Philippine fisherman back home after 58 days adrift at sea, being given up for dead

Filipino fisherman Rolando Omongos, 21, arrives at the Manila International Airport on March 29, 2017.
Filipino fisherman Rolando Omongos, 21, arrives at the Manila International Airport on March 29, 2017.PHOTO: AFP

MANILA (AFP) - A young fisherman flew home to the Philippines on Wednesday (March 29) after being given up for dead at sea, battling hunger, thirst and despair for nearly two months on a tiny boat that drifted all the way to Papua New Guinea.

Rolando Omongos, 21, recounted an astonishing tale of survival as he arrived from his first-ever plane ride at Manila airport, three weeks after his rescue by a Japanese fishing vessel.

"I cried non-stop when I was finally rescued. I was too weak to stand up and they had to carry me," the diminutive fisherman told reporters.

He said he survived on rainwater and moss growing at the hull of his 2.5-metre (8-foot)long boat, finding respite from the heat of the tropical sun by diving into the water frequently.

His 31-year-old uncle Reniel Omongos, who was on a second small boat, died after a month. The nephew believes hunger and exposure killed the older man.

The nephew lashed the body onto his boat for a few days but later let it sink into the water when it began to smell.

"God, please take care of my uncle. I have to stay alive so somebody would bring the news (to our kin)," he said as he prayed.

The men had set off on Dec 21 with other fishermen aboard a purse seiner from General Santos, a southern Philippine port facing the Celebes Sea.

The port lies more than 3,200km north-west of the PNG island of New Britain, where the rescuers later dropped the survivor off.

A storm separated Omongos and his uncle from their mother boat on Jan 10, and they ran out of fuel five days later.

They later tossed their small boat engines overboard so they would float higher and avoid being swamped by huge waves.

"No fewer than four vessels would pass us by each day. I would wave at them but they would not stop for us," the nephew said.

He said the ships and fishing boats apparently failed to see their tiny vessels bobbing about 3-5km away.

"I never lost hope. I was always praying," he added.

"I told myself, at least one of us had to get back home."

When the Japanese fishing vessel Wakaba Maru found him, Omongos said he was very weak and emaciated, having been reduced to eating moss once every few days.

He was down to just over 20kg, from his original weight of 61kg.

The fisherman, who quit school after sixth grade, said he planned to rest after flying home to General Santos on Thursday, but vowed never to set foot on a boat again.

"Maybe I will go back to school instead," he added.