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A Beacon in the Darkness

When he fell off his boat into the frigid waters of Georgia Strait, God's voice kept telling him 'Keep swimming.' God, he says, saved him from death.

With a virtually silent snap, the line that formed a low railing on the deck of David Zaharik's sailboat slipped out of its eyehole. Zaharik, enjoying a peaceful solo sail, had been resting his knee against the line as he stood and aired his bedsheets.

David Zaharik
David Zaharik survived three hours in Georgia Strait after he fell off his yacht. Here he shows the pants he was wearing, which he tied at the legs and used as a floatation device.

The Tsawwassen father of two fell backwards into the vast expanse of Georgia Strait.

An Air Canada pilot, he was trained to quickly size up what technically inclined people like to call an emergency "situation."

He noted he was alone.

Night was falling.

His glasses had fallen into the sea.

His beloved sailboat, Esperence, was on cruise control—hopelessly motoring away from him.

He wasn't wearing a life jacket.

He was about seven kilometres from the Active Pass lighthouse at Mayne Island and about the same distance from the nearest chunk of mainland, which was Point Roberts.

Zaharik, who routinely flies 767s with a couple of hundred passengers on board, calmly concluded: "I am 45 years old and I am going to die tonight." But it turns out he wasn't going to go so easily.

He would at that moment of absolute crisis start chattering away to the God he so firmly believes in, the Supreme Being he is convinced pulled him through what would be a harrowing ordeal.

With sheer determination, Zaharik would also start calling on all the emergency training he had ever had, including from his time as a junior lifeguard.

Who is to say which was more important?

Zaharik, who has been a member of the Plymouth Brethren since 1988, says most of his colleagues in the airline business like hearing his story of watery salvation.

But others have told him it wasn't God who protected him. It was himself. A University of B.C. researcher who specializes in sea safety also has an analysis that opens possibilities.

Zaharik tells his story with panache and enthusiasm.

In the chaos, something powerful and mysterious took over.

Standing on the deck of his 12-metre sailboat, which is docked at a marina in Point Roberts, he recounts each moment in intense detail, gesticulating broadly, smiling with child-like delight.

This is a man who's glad to be alive.

On the day he fell into the sea, September 6, 2003, Zaharik was not exactly enjoying life. He was depressed about many things, including continuing turmoil at Air Canada.

He even admits, before he fell overboard, he had been toying with the idea of how, if he died, his wife and two teenage children would win a large insurance payout. He's not proud of the fleeting thought.

But everything changed the moment Zaharik hit the water.

In the chaos, something powerful and mysterious took over.

"It was miracle after miracle," he says.

Zaharik was in top physical shape—a black belt in karate—but he still figured it would take him at least three hours to swim to solid ground on Mayne Island, and a thunderstorm was coming. He had read that hypothermia can set in after 15 to 60 minutes in these conditions, causing unconsciousness, which means instant death when you're not wearing a life jacket.

Wild things happened.

He tore off his shoes and most of his heavy clothes.

Remembering an old trick he'd been taught about survival at sea, he made his pants into a makeshift flotation device.

He tied a knot around one leg and flung it into the sky, filling it with air. He used his other hand to squeeze tight the open end of the pant leg.

He would rest his head on the little pillow as he swam for shore, using one arm to paddle.

He aimed for the lighthouse at the eastern end of Active Pass, the narrow picturesque passage B.C. ferries sail through several times an hour.

Conversations with God ran through his mind. He spoke many of them out loud. He shouted others.

"Lord, I could really use your help," went one of his pleas.

"With all due respect, Lord, I'm going to swim until I can't any longer, until I lose consciousness," went another.

"Lord, I'm sorry. I can't do this any more. I'm just not going to make it," he said as all sense of feeling went out of his arms and legs.

Then a different kind of utterance kicked in—when he wanted to close his eyes, and sleep. Several times he rested his head on the pillow, as he began to lose consciousness.

But he knew that was deadly. To keep himself going, Zaharik began shouting repeatedly to himself, as in the Nike ad: "Wake up! Just do it! Swim! Just do it! Just do it!"

Still, Zaharik began to give up many times as he struggled to stay afloat, to make his way through the darkness to a glimmer of light he could see on Mayne Island.

After two hours of painful paddling, he had no sense of whether he had made any progress.

Along the way, Zaharik often laughed out loud at his own jokes (half-choking as he ingested salt water)—including when he had a vision of his gravestone with the epitaph: "David Bruce Zaharik, November 6, 1957—September 6, 2003. Loving Husband, Loving Father … Lousy Sailor."

He figured all this laughing was a crazy way to act, given the gravity of the situation. "I thought, 'What's my problem?' "

Strangely, Zaharik's most deadly challenge may have come when he finally crawled, after more than three hours of swimming, on to a rocky shore on Mayne Island.

He tried to climb it. He kept slipping, bashing up his limbs.

He was weak with fatigue. He couldn't stand. In the blackness, he couldn't make out the difference between a stump and a rock.

