Day 799: Poon Adrift

originally published March 9, 2014

Each of us possesses a limited reach of survival, a finite extension of our  bodys’ and minds’ capabilities to endure. Fortunately, we live within the sanctuary of modernity, with a rather slim likelihood of our true survival being tested. This is a good thing. Let’s be honest, if most anyone you know was stranded Castaway-style on a deserted island, wouldn’t they be less likely to befriend Wilson the volleyball and more likely to drill a hole in it so they could use it as a sex toy?

We simply aren’t programmed to survive anymore. We can watch Lost or Gilligan’s Island and think we’ve got what it takes to build a wind-powered vibrating-coconut massage recliner, but we really don’t. At best, our instincts can kick in and hopefully lead us to devour some non-poisonous plants for a while to keep our bodies moving forward. But we won’t last long.

Then again, this might be the very thought that ran through the mind of Poon Lim, moments before he was launched into a most undesirable adventure, forced to contend with the elements and sustain his withering body upon the desolate void of ocean that imprisoned him for the better part of five months. His story is nothing short of astounding, if only because I know I could never have pulled it off myself.

Poon Lim was born in Hainan, China in 1918. When World War II broke out, he was happy to support the Allied cause, since China and Japan were anything but friendly neighbors at the time. Poon was second steward aboard the British merchant ship SS Ben Lomond, which was on its way from Cape Town, South Africa to the Dutch colony of Suriname, which is tucked into the northeastern armpit of South America. The ship was armed, naturally, but it was a slow-moving vessel and despite the constant threat of German U-boats, it was travelling alone.

Roughly 750 miles off the South American coast, in the obsidian infinity of the Atlantic Ocean, trouble poked its way through the bleak waters and fired a pair of determined torpedoes at the SS Ben Lomond. It was U-boat U-172, and it faced no resistance from the English vessel. The torpedoes had been expertly aimed – the ship was on its way into the briny void within two minutes. Poon, wanting to get clear of the ship before its boilers exploded, grabbed a life jacket and hopped overboard. His nightmare was set to begin.

Fifty-three crewmembers went down with the SS Ben Lomond. One account states that eleven unnamed troops were eventually rescued, but I can find no substantiation to this claim. Besides, the story is that much more dramatic if we keep the camera squarely pointed at Poon Lim, bobbing about in a seemingly endless ocean, wholly unconfident in his ability to swim, let alone survive. After two hours of watching the ship’s debris scatter (and no doubt flipping his cultural equivalent of the bird at the dissipating wake left by the departing U-boat), Poon encountered a miracle.

A lifeboat. An empty lifeboat, stocked with 40 liters of fresh water, tins upon tins of biscuits (love those Brits), some chocolate, flares, sugar, smoke pots and a flashlight. Without it, Poon would have eventually slipped beneath the waves, his name a mere tick among the 54 fatalities that day. But now Poon had a chance. Whether or not he knew which way was closest to land, or whether he would simply drift in circles, never to spot another clump of dirt again, it didn’t matter – he’d bought some time.

The food and water kept Poon Lim alive for several days. He started out by tying a small knot in a rope as each day ran its cycle, but eventually gave up in favor of counting the full moons. The days were ebbing by and eventually his supplies ran short. He rigged up a canvas lifejacket covering as a sort of canopy, using it to keep himself dry and to collect rainwater to replenish his drinking supply. When the food ran out, he fashioned a small fishing hook from one of the copper wires in the flashlight. A piece of hemp rope effectively doubled as a fishing line.

Poon was not a survivalist. He didn’t drop into this situation with an innate knowledge of what to do and the skills to do it. The guy could barely swim; he tied a rope to his wrist every night, just in case he tumbled overboard. When he figured out his fishing scheme, he still didn’t have a way to cook what he caught. Using a knife he’d fashioned from a biscuit tin lid, he cut the fish open, then left it hanging on a hemp line to dry. When the hunger pangs grew louder, he simply built a bigger hook from a nail he scraped out of the raft.

Then things got worse, in that nasty way that things always seem to do. After a dry break in the weather, Poon caught a bird, drinking its blood for the scant bit of hydration it would provide. As the sharks began to circle, Poon got an idea. Rather than fear them, he decided to show them who was boss. Besides, they’d be chock full of food, and about now Poon was… chock empty.

Using another bird as bait and wrapping his hands in canvass, Poon lured a shark close to the raft, then scooped it aboard. He had even braided his hemp line for extra thickness so that it wouldn’t break. It was a brilliant plan, except that once Poon had plopped the shark into his raft, he was hoping it would be dead. It was not.

Now poor Poon was near-dead from hunger and thirst, floating in an abyss of saltwater, with a pissed-off shark snapping at his ankles.

Using his water jug – now partly filled with saltwater – as a weapon, Poon clubbed the shark to death, then drank the blood from its liver. Grotesque, perhaps. But this is where the survival instinct that I’m not fully convinced I possess takes over. Poon snipped off the fins and let them dry for a snack later, and continued to float on. Over the course of his solitary sentence he had two opportunities for rescue: a US Navy patrol plane that likely left him alone, just in case he was Japanese (though it was a sudden storm that ultimately forced them back to the coast), and a German U-boat, who made no effort to save him.

Poon noticed the water’s color begin to lighten, and on April 5, 1943 – a full 133 days after he’d leapt from the SS Ben Lomond – his raft drifted into a Brazilian river inlet. A trio of fishermen rescued him and took him to Belém. It was the longest any human had survived in a raft at sea – a record that still stands today.

Poon had lost only 9 kg, and after a period of hospitalization, he was returned to England where King George VI pinned a British Empire Medal to his chest. Poon emigrated to the US, where he lived until natural causes claimed him in 1991.

Kudos to Poon – I know I’d be hard pressed to summon the fortitude to pull off what he did. In a strange twist of coincidence, while his story has been in my queue of potential topics for months, today, the day I arbitrarily decided the story needed to be written, would have been Poon’s 95th birthday.

I’m sure the guy was just happy to live to see 25.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s