A sailor rescued after he fell into Lake Michigan says one of the worst moments of the 12-hour ordeal came near the end, when a Coast Guard helicopter seemed to have its spotlight on him, only to turn away.

"I heard the rotors and looked east and here was this magnificent whirlybird," James Nelson said after his rescue early Monday. "I waved my arms, but I sank underwater. I could see the spotlight hit my arms. By the time I surfaced it was heading west.

"I said a prayer and the 'helo' turned east. I waved my arms and kept my head above water this time. He flicked his light that he saw me."

Nelson, 56, had fallen into Lake Michigan's Green Bay on Sunday afternoon while sailing in his 23-foot sailboat. A gust of wind caused the boom to swing and knock him into the water — without his life jacket, which he had left on the seat next to him.

His wife, Mary, reported him missing when he failed to return Sunday evening. Around the same time, the Coast Guard learned that a sailboat was found adrift with its engine running.

Seven boats and two helicopters joined the search, along with a group of recreational boaters.

A Coast Guard helicopter crew using night-vision goggles and thermal imaging cameras finally spotted Nelson. He was pulled from the water after 12 hours and taken to St. Vincent's Hospital, where he was treated for dehydration.

"With strength from the Almighty, I just paced myself," he said. But he said he was nearing exhaustion, "about out of gas," when the helicopter arrived.

"When we heard a survivor was spotted in the water, you'd have thought we won the Super Bowl from the cheers," said Chief Mike Weisenbaugh, officer in charge of Coast Guard Station Green Bay.