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Rescue from above: Plane passengers aid stranded sailor

Drifting for days in a yacht battered by a terrifying storm last week, Australian sailor Glenn Ey was rescued with some help from above.

A group of keen-eyed passengers armed with binoculars onboard an Air Canada jumbo jet spotted Ey’s 36-foot yacht floating adrift, 270 nautical miles off the coast of Sydney in the Tasman Sea. They helped rescuers pinpoint Ey’s location about 16 hours after his craft capsized in a raging storm.  

“I was very, very concerned,’’ Ey told NBC News. “You do think your number’s up.’’

Ey, 44, had spent two weeks sailing his yacht, Streaker, down the coast off Sydney when he encountered a wicked storm and a 70-foot wave that flipped his boat and smashed his mast.

“It's extraordinary,’’ Ey told NBC News of the storm. “The noise is like an explosion. You are upside down, smashing around inside the boat filling up with water.

“A wave came along, a huge wave, and it just picked me up and just rolled me over and I smashed into the roof of the yacht and then I was back on the table of the yacht. The boat flooded with water. I was up to my knees in water. You do think your number's up.’’

Ey was able to right his yacht, but had no sails and was running out of fuel. On Oct. 8, he activated his emergency beacon in hopes that rescuers would pinpoint his location, but it was eagle-eyed passengers on an Air Canada jet who spotted him. Below deck, he heard the plane passing, but did not see it. He came above deck, and when the plane circled around again, he was in their sights. 

“Everyone's heart started beating a little bit faster,'' passenger Jill Barber told NBC News. "Anything out of the ordinary like that on an international flight is a bit concerning.'' 

Since the jet was the closest aircraft to the emergency beacon signal, its captain helped Australian authorities to locate the damaged yacht. The jet’s captain, Andrew Robertson, took the Boeing 777 from 38,000 feet to 4,000 feet and told the crew and the 270 passengers to look out the window to try and spot the vessel.

It started as a routine flight for Air Canada flight 033, a Boeing 777,  but the flight's path was diverted to help locate a vessel in distress in the Tasman Sea, between Australia and New Zealand. NBC's John Irvine reports.

"We were happy when we found the boat the first time and we were really happy when we found that this guy was alive,'' Robertson told NBC News. 

"We cheered and we applauded and I think we all felt a sense of pride,'' Barber said. 

Just under 24 hours later, Ey returned to solid ground in Sydney, where he received an emotional embrace from his parents.

“'My prayers have been answered,' that’s what I said to him,’’ his mother, Colleen, told NBC News.

Ey said he's grateful for the little things now.

“Yeah, after a week or so, two weeks, something like a milkshake is extremely appealing,’’ he said. “It’s absolutely beautiful.’’

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