If there’s such thing as a worst-case scenario, lobster fisherman John Aldridge found himself smack dab in the middle of it early one morning on July 24, 2013.
Aldridge was alone on deck of the Anna Mary at the time, his longtime fishing partner Anthony Sosinski was asleep below, as the boat motored 40 miles out into the Atlantic on autopilot from Long Island’s Montauk harbor.
Before reaching their first string of traps, the 45-year-old fisherman went to work dragging a massive 200-pound ice chest across the deck with a metal hook placed around the cooler’s plastic handle.
Then it happened.
“I was pulling on it with all my might and the handle snapped,” Aldridge, whose story of survival is chronicled in the recently-released book A Speck In The Sea, tells PEOPLE. “Everything started going by in slow motion.”
Because the stern of their 44-foot vessel had no transom, he stumbled backwards and immediately plunged into the chilly ocean, then watched as the Anna Mary sped away from him in the darkness. His fishing partner was still fast asleep.
“I’m screaming, but nobody heard me,” he says. “All of a sudden, I was alone watching the lights fade away. There was nothing in the ocean but me.”
Aldridge panicked as his heavy rubber boots began to fill with water, so he yanked them off, emptied the water out and transformed them into a makeshift life vest. It was just after 3:30 a.m. and he began to shiver as the 72-degree seawater drained the heat from his body.
In the moonlight while treading water to keep afloat, he could make out the dorsal fins of two blue sharks circling him.
“They kept swimming back and forth on the surface,” recalls Aldridge, who clutched his pocket knife, telling himself he’d fend the sharks off with the tiny blade if they tried to attack. “I just kept spinning around in circles, trying to see them when they disappeared under the surface.”
It didn’t take long for Sosinski to realize that Aldridge had fallen overboard when he awoke at 6 a.m., nearly three hours after Alridge had plunged into the sea. He immediately radioed the Coast Guard and announced, “This is the Anna Mary. We’ve got a man overboard.”
It quickly became a race against the clock. The Coast Guard calculated that Aldridge could survive roughly 19 hours in the water before hypothermia would set in, causing his body temperature to plummet and his muscles to give out. Few people, Sosinski learned, survived even half that long under the conditions Alridge was facing.
As a Coast Guard helicopter scanned the water from above, Sosinski put the call out to other fishing boats in the area, asking for their help. But finding him was like looking for a needle in a haystack since it was unclear exactly when and where Aldridge had fallen into the sea.
But after about two hours, Sosinski spotted the broken handle on the cooler and pieced together what happened. Factoring in the tides and currents, he did some calculations and came up with a “guess” regarding where he believed Aldridge might be. Before long, 21 commercial fishing boats were in the area, desperately searching for a man that many believed might already be dead.
But Aldridge was still very much alive — and fighting to stay that way. His brush with the sharks and the panic that followed quickly forced him to realize that his only hope of survival was to keep his mind calm and focused.
“I realized that I needed to get into a whole other mindset to keep myself from freaking out totally,” he says. “So I just started setting goals for myself. Instead of being so overwhelmed by the whole situation, I broke things down into different categories. The first thing I told myself is that I’ve got to stay alive until sunrise. And once I make it to daylight, I’ll figure out the next goal.”
By daybreak, he spotted a buoy and used his knife to cut it free, eventually tying it to another buoy he encountered after hours of treading water and being pulled along by the currents.
As the morning dragged on, he stayed afloat using the buoys and his inflated boots. In the distance, he spotted a number of fishing boats and realized they were searching for him. “But no one was seeing me,” he says. “I was just a speck in the sea.”
The hours passed and, despite his focus, Aldridge realized he was tiring. If he wasn’t rescued by sunset, he planned on tying himself to the buoy in the hope that someone would find eventually his body. “I was running on heavy adrenalin,” he recalls thinking. “But I knew my body was deteriorating.”
Two more hours passed and the Coast Guard rescue helicopter that had been searching for Alridge for most of the day was nearly out of fuel. When Aldridge spotted it overhead, he started “waving and kicking like crazy.”
By the time he was plucked out of the sea, his body temperature had dropped to 93 degrees. He credits his survival to his rubber boots—and his ability to control his mind.
“I got a crash course in positive thinking,” says Aldridge, whose odyssey is now being made into a feature film. “But positive thinking really freaking works. I’m living proof.”
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