RESCUES: Ships That Pass

As poor a swimmer as many sailors, Italian Seaman Garguilo Francesco, 33, 15 years at sea, had never been able to stay afloat more than a few floundering minutes. But he got better one day last week. Taking a break between deck chores aboard the Liberian-flag White River, 70 miles out of Norfolk with a cargo of coal for Rotterdam, Francesco sat comfortably on the stern rail—and, plop, fell overboard. Unnoticed, he paddled to keep his head up, watched his ship disappear serenely over the horizon.

Two and a half hours later, a speck in the vastness of the...