He would realize later he was at the bottom of a slippery 20-metre cliff. He tried to climb it. He kept slipping, bashing up his limbs. At one point, he believes he fell five metres off a log, in the dark, to the rock-filled beach.

He saw a light. He went toward it and came face to face with a high wire fence, which jutted out into the water. It must have been some rich person's island compound.

He actually had to go back in the water to get around the fence. When he made it to the mansion, no one was home.

Zaharik kept dragging himself along the shore, for what he now believes must have been 700 metres.

He was coughing up blood. He couldn't shout. But eventually he came upon another residence.

He knocked on the door.

He saw a stunned couple. They took him in. They did the right things. They stripped off his wet clothes. They warmed him up. They phoned the coast guard.

Everyone was amazed.

Zaharik was told his empty sailboat had been discovered quietly motoring by itself into Boundary Bay. A mayday call had gone out. A search had just been mounted.

Many hours later, Zaharik was in a Richmond hospital where he was finally reunited with his anxiety-ridden family.

He began to recover. "I couldn't walk for two weeks after," he recalls.

University of B.C. professor Roger Boshier studies water safety, drownings and the deadly effects of hypothermia.

He knows Zaharik's case. He finds it impressive.

Most people would have died in Zaharik's dilemma, he says. And many do drown every year in the churning waters of B.C.'s coast, after falling overboard without a life preserver.

Although Boshier makes it clear he doesn't see himself as a religious person, the professor says with detachment: "I don't dismiss the importance of religion on survival aspects in these emergency situations."

Many factors went into Zaharik's survival, Boshier maintains.

"Something like this is the ultimate test of the kind of person you are. In a way, David's whole life was a preparation for this moment, when he really had to focus."

Rather than a miracle, in which God magically plucked Zaharik from the water, however, Boshier suggests the story of Zaharik's survival has to do with something more complicated.

"There is evidence God was on David's side," Boshier said.

It's his vernacular way of saying there are many reasons the Air Canada pilot is still around—despite his foolishness, like so many men, in not wearing a personal flotation device.

The professor credits Zaharik's survival to his strong character and incredible good fortune.

In winter's frigid waters, hypothermia can kill in 15 minutes, he says. But the early September day Zaharik fell into Georgia Strait the water was unusually warm, with temperatures of about 18 degrees Celsius.

And, by chance, the waters were calm, Boshier says. The currents were also working favourably, pushing Zaharik toward Mayne Island, rather than back into the middle of Georgia Strait.

Mostly, however, the professor credits Zaharik's survival to his peak physical fitness, immense will, calmness in the face of crisis, his knowledge of emergency procedures and his ingenuity.

One of the worst things about September 6, 2003, the professor said, was its inky darkness. "It was black as hell and raining."

He is stunned that anyone would have the presence of mind to persevere through it.

There are four stages most people go through in dire emergencies, Boshier said.

The first stage is absolute panic; many die in it.

Others succumb to the second stage, which is resignation.

In the third stage of a dangerous emergency, many people lose the ability to think straight.

In the final stage, Boshier says the afflicted face death peacefully, without pain or fear.

The awe-inspiring thing about Zaharik, the professor says, is he kept his composure and didn't panic. He fought valiantly against giving in at any stage of the crisis. He found the resources within himself to keep going.

"He was shouting 'Just do it! Just do it!' " Boshier said.

Such life-and-death incidents can often be peak experiences for people …

"It was an astonishing combination of corporate sloganeering and religion—a reflection of a truly post-modern world."

Such life-and-death incidents can often be peak experiences for people, the professor noted—making them feel "absolutely alive."

For his part, Zaharik has enthusiastically told his story to colleagues and several Christian groups, and is writing a book about his brush with death, in hopes of strengthening people in their faith.

Ask him questions about his personal theology surrounding how, exactly, God took a role in his survival, however, and he humbly says, "I'm no theologian."

He simply believes in his heart that an Almighty God, capable of anything, pulled him through.

The experience, he adds, has made him feel much more empathetic to people he meets.

And he is more grateful than ever before for what he's been given.

Give him the opportunity, and he'll give thanks to a list of everyone and everything that helped him pull through, including:

  • The water safety coach he had as a teenager;

  • The friend with whom he's practised karate for the past 30 years;

  • Air Canada flight trainers who taught him to stay clear-headed in terrifying situations;

  • The Mayne Island couple who took him in and quickly warmed him up;

  • The coast guard;

  • Everyone who prayed for him when he was missing.

Ultimately, of course, Zaharik mostly thanks the Supreme Being.

"It was my faith that kept me going, not my fear of death," he says.

"I thank Him for the multitude of times I heard His voice calmly saying, 'Keep swimming.' "

Douglas Todd is religion and ethics writer for the Vancouver Sun and CanWest News. He received a National Newspaper Award citation in 2002 for his work on the beat. He is also a two-time winner of the Templeton Religion Reporter of the Year Award, which goes to the top religion writer in the secular media in North America. He can be reached at

Originally published in the Vancouver Sun, January 2, 2004.




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