A solo yachtsman left Pittwater, on Sydney's northern beaches, two weeks ago heading for Eden on the New South Wales south coast.
Capt. Andrew Robertson, of Vancouver, who was piloting an Air Canada flight from Vancouver to Sydney, says he was contacted after an emergency beacon was activated early Tuesday with the man reporting that his boat had been drifting away from land.
"There's a ship, a yacht in distress, may have sunk, and you are the closest aircraft. Would you be able to assist," was the message Robertson said he received from Australian air traffic control.
Robertson said he asked for the location of the boat so that he and his crew could determine if they had the fuel to search for the boat in distress.
"Once we'd put that into our computer ... we actually determined that we had the fuel," Robertson said.
He noted that the aircraft's flight management system doesn't take into account dropping in altitude and then climbing back up, but Robertson said the crew believed they had enough fuel.
An Air New Zealand A320 heading to Sydney from New Zealand also went off course to locate the yacht about 435 kilometres east of Sydney.
The Air Canada flight crew was using binoculars provided by passengers to look for the yacht as Robertson took the plane down to about 5,000 feet.
"I made a PA announcement to ask the passengers (to watch for the boat) because it's like looking for a needle in a haystack," he said.
"Almost right away, my first officer spotted something," Robertson said, adding that at 5,000 feet is was hard to make out any details.
"So I went from 5,000 down to 3,700 feet ... and they saw what they thought initially were three people on the deck, but it turns out there was only one," he said.
Robertson said the 777 is a big plane to be down at that level doing search and rescue.
"We couldn't even drop pretzels," he said.
"The passengers were awesome," Robertson said, adding he'd heard of no complaints about the detour on the flight to Sydney.
Air Canada spokesman Peter Fitzpatrick said everybody on board was "really happy and excited by the outcome," even though it delayed the flight by roughly 90 minutes.
With the boat's location confirmed, a police vessel was dispatched to the demasted yacht, which was running low on fuel and drifting further out to sea.
Robertson said he understood the man was rescued a few hours later.
"It was very exciting."
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