Poon Lim, BEM (1918-1991) was a Chinese seaman who survived 133 days alone on a life raft
in the Atlantic Ocean after his British ship was sunk by a German U-boat on 23 November 1942.
This remains a world record for the longest known period of survival alone on a life raft at sea.
Poon Lim's story of survival lent hope to other Allied seamen during a time when many of
them were being killed in the Battle of the Atlantic. Some British residents in South America
(where he was rescued) collected money to give Poon Lim a silver watch in recognition of his feat.
King George VI later awarded the British Empire Medal to Poon Lim.
After being rescued, Poon Lim was debriefed by the Royal Navy, which was eager to learn
how he had been able to survive. Some 'experts' had assumed that no one could withstand
the psychological strain of being isolated in a hostile environment for so long. In short,
these 'experts' had expected everyone in Poon Lim's situation to lose one's sanity.
And if anyone could survive, it was presumed to be--given the prevailing prejudices--a
well-educated white British officer of deep religious convictions and close family ties.
But Poon Lim was a Chinese seaman with modest formal education who had been away
for years from his family and apparently was not religious. He did not recall praying often,
if at all, during his ordeal. The fact of his survival shattered some stereotypical assumptions.
How did Poon Lim survive? First of all, after testing him, psychologists observed that he
was naturally extraordinarily calm. He did not panic when most people probably would.
He was resourceful and could adapt to surprising challenges. He said that he attempted
to conserve his energy by never becoming too optimistic or pessimistic about his survival.
As a child, he already had survived a famine in China. Like most Chinese peasants, he
was mentally tough and more accustomed than most Westerners to enduring hardships.
He was brave, clever, self-disciplined, and lucky enough to overcome various problems
ranging from running out of drinking water to encountering sharks.
But if Hollywood were to cast someone to star in a film about surviving on a life raft at sea,
anyone who looked like Poon Lim would be about the last choice that Hollywood would make.