133 Days Lost at Sea on a Wooden Raft, the Poon Lim Story

November 23, 1942, 750 miles off the Amazon coast of Brazil: British armed merchant ship SS Benlomond traveled without convoy from Cape Town, South Africa, en route to Paramaribo, Suriname, six days from her destination. Accounts vary on the crew numbering around 55, including 25-year-old Chinese sailor, Second Stewart Poon Lim.

Poon Lim Photo by Richard Arthur Norton

German U-Boat U-172 intercepted the SS Benlomond at 11:45 a.m. firing two torpedoes. They struck the engine room and the Benlomond took on water. As the ship sank, Poon grabbed a life jacket. He and five of his crew mates—from the gun crew—abandoned ship moments before the boilers exploded. Within two minutes, the SS Benlomond disappeared into the ocean with the rest of the crew.

Poon lost sight of his five crew mates and their raft—carried away by the current. After two hours in the water, he spotted an 8’ square wooden raft and swam to it. The raft contained several tins of biscuits, a 40-liter jug of fresh water, some chocolate, a bag of sugar lumps, two smoke pots, some flares and a flashlight.

He rationed out the rafts supplies for 30-days. When his supplies ran low, he resorted to fishing, catching birds and catching rain water with the canvas cover of the lift jacket. He crafted a fish hook from a wire in the flashlight. He used hemp rope to make the fishing line and he dug a nail out of the raft to make a hook for larger fish. Then he made a knife from one of the biscuit tins, which he used to gut fish.

Because he gutted the fish on his raft and hung them to dry, sharks were attracted to the blood. He used his larger hook to bring a small shark into his boat. After quite a struggle he bludgeoned the shark with his water jug, partially filled with sea water.

To keep his physical strength up, he would swim in the water twice a day whenever sharks weren’t around. Occasionally the sharks would knock his raft around looking for a free meal.

Several ships passed him, but none stopped. He assumed they wouldn’t rescue him because he was Asian or because German U-boats would put out “survivors” as bait for other ships to stop where they were easy targets for sinking.

American airmen spotted him in the water and dropped a buoy near his location for rescue. A storm blew in and moved him miles away from the buoy.

Recreation of Poon Lim’s raft commissioned by the U.S. Navy. Poon Lim pictured.

On April 5, 1943, about ten miles from the coast of Brazil, a fisherman picked up Poon. He was starving and had lost 20 pounds. They fed him from their supplies and 3 days later landed at Belem, Brazil. He was able to walk off the boat under his own power. He spent four weeks in the hospital before the British consul arranged his passage to Great Britain. He was the only survivor.

So impressed with his accomplishment, King George VI awarded him the British Empire Medal and the Royal Navy incorporated his survival techniques into their manuals.

After the war, he wanted to emigrate to the U.S. He was initially denied entry because the Chinese emigration quota had been met for the year. Senator Warren Magnuson of Washington State, so impressed with his survival, wrote special legislation allowing Poon Lim entry.

To this day he still holds the record for the longest time a lone person survived adrift on a life raft. When told, he replied, “I hope no one will ever have to break that record.”

He passed in January 1991, a resident of New York, New York.

Tracy – Fannie Cranium’s Guide to Irreverent Wisdom

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About Fannie Cranium

Writing since she could first hold a pen, Tracy Perkins formed her alter ego, "Fannie Cranium" at the suggestion of her husband. Tracy understands smiling makes people wonder what she’s been up to.
This entry was posted in Funny names in History and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

9 Responses to 133 Days Lost at Sea on a Wooden Raft, the Poon Lim Story

  1. Wow! Aside from the ingenuity and skill to survive, he must have had a great deal of mental and emotional fortitude. It would take a robust psychology to survive that ordeal.

    • Laura, I agree. I can see why his survival skills were incorporated into not only the Royal Navy, but the US Navy as well. Can you imagine what must have gone through his mind during storms or when sharks were attacking his raft and he had to decide to be the “bigger” predator.

      How many of us would have given up after a couple of days let alone 4 and a half months?

  2. Reblogged this on Fannie Cranium's and commented:

    A story of mental fortitude and courage and masterful primitive inventions of survival. Meet Poon Lim over at the BoFN

  3. ksbeth says:

    i would have lasted about 17 minutes. this is a stunning story and i’m so glad that you shared it – wow!

  4. kerbey says:

    Wow, he was amazing! It’s like Life of Pi meets Bear Grylls. Such fortitude! I can’t believe storms didn’t drown him and sharks didn’t eat him. But he lived so many decades more! Thanks for sharing this story that even outshone his funny name.

  5. wdydfae says:

    “. . . Fannie’s been sending us a raft of posts, but so far this is one of the best yet! . . .”

    “. . . We are buoyed by this tale of endurance, indomitable courage and resourcefulness against all odds. Kudos to Fannie! . . .”

    “. . . We are truly lost at sea as we try to imagine what it would take to top this exquisite offering by Fannie . . .”

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