‘It’s like 1,000 needles poking your face’: Singapore man stranded at sea was so sunburnt that it hurt to touch sea water

John Low in hospital after being rescued from the sea (left), and one month after, when his rescuers paid him a visit.
Facebook/John Low

A 60-year-old diving instructor, who spent four days drifting in the open sea, has said that the pain of putting his sunburnt face underwater during the ordeal was like having 1,000 needles stuck in his badly charred skin.

Singaporean John Low was on a boat anchored around 500m away from Tioman Island on May 4 when bad weather caused it to sink, The Straits Times reported.

According to the daily, Low managed to grab a life buoy and backpack containing his Singapore identity card before he was carried out to sea.

During his time stranded in the sea, all he had as companions were his ring buoy and Rolex Mido Commander, The Straits Times reported. To stay sane, he talked to those items, calling them “boy” and “brother”, the report added.

Lianhe Wanbao quoted Low as saying that thoughts of his family – a wife and three sons – were what kept him going during the ordeal.

While he remained calm at first, Low told the Chinese language daily that he started to feel anxious after about five hours of drifting, when he could no longer see any land.

Not only did he not have any food or water to drink, Low also had to endure the pain of the beating sun as well as cold temperatures at night in the South China Sea.

In a video interview posted by Lianhe Zaobao on Facebook, Low said: “If you keep your head up, out in the open, you get burnt, which means a burning sensation on your face.”

“The only way to avoid that is to put your face in the water. But because my face is all scarred, because (I had) been in the water for four days and three nights, when I put my face in the water, it’s like 1,000 needles poking my face. So it’s either I face the pain in the sun or the pain in the water,” he said.

Eventually, the skin below his arms became stuck to the life buoy, causing him unbearable pain, Lianhe Wanbao reported.

Amidst all that, he could also feel himself being pecked by marine creatures beneath the surface, but was too exhausted to do anything about it.

On the fourth night, relief came to Low in the form of a 10-storey high ship called Diogo Cao. According to The Straits Times, Low said he became unconsciousness as soon as he saw the ship approaching him.

After lifiting him out of the waters, ship crew notified Singapore authorities, and the Republic of Singapore Air Force (RSAF) deployed its Rescue 10 team to rescue the dehydrated man via helicopter.

In a video posted by the RSAF, Low thanked the team for bringing him home. He said it was reassuring to see the team anxious over him. “I hope there will be no one else for you to save but if you do , keep doing the same thing with your bravery,” Low told the men, before hugging each and everyone who had come to visit him.

And despite the harrowing experience, Low told Lianhe Wanbao that he was not afraid of the sea. Instead, he now has greater respect for it, and will continue to dive as it remains his favourite sport.

Low spent two weeks in hospital, including six days in intensive care. According to Lianhe Wanbao, Low suffered from an infection in his lungs, kidney failure due to high salt water intake, and skin burns.

However, the pain did not seem to diminish his sense of humour. In an update posted on his Facebook page, Low joked that his face resembled Chinese-style barbecued meat or bakwa.

One month on, Low reports that he has fully recovered from his injuries.