Project Pearl Tugboat Captain, Bill Tinsley, Succumbs to Cancer


Date:                               March 26, 2016

By Dan Wooding, Founder of the ASSIST News Service

Bill Tinsley and his wifePORT ANGELES, WA (ANS – March 25, 2016) -- One of the great missionary pioneers and Project Pearl tugboat captain, Willian Karl “Bill” Tinsley, has gone home to be with Jesus, after a courageous battle with cancer.

Tinsley, who was captain of the Tugboat Michael, a vital part of Open Doors’ Project Pearl, a clandestine operation that landed one million Bibles on Swatow Beach, China, on June 18, 1981, passed away at the age of 85, on March 3, 2016, at his rural home near Port Angeles, Washington State. He was the husband of Elaine “Lil” Tinsley for 57 years. (Open Doors was started by Dutchman, Brother Andrew, whose story is told in the best-selling book, God’s Smuggler.)

Project Pearl was described by Time magazine's Beijing bureau chief as one of the most unusual and successful smuggling operations of the 20th century. Time called it “the largest operation of its kind in the history of China” in their October 19, 1981 article, “Risky Rendezvous in Swatow”.

The one million Bibles being loaded onto the barge in Hong Kong harborThat evening in 1981, the 97-foot tugboat named Michael, captained by Bill Tinsley, lumbered along at the sleepy speed of three knots an hour, towing the semi-submersible, 137-foot barge, Gabriella, loaded with 232 waterproof, poly-wrapped, one-ton packages containing a million Chinese Bibles.

The 20 crew members on board Michael, who were led by former American marine, known then as Brother David, were from Australia, Canada, Holland, New Zealand, the Philippines, the UK and the US.

By nine o’clock on that historic night, Michael approached the beach near Swatow, China (now called Shantou), weaving through a maze of anchored, Chinese navy ships in the darkness near the port city as thousands of local Christians waited patiently on the shore.

The off-loaded, floating Bible packages were towed to the beach by three small, rubber boats. The Chinese believers waded out into the water – some up to their necks – and pulled the packaged blocks up onto the beach, cut them open with shears, and handed the 45-pound cardboard boxes of Bibles to one another up across the sand and into the tree-line of the cove.

Two hours later, Michael and Gabriella and their crews left, with the one million Bibles in the care of Chinese believers who promised to circulate them across the entire country. In some cases, that process took five years, and a number of believers paid dearly for it. For them, each Bible was indeed a “pearl of great price” referring to Matthew 13:44, from which the project was named.

Much controversy and disinformation immediately followed the delivery. Some ministries – e.g. China’s official Protestant Three-self Patriotic Movement (TSPM) –claimed that the Bibles were thrown overboard in bags by the crew, who were forced by authorities to leave the scene.

“Interestingly,” one report said, “there are stories of “wet” Bibles and “perfumed” Bibles from Project Pearl that continue to be shared to this day.

Wet Bibles

“Some of the boxes of Bibles did get wet during the off-loading procedure. Additionally, a night patrol of Chinese police discovered some of the boxes of Bibles stashed under the trees, still awaiting transfer to a safe storage facility. The police tried unsuccessfully to burn the Bibles and then, in frustration, threw them into the water.

“The next morning, fishermen plucked the floating volumes out of the sea and put them onto the roofs of their homes to dry. Later, they sold them to Christians in the area.”

One well-known Chinese Christian leader acknowledged receiving “wet” Bibles from Project Pearl. In his book The Heavenly Man, Brother Yun sent a personal message, via a friend, that stated, “A big ‘thank you’ to Brother David and team who risked their lives for Project Pearl. And thank you so much for your great concern and love for the house church in China.”

Paul Estabrooks in videoOne of the crew members on that incredible project was Canadian, Paul Estabrooks, who had joined Open Doors in Manila, after working for a time for Far East Broadcasting Company (FEBC). It was Estabrooks who initially alerted me to the passing of Bill Tinsley.

In a message, he said that Bill and his wife “Lil”, went to the Philippines with their family in 1971 to do evangelism among university students, many being influenced by communist teaching at that time.

“His movement was called JESUS PEOPLE after the California group who had impacted his own life. The young people he and his wife, ‘Lil’, discipled developed into a huge movement today called Christ, The Living Stone Fellowship,” said Estabrooks. (See their tribute video to Bill & Lil at:

Paul Estabrooks went on to say, “In 1980, Bill agreed, after prayer and scriptural direction, to be the captain of Tugboat Michael for Open Doors’ Project Pearl. He actually designed and supervised the entire project operations to deliver one million Chinese Bibles to believers on a beach in southern China on the night of June 18, 1981.”

Bill Tinsley’s story recounted in his autobiography, Seadog.

“Bill continued to work several years for Open Doors after Project Pearl in the Philippines and later in Taiwan,” added Estabrooks.

In the summer of 2005, he returned to Michael Beach in China, near Shantou, with crew members Terry Madison and Paul Estabrooks as tourists. Paul often described his friend, Captain Bill, as a “renaissance man”. Bill was an accomplished musician, writer and artist in addition to his engineering, mechanical and communication skills.

In November 2015, he and Lil joined the Open Doors 60th Anniversary celebrations in Hong Kong. There he said, “I met a brother from Fukien Province and he was thanking me for what we did, bringing the Bibles. And I said, ‘No, we want to thank you. Thank you for meeting us that night, for you took all of the risk!’”

Brother Andrew reading Time“Afterwards,” continued Paul Estabrooks, “Bill, though frail from the ravages of cancer, accompanied the group who went to Michael Beach where Project Pearl occurred. He was excited to meet some of the Chinese believers who were involved in the project. He always honored them for the courage they showed in distributing the one million Chinese Bibles.

“Bill Tinsley was also a family man. He and Lil were married for 57 years. They produced three children and had eight grandchildren.”

A memorial service is to be held on Saturday March 26th at 1:00 pm, at Bethany Pentecostal Church in Port Angeles, Washington, USA.

Gods Smuggler to China coverNote from Dan Wooding. The first book I worked on after I left the London tabloids, was called God’s Smuggler to China, which I co-authored with Brother David and Sara Bruce. You can still get a copy of it at

Photo captions: 1) Bill Tinsley and his wife, Lil. 2) The million Bibles being loaded onto a barge in Hong Kong Harbor. 3) Paul Estabrooks pictured while presenting a video on Project Pearl. 4) Brother Andrew reading the copy of Time magazine which featured the story of Project Pearl. 5) Cover of God’s Smuggler to China. 6) Norma and Dan Wooding on a reporting assignment for ANS. (Photo: Bryan Seltzer).

Norma and Dan Wooding at the Movieguide awards useAbout the writer: Dan Wooding, 75, is an award-winning winning author, broadcaster and journalist who was born in Nigeria of British missionary parents, and is now living in Southern California with his wife Norma, to whom he has been married for more than 52 years. They have two sons, Andrew and Peter, and six grandchildren who all live in the UK. Dan is the founder and international director of ASSIST (Aid to Special Saints in Strategic Times) and the ASSIST News Service (ANS), and is also the author of some 45 books, including God’s Smuggler to China, which he co-authored with Brother David and Sara Bruce. Dan also has a weekly radio show called “Front Page Radio” aired each week on the KWVE Radio Network (, and also two TV shows, “Windows on the World” (with Mark Ellis), and “Inside Hollywood with Dan Wooding,” which are both broadcast on the Holy Spirit Broadcasting Network (

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