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Sailor survives 14 hours in Pacific clinging to fishing buoy after falling overboard

"His will to survive was strong," the son of the Lithuanian ship engineer told local media.

Feeling hot and dizzy, a sailor onboard a cargo ship in the South Pacific headed to the deck for a little air.

He would, his son later told local media, spend at least the next 14 hours desperately fighting the waves and clinging to an old fishing buoy for survival.

Lithuanian engineer Vidam Perevertilov, 52, had been working a routine night shift in the engine room of the Silver Supporter earlier this month as it sailed between New Zealand's Tauranga port and the Pitcairn Islands, a tiny British overseas territory.

But at around 4:00 a.m. Feb 16. he fell overboard after seemingly fainting.

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Adrift in darkness and without a life jacket, his hopes were lifted as the sun rose.

"He could see a black dot in the horizon still several kilometers away," his son Marat told the New Zealand news website Stuff. So he began swimming toward it.

"It turned out to be an old fishing buoy ... It was not anchored to anything or a boat, it was just a piece of sea rubbish," Marat said.

"His will to survive was strong," he added.

NBC News was unable to reach Marat or his father for immediate comment.

Image: A buoy floating in the sea.
A buoy floating in the sea, similar to the one used by a Lithuanian sailor who was stranded in the Pacific for at least 14 hours.Maria Mollace / Getty Images/EyeEm file

The engineer's son said that as soon as the crew noticed his father was missing, they retraced their movements and sent out distress alerts to ships in the vicinity, among them French Polynesia's JRCC Tahiti.

"What happened next was nearly inexplicable," Marat told the New Zealand news site.

"The Silver Supporter was running search patterns and one of the passengers said he had heard a weak, human shout on the starboard side of the ship" around 400 nautical miles south of French Polynesia's Austral Islands.

The crew threw a lifebuoy to the man who was parched, tired and looking 20 years older, according to Marat, lowered a ladder and pulled him back on board — half a day after he had left them.

His son calls the rescue "incredible" and credits his dad's survival to how he keeps himself fit and healthy.

A statement from the High Commission of the French Republic in French Polynesia confirmed that the JRCC Tahiti had responded to calls to aid in the search.

It said it had alerted French navy aircraft in nearby Tahiti, as well as its meteorological agency, Météo-France, which began calculating the sailor's possible drift based on winds.

"A happy ending for the man and the whole crew of the Silver Supporter, a relief for all those who contributed to the search," the statement said.

The incident illustrates "how dangerous life and working at sea are even in the 21st century" as well as the benefits of modern naval technology, said Chris Ware, a senior lecturer in naval history and director of the Greenwich Maritime Centre in London.

"The fact that on any other day the buoy, which was adrift, would be seen as marine pollution in this case turned out to be a lifesaver," he added.

Image: The Silver Supporter cargo vessel from which a 52 year-old Lithuanian sailor fell off and was then rescued after 16 hours in the water off the Australs archipelago in the Pacific Ocean.
The Silver Supporter cargo vessel from which a Lithuanian sailor fell and was then rescued after more than 14 hours in the water.French Polynesia's Joint Rescue Coordination Centre / AFP - Getty Images file

Laura Clarke, Britain's high commissioner to New Zealand and governor of the Pitcairn Islands, tweeted that the rescue was an "extraordinary survival story," adding that it would impress even Captain Bligh, the famed skipper of the HMS Bounty.

The ship suffered a mutiny in 1789, which was popularized in a Hollywood movie featuring actor Marlon Brando in 1962.

The majority of Pitcairn Islanders have European and Polynesian roots and are descended from nine mutineers of the British vessel. Most inhabitants move to Australia and New Zealand for school and work.

Due to the coronavirus pandemic, all tourism to the remote sandy Pitcairn — the only inhabited island in the group, approximately 2 miles long and 1 mile wide — have been halted.

While the Silver Supporter was permitted to carry supplies to the island, its schedule was vastly reduced to "protect its approximately 50 inhabitants," according to a tourism site for the government of the Pitcairn Islands, which charters the ship.