There is an old whakatauki, a Maori proverb, that says you can either die like an octopus, which just gives up as soon as it is caught, or you can die like a shark, thrashing about and fighting.

It was the latter that Robert Hohepa Hewitt had on his mind in the final hours of the four days and three nights he spent lost in the sea last month.

"For four days and three nights," Hewitt often repeats - as if not to be denied one minute of his miracle, which he survived by eating kina and crayfish and sucking watery mist from his oxygen tank, before slowly losing everything he had, until it was just him, half-naked and alone in the cold sea.

But seven weeks later it's not the water which has this tough, 20-year Navy veteran scared. His greatest fear has been loneliness.

In the first weeks after his rescue, he would wake in a cold sweat with his body seeping salt crystals into the sheets. Suddenly the smell of salt filled his nostrils and he would be back in the blackness of the sea at night.

Or he would get in the shower, the water would wash over him, and in a flash he was back in Tangaroa's grip.

In those first few days back on land, Hewitt's youngest brother, Russell, or "Skin" as the family call the thinnest of the Hewitts, refused to leave his side.

"I would wake up in the middle of the night and I'd see him. And it would lift me up again," Hewitt says.

"As for my youngest daughter Kiriana, 6, she just touches me all the time.

"For the first two weeks she was sleeping next to me on a made-up bed on the floor, touching me just to make sure that I was all right, because I guess the thing that I was most scared of was just being alone."

Seven weeks after his rescue, Hewitt barely resembles the man we saw, bloated, shaking and sunburnt, carried from the sea to his family on February 8.

The swelling has gone down, the scars from hundreds of weeping sores are fading, but his eyes are just the same. Those massive, brown eyes still struggling to understand quite what happened and how he survived.

Hewitt has only just returned home to Palmerston North. He and most of his family have been living with brother - former All Black Norm - in Wellington as he has healed and they have tried to get to grips with their miracle. Slowly they have been piecing together one of the world's most remarkable survival stories. And Hewitt is ready to tell it.

It is a routine dive off Mana Island, on the west coast of Wellington, on Sunday February 5, the day before Waitangi Day. Hewitt tells his dive buddy he will make his way to the shore, about 200m away. But instead he surfaces several hundred metres up the coast.

It is about 3pm. Lying on his back in the sea, in a thick wetsuit and buoyancy compensator, laden with an oxygen tank, knife and catch bag of crayfish, Hewitt begins making decisions. The first is not to panic.

"There was no worry," he remembers. "It was 'oh well, I'm a good swimmer, I've got all my gear on, I'm not going to die. I'm sweet as. Just wait. Someone will come.' "

But no one does. And about three hours later he has to make his second agonising decision. He will not swim the 4.5km against the tide to the shore. He doesn't want to ditch his bright yellow catch-bag and orange oxygen tank. He is aware that his last meal was breakfast - a doughnut and a muffin - and he can't afford to run out of energy if he wants to survive.

But the decision is killing him. "What if I could do it? But then what if I don't make it? I'm out there alone and can't rebound off anyone. I'm only rebounding off myself and it's just knocking around in my head.

"But then I just close my eyes and say 'you've made the right decision. You've made the right decision' until that's all I hear."

As he is kicking on his back, the tide begins pushing him back down the coast. Before the sun goes down he sees an aircraft. He notices its zig-zag flight pattern and realises it is looking for him. His spirits soar.

"I held up my catch-bag, I held it up as high and wide as I could, yelling, trying to tread water and kick myself up so I could get as high as I could.

"My cylinder was an orange colour so I rolled over with my face in the water, hoping that it would see that because it flew over me about three times in close proximity."

He grabs his knife and goggles, trying to reflect the sun into the pilot's eyes. Sometimes he thinks the plane is banking and will turn around to drop a marker.

"Then all of a sudden [he clutches his heart] it is not. It's flying away. So my whole wairua, my spirit, just drops right down. And then I see it turn around and it gives me hope again."

The planes disappear about 7pm. The waves have picked up to a 1m swell, and about half an hour before the sun disappears he turns to see the house lights on the mainland. Estimating he is about 12km off Plimmerton Point, it dawns on Hewitt that he is going to spend the night alone in the black water.

He starts to pray. "I suppose like every man, every human being, you wonder if there's something bigger up there. I suppose I wanted clarification. Was there something out there? If I was going to die, give me clarification that there is something up there. So yeah, I had a karakia.

"I prayed to God first and then I prayed to the gods of the sea and wind. And from there everything just felt all right, I felt a warm sensation go through me and then, whether I died, or whether I lived, I knew everything was going to be all right."

He settles into a rhythm of treading water, lying on his back and power napping for about 30 seconds at a time, each time waking up gasping, thinking he is drowning, as a wave washes over him and salt water floods his throat.

Every couple of hours he yells out to those he loves, trying to keep his mind focused. "I would yell out at the top of my voice 'Love you Rang [his partner Rangi]. Love to the kids, love to Mum and Dad. Love to Norm'. To my brothers and sisters, anyone who came to mind, just so I could put a mental picture in front of me of their face.

"Just yelling out their name would pick me up and then I would conquer the next hour and the next hour and the next."

On Monday morning the sun rises about 5am and Hewitt's spirits are lifted again. He has been pushed about 29km closer to Kapiti Island. He gives himself a slap, looks at the water and realises he is alive, and suddenly he is filled with joy. Today he will be rescued. He has made it through the night and now someone will be able to see him.

But physically he is suffering. A southerly has blown the swell to about 2m.

His battered body is crying out for water and he is dry retching. So he releases his oxygen regulator in front of his face, absorbing the moisture inside the cylinder and giving relief to his swollen tongue and raspy throat.

