Few survival situations are more imposing than being stranded alone at sea, since there are virtually no available resources. You can’t just start a fire to boil water, build a shelter, set a snare, or even forage for food. Even the sea around you seems to mock your odds of survival—perhaps you recall the famous line from The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, “water, water, everywhere, nor any drop to drink.” It’s something most of us wouldn’t wish on our worst enemy.

survival at sea

The SS Ben Lomond in 1906.

Poon Lim

Poon Lim received a warm welcome back to Britain after his ordeal.

However, there was one man who beat the odds, and survived an astonishing 133 days alone in the South Atlantic on a life raft: Poon Lim. This 24-year-old Chinese man was working aboard British merchant ship SS Ben Lomond during World War II, when it was sunk by a German U-boat on November 23, 1942. Tragically, 53 of the 54 crew members were killed as the ship sank to the bottom of the Atlantic, but Lim lived on. After floating in the frigid water for hours, he found a remaining life raft from the ship, and climbed aboard.

survival at sea

U-boat sinking a troop transport ship, painting by Willy Stöwer, 1917.

The life raft contained a few limited provisions, such as canned biscuits, 9 gallons of water, some chocolate bars and sugar lump candy, signal flares, and a flashlight. Although Lim rationed the items for as long as he could, they eventually ran out, and he ended up fishing using a wire from the flashlight as a hook and hemp rope as line. He also gathered rainwater, caught seabirds, and tied himself to the raft during storms—since he barely knew how to swim. After over four months at sea, he drifted near land, and was rescued by Brazilian fishermen. To this day, Lim’s 133 days of survival at sea remain the longest anyone has lived alone on a life raft in the ocean.

survival at sea

Poon Lim sitting on a reconstruction of his raft, built at the request of the U.S. Navy and President Truman.

Returning to Britain after his ordeal, Lim was honored by King George VI with a British Empire Medal, and his story went on to be incorporated into the Royal Navy’s survival manuals. Lim eventually moved to the United States, where he was granted special dispensation for citizenship, and lived to the age of 72 in Brooklyn, New York. His courageous determination to survive should be an inspiration to us all.

You can read more about Poon Lim in this May 1943 archived article from the Chicago Daily Tribune.

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