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195. Wait and Sea, the Tale of Poon Lim

02 Dec

1942, World War II was raging across the land and the oceans too. At this time Britain sent out a call for help, and many Chinese responded. One of these brave or foolish souls was Poon Lim. He was working as second mess steward on board the SS Benlomond and became quickly accustomed to life on board.

The SS Benlomond was a merchant steamer, unremarkable, and equally unarmed. German U-Boats scoured the seas for their metallic prey. Ready to shoot on sight. On November 23 1942 a German U-Boat sighted the SS Benlomond and contact was made. Contact in the form of two explosive torpedoes. That did not go down well.

SS Benlomond

2 hours after the sinking, Poon Lim happened upon a life raft and flailed in its general direction. I say ‘flailed‘ because during World War II, an ability to swim was not required to be in the Navy. This led to a surprisingly large amount of drownings among Navy staff throughout the war, even when rescue was swift on arrival. Eventually, after much uncoordinated splashing, he reached the side of the raft and hauled his soaking self on board.

Once he had recovered from the physical exertion he examined the raft. It was a ‘Carley Float Life Raft‘ and fairly well stocked. Among the supplies were some biscuit tins (complete with biscuits), a 10 gallon jug of water, flares, an electric torch and a bag of sugar lumps. More than enough for a short trip. Many things could be said about Poon Lim’s ensuing journey, ‘short’ is not one of them. In fact Poon Lim spent 133 days in the Pacific Ocean, a record of epic proportions.

He began by doing nothing, just eating, drinking and tanning. At the end of each day he would tie a knot in some rope so he wouldn’t lose track time. Then after a few days he realised rescue would not come, and he was alone. He still ate but the water ran out. So he innovated. Whenever rain came he stretched out a large tarpaulin and caught the water, funneling it into the jug for storage. Then he had a drink to celebrate.

The Cayley Float Life Raft

In the worrisome waves he feared being pitched out of the boat and being unable to swim back, so he tied a string from his wrist to the boat. Then he continued to eat and drink. Then the biscuits and sugar lumps ran out. In response he smashed his electric torch and forcibly removed its internals. Then he fashioned the large wire into a hook which was then attached to some spare rope and used to catch fish. Once he caught fish he realised he had no knife. In response to the predicament he again improvised. This time he just made a knife out of a single biscuit tin. Then he ate fish.

Times became harder and he began to slowly waste away. He pried a nail out of the raft with his teeth and made it into a hook for bigger fish. It wasn’t enough. The days melted away and he gave up on tying knots, instead he counted full moons. A freighter ship passed by but inextricably didn’t pick him up.

Eventually he reached his end, with no water or food he was another lump of flesh and bones in the vast Pacific. Then came the wings of fortune. A rare bird landed on the raft, a bird of flesh and blood. Poon Lim dragged himself towards it and leapt upon it, breaking its neck and drinking its blood. Then he feasted on its fresh flesh. Soon after the rain came and his thirst was quenched. He lived to count more full moons.

In a stroke of bad fortune he happened upon some British Naval planes saw him and dropped down marker buoys. They were going to rescue him. Then the storm came and the ocean erupted. The ensuing maelstrom separated the parties and alone he was once more. Still, he survived and even made progress, although without realising it.

The water around the boat suddenly became brighter. Poon Lim correctly realised what that meant, shallow water, and land. For two days he drifted up the inlet and was rescued by two fishermen. He was in Brazil and overjoyed. He had lost 9kg but could still take uncertain steps without help. He spent two weeks in hospital before the British consul brought him back to Britain.

Upon his return King George VI gave him the high honour of a British Empire Medal. His experienced used in survival manuals and his employers even got him a sparkly gold watch  for his troubles. Later he tried to move to America but the quota was filled, fortunately he was a big name and eventually got President Truman to secure him a place.

113 days at sea, surviving on sugar lumps, biscuits and bird blood. After that record-breaking ordeal Poon Lim had one thing to say on the matter.

I hope no one will ever have to break that record.”

 
2 Comments

Posted by on December 2, 2011 in Articles

 

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2 responses to “195. Wait and Sea, the Tale of Poon Lim

  1. Duangsuda Sopchokchai

    November 30, 2014 at 07:01

    Where does the raft come from?

     
    • Anonymous

      November 17, 2016 at 20:11

      the raft was one of the life rafts from the SS Benlomond,

       

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