It is Waitangi Day, but Hewitt's hopes of being found by pleasure boaties are dashed by the foul weather.

As waves pick him up he kicks his feet to make himself as tall as possible.

"But by now the wind and waves are bashing the energy out of me."

So he decides to start eating his catch, cracking a kina with his knife and eating the roe, then forcing himself to eat the rest of the shellfish.

"It tastes like crap but I eat it," he says, at which point brother Norm butts in.

"I think you might want to be more descriptive. What does crap taste like?"

Norm knows about publicity. He has taken his big brother under his wing since his rescue, carefully managing the unfolding story and protecting him from the journalists desperate to tell it.

He and Robert have forged a partnership that may see a book or movie deal - some way, Norm says, to share Robert's "honest miracle".

Back to Waitangi Day, when Robert is forced to surf giant waves pulling him from the mainland. The thought of moving away from land is harrowing but he knows he can't fight the sea. He remembers the whakatauki and decides if he is to die it will be like a shark - fighting.

He watches a helicopter fly out to the west and disappear. But he has not given up hope.

"It's quite funny now, even the Qantas and Air New Zealand planes, you know how high they fly, even if I saw one coming I'd hold my bag up, just in case someone was looking out the window and would say, 'oh, what's that down there'."

As the day wears on, Robert finds himself praying for night, when the sea will be calmer. And when the sun goes down he feels better than the night before. He has proven he can survive. He starts moving his fingers and toes and keeping his head, groin and armpits moving - tricks he has been taught in the Navy.

But dehydration has set in. Tonight he has the first of several hallucinations. He thinks he has made it to shore at Otaki and is planning to walk to his friend's house. Or he has come ashore at Waikanae and is at the police station talking to officers.

"I thought I was asking them for a drink of water. In another hallucination I would go to the BP station and I thought I was saying to them 'I don't have any money but can I have a drink, please?' In all the hallucinations I never got one."

Tuesday morning, his third day, finds Hewitt about 7km off Kapiti Coast. "I'm thinking this is the day. I'm going to make it. I'm going to swim to Kapiti.

"I had another kina, which lifted my spirits and I thought, 'Six hours. Surely you can get there in six hours.'

"But I didn't realise how much the sun was going to sap my energy. Even though it was a beautiful day, it was too beautiful. Not a cloud in the sky and I didn't see one boatie on Tuesday."

He started swimming towards the island, the sun splitting his skin. But every time he would make some ground he would roll over on to his back, the sun would beat down on his face, and he would fall sleep.

He reckons he got about 5km from the island. But he couldn't stay awake.

" I felt disappointed in myself. I thought I was a lot fitter. I thought I would be able to do it."

That evening, he decides to ditch the dive tank to free himself of unnecessary weight. The next goal is to survive to midnight, then to the next morning. But by Tuesday night he is aware he may not survive. He has been on body recovery missions and he starts to imagine his own tangi. That night he hallucinates. He sees his grandparents, giving him comfort. Wednesday is a blur.

"I was outside, here, looking at my fiance Rangi, the kids and at me. I saw me there.

"Talking to some people, they say if I had got there I wouldn't have come back, because my whole body would have given up. I would have thought I was home.

"But subconsciously I knew I was in a hallucination. I took off my hood and the cold water rushed through my head. And then I found myself back in the water. And I didn't want to be there now. This is the fourth day and I didn't want to be there.

"So I just closed my eyes and went back into the hallucination trying to figure out how to get to that person who is in my kitchen with my fiance cooking tea for the kids. And then I'd sort of walk through the door, walk through the house and take off my jacket, and the cold water just ran through my whole body. Because I really had chucked my hood and my jacket away because I thought I was at home unpacking.

"Then I felt the cold water come through my body and once again it woke me up."

Delirious, he takes off his swim fins too. His ankles are badly injured, the skin split and raw.

Drifting in and out of consciousness, he wakes to find himself face down in the water, desperate for air. Then he rolls over, and sees a police boat.

"I see a little Zodiac coming towards me. I think they're going to run me over.

"I look at them. I see two fellas that I know, Lyle Cairns and Buzz Tomoana, who are Navy divers and we'd been in the Navy for 20 years together. They picked me up ... They were shouting, but I'm thinking this is the same as the BP, the same as the police station.

"They put me in the boat and I say to Lyle something like 'Oh, kia ora bro, how's it going, what are you fellas doing here?' Then I ask them the question that I have asked in all my hallucinations: 'Where's some water?'

"So we get to the police boat, I see the water. I touch the water and then the water comes to my face and I know, this isn't a hallucination, this is real. From there I just collapse."

Lying down on the deck, Hewitt asks to call his fiance Rangi, who is grieving with the rest of his family at Titahi Bay's Takapuwahia marae.

Rangi is sleeping but her sister answers the phone. "I could hear her shouting, 'It's Rob, he's alive! He's alive!' "

Since then, his recovery has been as much spiritual as physical.

He finishes with the Navy in a month, having cancelled the extra year he signed up for when his 20-year stint finished - eight days after his rescue.

Rangi and Robert will set a date for their wedding by the end of the month. He has started painting and has rededicated himself to carving. He has spent weeks talking, reading and watching videos of the news about this disappearance.

"I'm trying to have an understanding of the enormity of the whole thing, because all I was doing was surviving.

"Part of the recovery is talking with my family about it.

"All I've heard from them is 'we are going to get you back. Whether you came back to us alive or whether you've passed away, we are going to get you back.' They never gave up.

"Well, I never gave up. Because I'm here. I'm here."

FootnoteRobert wanted to say this too: "If I could just say thanks to people for their prayers and their kind thoughts, for me and my family while I was out at sea. Words like 'thank you' are the only ones I can come with to express myself. So if I could just say thank you that would be good."