Poon Lim, a Chinese seaman,
held the world’s record as a sea survivor after floating alone on a
life raft in the South Atlantic for 133 days. When told of the record,
he said, “ I hope no one will ever have to break it.”
A 25 year old seaman from Hainan Island, off the south coast of China, Poon Lim shipped out as a second steward on the British merchant ship Ben Lomond. The ill fated vessel left Cape Town carrying a crew of 55. It was torpedoed by a Nazi U-boat on November 23 1942. The ship was sinking rapidly, so Poon Lim leaped over the side. He had tied a life jacket around himself, so he surfaced and swam as quickly as he could away from the freighter and the futile calls for help of his shipmates.
When the ship's boilers exploded, the Ben Lomond sank below the surface of the Atlantic. Poon Lim paddled in the water, holding his head as high as he could above each wave in hope of spotting a life raft. Poon Lim's first concern was simply to stay alive. He gulped air when he could and kept his head above the waves. After struggling for two hours he saw a life raft several hundred feet away. He swam to it and climbed aboard.
His raft was built of timbers and was 8 ft. square. Tied to it were some tins of British biscuits, a large water jug, some flares, and an electric torch. By allowing himself a few swallows of water and two biscuits in the morning and in the evening, he estimated that he should be able to stay alive for at least a month.
On two occasion rescue seemed imminent, once when a freighter passed within close range, and once when a U.S. Navy patrol plane buzzed his raft. But both times his frantic shouting was ignored. These were the loneliest times for Poon Lim, with help ,so near and yet so far away. He was also spotted by a German U-boat, which chose to leave him to his fate rather than kill him. He soon realised that he couldn’t expect help from others and must keep himself alive until he drifted to land.
To keep his body in shape, he swam routinely twice a day when the sea was quiet. He used the ocean swimmer's looping stroke as he circled the raft, always keeping his head above water, his eyes open for sharks.
His skin got darker from the sun, and he lost weight, but not strength.. When his food and water supply ran low, he formulated a new plan for survival.
He used the canvas covering of the life jacket as a receptacle to catch rainwater. He also utilised other materials that he had on board. He took apart the electric torch to get a wire, which he made into a fishhook. He spent days shaping the metal, using the water jug as a hammer. The tough hemp rope that held down his almost exhausted supplies of food and water served as a fishing line.
He used a piece of biscuit for bait. After finally catching a fish, he cut it in half with the edge of the biscuit tin and ate the raw flesh, using the remains as bait to catch his next meal.
About the end of the second month on the raft, he spotted sea gulls. Hoping to catch one, he gathered seaweed from the bottom of the raft, matted it in bunches and moulded it into a form that resembled a bird’s nest. By this time he had caught several fish, which he baked in the sun to improve their taste. Some he ate and some he left next to the nest, so that they would rot and the stench would attract the gulls.
When he finally saw a gull flying towards him, he lay still so it would land. As the gull attacked the fish, Poon Lim grabbed it by its neck. A fight ensued, which he won, but only after he was the victim of deep cuts from the bird's beak and claws.
He pried a loose nail from the raft's planking and used it to tear up the empty ration tin to make a knife. He used his shoe as a hammer to pound the metal.. He quartered the bird, chewed its flesh, and sucked out the blood and the organs. He cut the rest of the bird into strips, which he chewed on until he caught the next bird or fish.
When he saw sharks, he did not swim. Instead he set out to catch one. He used the remnants of the next bird he caught as bait. The first shark to pick up the taste was only a few feet long. He gulped 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. But the shark attacked him after he brought it aboard the raft. He used the water jug half-filled with seawater as a weapon. After his victory, Pooh Lim cut open the shark and sucked its blood from its liver. Since it hadn't rained, he was out of water and this quenched his thirst. He sliced the fins end let them dry in the sun, a Hainan delicacy.
Poon Lim counted the days with notches on the side of the raft, and he counted the nights with X’s. On the 131st day, he noticed that the water was pale green rather than black. Birds flew overhead and seaweed floated by. All of these were encouraging signs.
On the morning of the 133rd day, April 5 1943, he saw a small sail on the horizon. He had no flares left, so he waved his shirt and jumped up end down in an effort to attract the crew's attention. The craft changed direction and headed for him.
The three men in the boat, who spoke Portuguese, took him aboard. They gave him water and dried beans before starting up their motor to head west to Belem, at the mouth of the Amazon River in Brazil. He had crossed the Atlantic.
Poon Lim was able to walk unaided. His total weight loss during the drift was 20 lb. He spent four weeks in a hospital in Brazil and then went to New York.
He received numerous honours. King George VI presented him personally with the British Empire Medal, the highest civilian award. The British Navy had booklets printed and placed in all life rafts, describing his survival techniques. His employers presented him with a gold watch. Senator Warren Magnuson introduced a bill, which was passed by the U.S senate and the House of Representatives, to issue an immigration visa to Poon Lim and to permit him to have permanent residency in the U.S.
Modified 31 July 2005
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