Lost at Sea – The Best Survival Stories Afloat

November 5, 2018

The struggle for survival at sea fascinates sailors and non–sailors alike.

Stories of people who manage to escape grave situations at sea inspire us, strengthen us to face our own challenges, and leads us to ask…“would I make it?”

Let’s have a look at some of the best stories of survival from the most demanding oceans in the World.

Surviving 4 months in South Atlantic

Poon Lim

Poon Lim’s tale takes us to the horrific days of World War II. Lim was a 24-year old Chinese sailor working as a second steward on the British armed merchantman SS Ben Lomond, sailing from Cape Town to New York.

On November 23, 1942, while crossing the waters some 750 miles east of the Amazon, the boat’s hull was ripped apart by two torpedoes launched by a German submarine. Seawater rushed through and caused the ship’s boilers to explode, taking most of the crew down to their watery grave. All crew members died, except six sailors, including Lim; who jumped into the sea with nothing more than a life-jacket. It took no more than 60 seconds for the Ben Lomond to go under.

Lightweight but a poor swimmer, Lim managed to stay afloat for a couple of hours, but as his strength started to drain, he came across a 2,5-meter wooden raft with some meagre provisions in it – some tins of biscuits, a 40-litre jug of water, chocolate, sugar lumps, some flares, a couple of smoke pots, and a flashlight.

Poon Lim on his raft

This was just the start of a tormenting survival struggle in the fierce waves of the South Atlantic, which lasted an unbelievable 133 days! He never saw any of his crew-mates who made it out of the vessel alive.

Suffering from heat stroke and headaches and feeling weaker by the day, Lim, out of fear of accidentally falling into the water and drowning, tied his wrist to the boat.

Soon, the little food he found in the raft run out, and Lim made the best of his ingenuity and fishing skills to survive: using a wire from his flashlight and turning it into a fishhook to catch small fish, and a nail from the raft to catch bigger ones. Using these methods he managed to sustain himself for several weeks.

Rainfalls supplied him with water, which he collected using a canvas life jacket covering, but it wasn’t enough to keep him hydrated. Once, half-mad from thirst and hunger, he caught a seabird and drank its blood before feeding on its flesh. Another time, he managed to lure a small shark close to the boat, hook it with bird-bait, catch it with his bare hands, pull it into the raft and kill it by smashing his head with his water-jug. Sucking the blood from its liver was the only means of hydration for several days.

Despite his stamina and creativity , and after spending almost five months adrift and losing around 10 kg, exhaustion and malnutrition started taking their toll. Fortunately, on April 5, 1943, he was found by some Brazilian fishermen, after currents had pushed his raft near the shores of Brazil.

Poon Lim shows Rear Admiral Julius Furer how he took the spring out of an electric light and made a fish hook while he was adrift in the South Atlantic for 131 days

His miraculous escape made headlines in Britain and was used to boost the morale of the public.  Poon Lim was awarded the Empire Medal by King George VI himself, and some of his cunning tricks made it to the Royal Navy’s manual of survival techniques.

Until that point, no one had spent so many days lost at sea and made it back alive. Thirty years later , a couple from Britain came very close!

117 Days in the Pacific

Maurice and Maralyn Bailey

Maurice and Maralyn Bailey, a British couple in their early thirties, left Southampton n 1973 aboard a 9.4-meter yacht and set sail to cross half the planet and its two greatest oceans, all the way to New Zealand.

Their Atlantic crossing was largely uneventful, allowing them to make it to Panama in February. From there, they headed for the Galapagos Islands, but in the early hours of March 4, a thundering blow from a whale who mistook their presence as a threat, crippled their vessel.

A map showing where the yacht sank

Water soon started flooding in, and the couple had no choice but to abandon ship. They loaded as many supplies as they could in an inflatable raft and dinghy, including food and a compass. At first, they were confident that they could make it to land, and even tried to preserve their spirits by playing cards and reading books. However, after the first week, they realised how perilous a situation they faced.

Their provisions did not last long, and they turned to the sea for nutrition. Using safety pins as fish hooks and their bare hands, they caught small fish, seabirds and even sea turtles to quench their hunger, and collected rain water. However, their raft started losing air, forcing them to re-inflate it over and over again, thus aggravating their exhaustion. To make things worse, more than once storms threatened to capsize or tear up their raft.

Several ships passed them by at a distance, but, in spite of their efforts, none noticed them. Unfortunately the signal flares they had brought with them did not work. Following a couple of weeks, water started creeping in their raft, and constant friction with the plastic surface caused wounds and sores to their limbs, causing unbearable pain.

After crossing around 2,400 km of the vast Pacific, and losing almost a third of their weight, the couple lost hope and thought the end was near.

