TIOMAN, Pahang: After three days adrift and clinging to just a lifebuoy, diving enthusiast John Low was on the verge of giving up.
His speedboat was in the watery depths of the South China Sea, and around him, he thought he saw spaceships. Voices encouraged him to let go, among other things.
“They said, ‘Don’t worry, somebody’s going to pick you up … Don’t worry, (here’s) a Coke for you,’” recalled the 61-year-old. “And I could hear the ‘tss’ (fizz).”
He had to endure injuries and fight off these hallucinations that came with his fatigue in the open sea before he was rescued by a passing ship on the fourth day of his ordeal in May last year.
WATCH: Lost at sea for 80 hours - and how I survived: A 60-year-old’s story (4:47)
He has since recovered and has also changed his perspective on life as well as re-evaluated his priorities, he shared with the programme On The Red Dot. That is what coming so near to death has done for him.
His epic voyage had started out well enough. He was in one of two boats travelling from Mersing to Tioman Island when it ran out of fuel.
Low, who owns a diving shop in Tioman, remained in the boat while the captain left with the other boat to get fuel and promised to return.
“I wasn’t very worried,” he recalled. “Unfortunately ... the weather started changing. The currents started building up ... The boat started shaking.”
He made a call to his youngest son, Bryan, to tell him there was a problem with the boat, which was taking on water.
Bryan was not too concerned about the situation then. “Water seeping in would be normal. Knowing my dad, he’d be on top of things, and I didn't give a second thought to it,” he said.
But the boat started taking on water faster than Low could bail. As the vessel went down, he managed to grab a lifebuoy and his backpack.
In the water, the first thing that hit him was a mixture of petrol and seawater, which gave him chemical burns. “It also affected my ability to look around because .... my left eye was burning,” he recounted.
He had no vision in right eye either, not since he was 27, after a driver punched him in a road rage incident that shattered his glasses and blinded the eye.
Bryan, who went to the marina expecting to see his father, saw only one boat docked there. The captain could not find the missing boat earlier, so together they searched the choppy seas again.
“It was quite a fruitless search,” said Bryan. “That’s when I realised the boat had sunk, and my dad was out in the sea.”
CONVERSATIONS WITH HIS WATCH
The weather turned calm after a few hours, and in the water, Low was optimistic that he would be rescued soon and even have a meal.
“I was thinking ... I still could go for roti canai in one of the villages,” he said.
But as time passed, he grew afraid. In the darkness, he could feel “a lot of things moving around” in the water. He also could not control the direction he was paddling in, as the currents were too strong.
“When I do my night dives, I'm always with four to five people,” he said. “This time ... I was alone.”
Only the stars lighting up the night sky provided him with some comfort. “I felt that somebody was there with me. And I felt that I’d be home,” he added.
When daybreak came, the sunrise was “like a big smile on someone’s face looking at you”, he described. To him, it is “the most beautiful thing you’ll always see”.
But the day, with the “scorching sun” in the afternoon, also brought him pain. “It's like putting your head in a microwave oven. A part of my armpit started rotting. The sea water started stinging,” he said.
Occasionally, he could see and hear helicopters, airplanes and boats, with hopes that they would spot him, only to be demoralised when they pass by.
To keep his spirits up, he started talking to his diving watch and lifebuoy. “I called (to) my watch, ‘Brother ... can tahan (endure in Malay)? … Okay lah, let’s go,’” he said.
“My watch was an excellent timekeeper ... (Talking to) it gave me motivation.”
Throughout his ordeal, he could not sleep as he was in constant pain. He later found out that parts of his skin had disintegrated, and some had stuck to the buoy.
By the third day, he felt that he was moving further and further away from land, and he was losing hope that he would be found.
“I was so tired, and that's when fear starts and you start thinking, ‘Where am I? Why did they take so long to look for me? Don't they care for me any more?’” he said.
His family had almost given up hope of finding him alive. Bryan and the Malaysian search and rescue team scoured the seas all the way to Pulau Aur, 80 kilometres east of Mersing, but could not locate Low.
“Once you pass Pulau Aur, it’s basically a big ocean with no islands ... It’s straight to Indonesia,” said Bryan. “We circled around there, but (after) 72 hours ... I knew there was no way a person could survive.”
But Low’s eldest son, George, said he always believed that their father “was invincible” and that “nothing could harm him”. Said the engineer: “Somehow I was still convinced that he was somewhere waiting to be rescued.”
KIDNEYS WERE FAILING
On the fourth day, said Low, he felt small creatures, possibly crabs, on his body. “Is this lunch for me?” he wondered. “On the other hand, am I rotting, so that (is why) these crabs are climbing all over me?”
As he grew weaker, he prayed for help and left his fate to God. He was prepared to not be found.
A few hours later, he thought he saw an “alien ship” in front of him again. This time, it turned out to be the ship, Diogo Cao. The crew got him aboard as quickly as possible.
“Later on, I found out from the crew ... that I shouted when they peeled the buoy from my arm. And they were very happy because they thought I was already dead,” he said.
The crew informed the Singaporean authorities, and a helicopter was despatched to get him.
In hospital, he appeared lifeless, said George. The survivor’s kidneys were failing owing to a high saltwater intake, his lungs were filled with seawater and his burns were severe. But he did have brief moments of lucidity.
“I couldn’t really open my eyes,” he recalled. “The only thing I can remember was the shadow of a head … Then I could see my wife. You can’t explain this kind of feeling.”
One of his diving students, Joey Choo, was on duty in the same hospital when she received a call from George about his father. After her shift ended, she hurried to Low’s side and was shocked to see his condition.
“His skin was peeling off, and there were big blisters all around his body,” said the Singapore General Hospital nurse.
His mouth was also full of blisters and ulcers, so she used a syringe with water in it and “fed him by the corner of his mouth”.
Over the weeks, he slowly recovered, although he was in a hurry to get well and regain his strength in order to “enjoy a nice meal with my family”, he said.
His ordeal has made him realise how precious his family is, much more than “business and money”.
“Since the incident, I’ve felt that ... we shouldn’t lose an opportunity when it comes to quality family time or caring for your friends,” he said.
Even when it comes to food, he finishes everything on his plate “because everything is so precious now”.
His family also enjoy spending more time with him now, he said, as he has learnt to curb his temper.
“I’m using the word ‘sorry’ more … I see their goodness,” added the father of three. (The incident) has helped me with my relationship with my family.”
What it has not done is stop him heading back to sea to dive, which he does occasionally now that he is living and working in Vietnam, having put his nightmare behind him.
On The Red Dot airs on Mediacorp Channel 5 every Friday at 9.30pm.