, the administration was informed of the signal which indicated distress on the water. They mobilized into action. The aviation team prepped a plane for the search and rescue mission. Others studied the winds and tides.  At 2:00 the concern was shared electronically on the group’s internal prayer board and dozens of people began praying.

All this time John was still out on the open ocean, drifting along with Leslie, an older man who had been their faithful friend and co-translator since they first went to Mussau in the mid-1990’s. Having grown up in Australia, John spent many hours of his childhood playing with friends in the ocean waters near Sydney and he was therefore more confident in the sea than his Finnish-born wife. This strength and experience enabled him to support his older friend as the two men floated in the waves, holding onto boards from the wrecked boat. After several hours, John wondered about the time. He looked at his watch, was startled at how late it was, and was jolted into action. He came out of his stupor and became more proactive in swimming toward land. The time on his watch was 2:00.

Later that afternoon, John and his friend Leslie reached an inlet between two islands and were able to climb ashore. Meanwhile, the crew of the dispatched rescue plane was searching for survivors in the choppy waves. Not finding anyone in the water, the pilot landed on Emirau Island just as the sun was setting in the west. There the crew met John and Marjo at the clinic and radioed to their children and co-workers in Ukarumpa the happy news of their safety.

As they flew homeward in the SIL plane the next day, John and Marjo looked down at the ocean waters below. It was obvious the waves were higher, the winds stronger, and the clouds darker than they had been on the day of their mishap. John and Marjo had the unmistakable assurance that it was God who had watched over them and taken care of every detail of their perilous journey.

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