Good fortune arrived in the form of an observant sailor on a South Korean fishing boat, who spotted them on June 30, 117 days after their yacht was hit. As stated by their rescuers, the couple had turned into a bag of bones, barely able to raise their hands or stand up straight. They couldn’t say anything, just sob with happiness and relief.

The Baileys were transferred to Hawaii to regain strength and then returned to Britain, devoting much of the next few months to leaving a written account of their ordeal, which was soon published. They never stopped sailing.

76 Days Lost at Sea

Steven Callahan

The story of Steven Callahan is one of the most famed, mainly because of his best-selling book and colourful description of his adventure in the Atlantic Ocean.

Callahan, a naval architect and ardent seaman in his late twenties, set sail in 1981 from Newport on a 6.5-meter sloop he had personally designed and built.

After making numerous trips around the Atlantic for almost a year, Callahan roamed the waters off the Canary Islands, when, on early February 1982, a large unknown object (or animal, possibly a whale) hit the yacht during a night gale. While the boat remained afloat for a considerable amount of time, its compartment walls eventually gave away and caused it to founder.

Callahan boarded a spacious inflatable life raft and tried to get as many provisions from the sinking vessel as possible, including a sleeping bag, an emergency kit, navigation charts, a spear gun, some flares, a torch, solar stills designed to distil drinking water and a marine survival manual.

The modern raft Steven Callahan used to stay alive.

Callahan described his days after running out of proper food as an aquatic caveman apprentice, trying to live from anything he could find from the sea. He mostly fed on dolphinfish and triggerfish caught with his spear gun, as well as flying fish, barnacles, and seabirds.

His raft took him more than 1,800 nautical miles across the Atlantic, with his Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacon and flares proving, again and again, useless in helping him get spotted, despite crossing two sea lanes and noticing at least nine ships moving along the route.

Callahan eventually realised that he could not rest his hopes on passing ships, but on his determination to survive, and by preserving his body and state of mind. He made sure his day was full of useful activities, including mild exercise, navigating, repairing his raft and keeping it in good condition, fishing, and storing food and water for emergencies.

Shark encounters, raft punctures, malnutrition and mental exhaustion tired him out, making it all the more difficult for him to keep up with his planned routine.

Steven Callahan sharing his unique experience

On April 21, after spending 76 days at sea, Callahan’s sturdy raft was finally spotted by fishermen off the island of Marie Galante, south-east of Guadeloupe. According to the fishermen, what gave away his position were seabirds hovering over the raft, attracted by the ecosystem that had developed around it!

Emaciated, pale, and covered with sores, Callahan had to spend weeks before regaining enough of his strength and return home.

Despite everything, he never stopped sailing, or educating others through experiences.

Family Adrift for 38 Days

The Robertsons

Dougal Robertson was a Scottish author and seafarer who often took his family with him in his journeys on his schooner.

Robertson had the misfortune of losing his first wife and son in the tragic events of the SS Sagaing – a steamship that was attacked at the Trincomalee Harbour by Japanese airforce in 1942. The incident traumatised him deeply and kept him away from the sea for several years.

Almost thirty years later, Robertson was married for the second time and had four children, a daughter and three sons. The family decided to set sail from Falmouth on a 13-metre old schooner and sail across the Atlantic, which they did for around 18 months.

Leaving their daughter in the Bahamas and taking a young sailor to help them around, the Robertsons set sail for the Galápagos Islands and the isles of the South Pacific.

The Robertson family in Jamaica (Image: The New Day)

Unfortunately, their voyage was cut short on June 15, 1972, by a pod of killer whales, who rammed the schooner around 200 nautical miles west of the Galapagos Islands. All six castaways boarded an inflatable life raft and a solid-hull dinghy, with scarce tools and supplies.

In search of drinking water, the seasoned sea-faring family used the dinghy as a jury-rigged sailed towboat and managed to reach the Pacific’s notorious doldrums, catching turtles, Dorado, and flying fish for food. Yet, their raft was unusable after the first two weeks on the sea, forcing the group to squash together in the three-metre long dinghy.

The family survived for six weeks in a dinghy before being rescued (Image: The New Day)

Despite the lack of proper food and rest, they worked together and caught so much fish and turtle meat, that they decided to start rowing and get closer to the northwest shores of Central America. They didn’t have to though. 38 days after they saw their schooner sunk, they were collected by Japanese fishermen.

Robertson, who kept a thorough account of their ordeal, published their story a year later.

Preparation, determination, mental strength, luck or divine intervention.

These stories intrigue us, and show us the best of human determination and desire to survive.

But what should you do if the worst was to happen to you?

Read ‘Stranded at sea? The 7-step extreme survival guide’ from CNN

Best Selling Survival Books




The New Day


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