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Sailor who fell overboard clung to ‘sea rubbish’ for 16 hours and survived

The Silver Supporter cargo vessel, from which a 52-year-old Lithuanian sailor fell, is seen Feb. 18, 2021. (Joint Rescue Coordination Center/AFP)

A sailor who spent 16 hours floating in the Pacific Ocean has credited a piece of “sea rubbish” for saving his life after he fell overboard following his night shift on a cargo ship last week.

The Lithuanian man, identified as 52-year-old Vidam Perevertilov, was discovered clinging to a discarded fishing buoy Feb. 16. He was unharmed but exhausted and looked “about 20 years older,” his son Marat told the New Zealand news website Stuff.

Perevertilov’s ordeal began at around 4 a.m. that day, shortly after he finished his shift as chief engineer aboard the Silver Supporter, which was on its usual route to deliver supplies to the Pitcairn Islands.

He recalled feeling “hot and dizzy” before going out onto the deck for some air. Exactly what happened after that is a blur, but it is possible he may have fainted, landing him in the dark waters below — without a life jacket to help keep him afloat.

For crew on the ship, which left New Zealand’s Tauranga port Feb. 8, it was at least six hours before they noticed they were a man down and were able to raise the alarm that the engineer was lost at sea.

Unbeknown to them, Perevertilov, who was having trouble keeping his head above water, had summoned the energy to swim several kilometers to a black object he could see on the horizon — and he was now desperately clinging onto it.

“It was not anchored to anything or a boat; it was just a piece of sea rubbish,” Perevertilov’s son said of the floating item that saved his father’s life.

Despite his determination to pull through, Perevertilov said that as the hours slowly passed, he began to lose hope of ever being found. While bobbing up and down in both the cold and dark, and later in the morning’s searing heat, he found himself using the time to reflect on his life.

Back on the ship he had tumbled from, crew members studied Perevertilov’s work logs to try to pinpoint the coordinates of where he was last certified as on board.

Distress calls were made to surrounding ships, and the French navy assisted in the hunt, along with a French meteorological service that worked to map a possible drift path. The ship’s captain continued to hunt for the missing crew member, running various search patterns and steering the ship back around to find him.

When the dehydrated Perevertilov, who could feel his skin burning, finally spotted the Silver Supporter in the distance, he waved his arm and yelled for help. A passenger on board heard his cry, describing it as a “weak, human shout.”

“It was incredible someone heard a voice,” Marat said. The rescue operation, he added, was almost “inexplicable.”

According to his son, Perevertilov is recovering well. He said he believes his father survived because he has always looked after his health.

“I probably would have drowned straight away, but he always kept himself fit and healthy,” Marat said, adding that the engineer’s “will to survive was strong.”

World leaders have long grappled with the issue of marine litter, which threatens sea life and ecosystems and washes up on beaches.

In 2019, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said the Pacific Ocean was “crying out in despair,” amid the plastic pollution crisis that scientists warn could leave more plastic by weight in the oceans than fish by 2050.

When asked about the abandoned item he had so luckily found, Perevertilov said he had left the fishing buoy exactly where he had found it — just in case it was ever needed to save “another person’s life.”