FALMOUTH, Mass. -- John Aldridge used his rubber boots as a life raft as he struggled to stay afloat in the Atlantic Ocean for nearly 12 hours before Coast Guard rescuers plucked him from the water Wednesday, more than 40 miles from where he had fallen overboard.
The Montauk lobsterman didn't have a life jacket on. But he floated with the boots upside-down under his arms, willing himself to stay alive with thoughts of his young nephew until a Coast Guard helicopter dropped a rescuer down on a cable to hoist him aboard.
"These boots saved my life," said Aldridge, 45, who was recuperating Wednesday night at a Falmouth hospital. "I put one under each arm and I said, 'I'm going to live. I can do this.' "
The intense search and rescue spanned eight hours and covered 780 square miles, and involved Coast Guard crews from five states, along with commercial fishing crews.
Aldridge, an Oakdale native and fisherman for 19 years, was being treated for dehydration, exposure and hypothermia Wednesday night, said Coast Guard Petty Officer 3rd Class Alissa Flockerzi.
Aldridge, working as part of the crew on the 44-foot fishing vessel Anna Mary out of Montauk, said he fell in the water when he went to move a cooler about 3:30 a.m. Wednesday.
"The handle snapped and I went straight out the back of the boat," said Aldridge, who also suffered a nasty sunburn. "I watched the boat wash away."
He eventually kicked his way to a buoy, thinking rescuers would have a better shot of spotting him there. Boats came and went for several hours but didn't see him. As he waited, he watched fins piercing the water and feared a shark attack.
"There were fins swimming around me," he said. "I seen a fin that I swore could've been a shark but it was at night. I saw dolphins. Birds were picking at me. I had the whole gamut of sea life coming at me."
Aldridge's family and girlfriend arrived at the hospital at 11 p.m. in the hopes of bringing him home.
As of 11:10 p.m., medical staff had not determined whether he would be discharged.
His sister, Cathy Patterson, brother-in-law, Tom Patterson, and sister-in-law, Jillian Aldridge, all of Oakdale, and his girlfriend, Teresa Yarusso of Holbrook, greeted him with hugs in the emergency room. The group said Aldridge was so sunburned that he was physically hot to the touch.
"He's a little crispy, but he's in good spirits," Tom Patterson said. "He just told us, he wasn't giving up."
Jillian Aldridge said family members spent the day waiting by the radio at the Coast Guard station in Montauk. When word came over that Aldridge had been taken to Falmouth Hospital, the group of family members took three ferries to reach Massachusetts. The trip to Cape Cod took 5 1/2 hours, Tom Patterson said.
Earlier in the day, Aldridge's father, John Aldridge Sr., 68, said the rescue was "the best thing that ever happened to us." Aldridge Sr., of Oakdale, admitted, as the hours went by, he had feared the worst. "I thought we were gonna get some real bad news. My wife held me together. I'm just thinking to myself, 'How could you survive 12 hours on the water like that?' "
Crews established the search area based on the assumption Aldridge had fallen overboard sometime after 9 p.m. Tuesday, but before 4:30 a.m. yesterday. Eight hours after the initial report, an Air Station Cape Cod MH-60T Jayhawk helicopter located Aldridge.
A crew member had reported Aldridge missing about 6:30 Wednesday morning, Coast Guard officials said.
The colleague told the Coast Guard that the vessel was about 5 miles south of Montauk Point and that Aldridge was last seen when he went on watch about 9 p.m. Tuesday.
Melanie Sosinski, 24, of Tampa, Fla., said her father, Anthony Sosinski, who operates a commercial fishing business with Aldridge out of the Anna Mary, reported him missing.
Sosinski said her father and Aldridge are childhood friends. John Aldridge, who she said is nicknamed "Johnny," is like an uncle to her. "I definitely think it's going to be an amazing story to be told. Being in the water for 12 hours. . . . It's incredible."
Coast Guard Lt. Joe Klinker, a public affairs officer, said the rescue was a "proud moment" for the service.
"This ending had a lot of people shaking hands and smiling," Klinker said in a statement.
"Let me tell you something, the Coast Guard is unbelievable," said Aldridge Sr. "You can quote me as saying these guys are worth a million dollars -- each -- for what they do."
"We're a very close family, and my son," he said, pausing, his voice filling with emotion, "would have been a big loss."
With Gary Dymski
and Emily C. Dooley