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Wellington -

A New Zealand man was saved by writing an SOS in the sand on a remote beach in Northland, after being swept off the back of a yacht while urinating overboard, the Northern Advocate newspaper reported on Monday.

The man, Todd Vercoe, was swept into the sea by a large wave while his two crew mates slept below decks on Saturday afternoon.

The yacht, with its motor running on autopilot, sailed away from him, forcing Vercoe to make a desperate three-hour swim for safety enduring rough seas, thunder, lightning - and a fear of sharks.

As Vercoe swam towards shore through a thunderstorm, his biggest worry was being attacked by a shark, he told the Northern Advocate.

“I kept saying to myself, 'Don't give up'. I wouldn't say I'm the strongest swimmer either. At some points I didn't think I was going to make it. I just kept pushing myself to get there. It was pure will really,” he said.

Eventually he scrambled onto the rocks at Rimariki Island, but decided he needed to make it to the mainland. He returned to the water to swim the final 400m to the Kaituna Peninsula.

Vercoe, who had seen a rescue helicopter overhead, etched an SOS in the sand with his foot when he finally reached landfall at Kaituna Bay, near New Zealand's most northern city Whangarei.

Rescue pilot Russell Procter said he had been about to land so crew members could prepare to continue the search in darkness when they saw a man waving frantically next to a plea for help in the sand.

Vercoe, who was suffering from hypothermia, was picked up by the helicopter and flown to Whangarei for a hot shower.

“It was a relief to see them. I don't want to do that again,” he said. - Sapa-dpa