Adrift – Poon Lim survived 133 days at sea on a wooden raft

Paul Pinkerton
 
Poon Lim survived for 133 days adrift on the sea

Chinese native Poon Lim was a steward on a British ship during World War II that was traveling from Cape Town to Surinam.

The Germans intercepted the boat 750 miles east of the Amazon, and a pair of torpedoes sank the ship in two minutes. Lim was the only man of the 53 on board to survive the attack. He would hold the world record for time spent surviving as a castaway adrift at sea.

Born in Hainan, China, the largest of a series of islands in the South China Sea, Poon Lim attended school, unlike many other kids his age, thanks to his brothers sending money from their factory jobs.

 

At 16, Lim’s father, believing that life would be better elsewhere and out of fear that Lim would be drafted to fight against the rapidly advancing Japanese, sent him to join one of his brothers on a British passenger freight, working as a cabin boy.

The ship that Lim was on, the Ben Lomond, was armed but slow moving and was sailing alone on its way from Cape Town to Surinam. The German U-boat U-172 intercepted it on November 23 and struck the ship with two torpedoes. As the ship was sinking, Poon Lim grabbed a life jacket and jumped overboard before the ship’s boilers exploded.

After approximately two hours in the water, he found an eight-foot square wooden raft and climbed onto it. The raft had several tins of biscuits, a forty-litre jug of water, some chocolate, a bag of sugar lumps, some flares, two smoke pots and a flashlight.

Poon Lim initially kept himself alive by drinking the water and eating the food on the raft, but later resorted to fishing and catching rainwater in a canvas life jacket covering. He could not swim very well and often tied a rope from the boat to his wrist, in case he fell into the ocean. He took a wire from the flashlight and made it into a fishhook, and used hemp rope as a fishing line.

He also dug a nail out of the boards on the wooden raft and bent it into a hook for larger fish. When he captured a fish, he would cut it open with a knife he fashioned out of a biscuit tin and dry it on a hemp line over the raft. Once, a large storm hit and spoiled his fish and fouled his water. Poon, barely alive, caught a bird and drank its blood to survive.

 

When he saw sharks, he did not swim. Instead, he set out to catch them. He used the remnants of the next bird he killed as bait. The first shark to pick up the taste was only a few feet long. It grabbed the bait and hit the line with full force, but in preparation Poon Lim had braided the line so it would have double thickness. He also had wrapped his hands in canvas to enable him to make the catch.

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Poon Lim and his raft. Photo made on request of the US Navy for its Survival Training. Wikipedia/Public Domain

The shark attacked him after he brought it aboard the raft, so he used the water jug half-filled with seawater as a weapon. After subduing the shark, Poon Lim cut it open and sucked the blood from its liver. It had not rained for days, and he was out of water; the blood quenched his thirst. He sliced the fins and let them dry in the sun – a Hainan delicacy.

Poon also had to deal with sunburn, seasickness and the agony of watching boats go by. First, a freighter and then a squad of US Navy patrol planes went past, with Poon contending it was because he was Chinese that they didn’t offer assistance.

It should also be noted that at the time that U-Boats often offered ‘dummy’ survivors to ambush their enemies. A German U-Boat also saw a stricken Poon but did not help.

Poon counted the days by tying knots in a rope, but after spending so long at sea decided that there was no point in counting the days and began counting full moons. However, after an incredible 133 days at sea, three Brazilian fishermen discovered the raft.

He had lost 9kg and spent four weeks in hospital but made a full recovery. To this day no-one has spent longer at sea in a raft. As Poon said about his record before his death, “I hope no one will have to break it.”

King George VI bestowed a British Empire Medal (BEM) on him, and the Royal Navy incorporated his tale into manuals of survival techniques.

 

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