When Aussie sailor John Deer fell off his yacht in the Caribbean Sea, he thought he would not make it through the night alive.
But as he watched his boat drift into the distance, the 41-year-old realised he had a choice: wait for the waves to eventually pull him under or try to swim 17km to shore.
‘I kinda treaded water for a moment and I’m thinking, “Right, I’m gonna die”,’ he told 60Minutes.
‘Then I thought “am I just going to float around and wait for that lung full of water?” I may as well start swimming”.
‘So I started swimming.’
Three years ago, Mr Deer left his Melbourne home to embark on a trip of a lifetime – a solo sailing adventure around the world.
He bought a second-hand yacht, called Julieta, in the Greek Islands and began his voyage – cruising across the Mediterranean, visiting Albania, Italy, then island hopping around Spain.
Despite not having previous sailing experience, he ‘threw himself into the deep end’ and quickly fell in love with his new lifestyle.
John Deer, 41, recounted his miraculous tale of survival after he swam 17kms to shore after falling off his yacht near Panama
‘It was a cheap way to live, that was a huge apart of the appeal,’ he said.
‘I didn’t want to get old and look back and go “oh, I worked a lot”. Life’s for living.
‘I travelled for free with the wind, I ate for free, fishing from the ocean. I had solar panels so I had free electricity.
‘It was not only my home, but my transport. It was great.’
After Europe, Mr Deer headed down the west coast of Africa then began the journey across the Atlantic Ocean, intending to reach Panama then glide south back to Australia.
But last month as he neared Panama, trouble struck.
While casting a line out to catch fish for dinner on June 8, his foot slipped and he fell – untethered and without a life jacket – off his yacht into the sea, in an area known to locals as Shark Point.
‘I didn’t want to believe it. I thought am I dreaming? Is this real?’ he said.
‘I can see my boat. I’m pretty sure it’s real. I’m like, “I’m dead, for sure.
‘This is the day I die.’
Moments before the fall, Mr Deer had checked his GPS and knew he was 17kms away from land.
Now, treading water with no belongings other than his shorts and the shirt on his back, he believed there was no chance he would make it back to shore.
After Europe, Mr Deer headed down the west coast of Africa then began the journey across the Atlantic Ocean, intending to reach Panama (pictured on a map) then glide south back to Australia
Mr Deer was on a trip of a lifetime – solo sailing around the world – when he fell off his boat, Julieta (pictured)
Determined to fight for his life, he started swimming as the sunset and into the night, using the moon’s direction as a navigational guide.
But as the water turned dark, he found himself fighting the dangers lurking beneath.
‘Something started to bite. There was pure terror – panic,’ he said.
‘I thought it was a shark straight away.’
Mr Deer started screaming and punching the water in a bid to scare whatever it was away.
But after realising the fearful episode had fatigued him, he put his mind to conserving his energy and returned to swimming, using breath stroke until he tired then switching to backstroke.
During the perilous journey, he kept his mind occupied by counting his strokes to track how much further he had to go.
Ten hours later, he finally made it to the shoreline and felt gravity take hold again as he scrambled up rocks out of the water.
But his battle was not over yet. As the sun rose, he realised the land behind him was an impenetrable jungle and he would need to find another way back to civilisation.
Eventually he saw a boat breeching over the horizon and he called out as it neared.
‘I waved my heart out and yelled out Cooee!’ he said.
‘[But] they saw me and waved back and kept going. I’m like, “No, no, stop!”
His boat (pictured) was found wrecked along rocks off the Panama coast after it drifted off
After a gruelling hour wait, Mr Deer’s efforts to flag down the next ship worked and he was rescued off the rocks.
‘I broke into tears,’ he said.
‘They were totally confused. [Thinking] who is this foreigner on the rocks. I was topless, barefoot. Just trying to get a ride back.
‘I think they saw that desperation in my eyes.’
The crew took him back to Panama City where he spent more than a week trying to get a passport after losing all of his belongings at sea.
His yacht was later discovered wrecked on rocks along the coastline, smashed to pieces.
Now, back in Australia, Mr Deer believes he had the current – and luck – on his side.
Despite its name, he has since learnt there are no sharks in the Bay of Sharks.
’17km/h over ten hours is like 1.7km an hour. I’m no Olympic Swimmer. I’m generally a pretty unfit guy. I 100 per cent must have had current with me,’ he said.
‘I don’t believe in the religious god… But I prayed to the universe. I put some energy out there. But even then I think, afterwards, it was luck.
‘I don’t know if that’s destiny. I don’t know if I believe in destiny either but…yeah.
‘Here I am.’
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