Missing, Presumed Dead: 5 Incredible Stories Of Ocean Survival

"After a widespread search of the ocean proved fruitless, their friends and family back home held a memorial service for them."

Photo: NOAA M/V Noble Star, Winter 1989.


Back in ye olde times, when the world was flat and scurvy was widespread, the ocean was seen as a cruel and terrible mistress. Nowadays, with all the technological advancements that have been made, we tend to underestimate it.

“Oh, don’t worry about the ocean,” you say, “…we’ve got GPS, and lifejackets, and a flare gun that shoots colourful fire into the night sky.”

But, here’s the thing, you should be scared of the ocean. No, hang on, scared is the wrong word. You shouldn’t be scared of it, but you should respect it. Respect it like you respect the little old lady that lives down the road.

The ocean, much like the little old lady that lives down the road, has seen a lot of things in her time. Sure, on a calm day, she’s friendly enough. But when she’s angry, when she’s riled, she might just kill you.


If the ocean could talk, which it can’t, it would probably lean back on a comfy chair and boast about all the sailors and fishermen it’s drowned over the years. It would take sips on an oversized cup of tea, boast about the Titanic, and cackle smugly at the tragedy of it all. Yeah, the ocean is a proper bastard.

But sometimes, ever so often, something happens in the ocean that makes people back on dry land stand up and take notice. Something incredible, and inspirational, that perfectly illustrates the plucky spirit and inate willingness to survive that exists within all of us.

These moments, to which we refer, are the survival moments. Those inspirational stories where somehow, against all the odds, an insignificant skeleton wrapped in skin endures the worst that Mother Nature can throw at them and comes out breathing on the other side.

These epic, real-life, ocean survival stories need to be sea-n to be believed (sorry).


1) Burmese Fishermen – 25 Days Floating In An Icebox, Surrounded By Sharks

On the 23rd of December 2008, a small fishing boat from Thailand, carrying 20 crew members, broke apart in choppy waters. The majority of the crew were washed overboard and never seen again, while the boat itself sank without a trace. Two men from Burma, who we’ll dub ‘Survival’ and ‘Instincts’, got through the initial disaster by climbing inside a large icebox normally used to store caught fish.

During their 25 days floating at sea in a large icebox the pair, aged 22 and 24, were subjected to fifty-knot winds caused by Cyclone Charlotte. It is only through sheer good fortune, that the icebox did not capsize during these brutal elemental onslaughts.

“They floated on the waves, with only some dead fish at the bottom of their icebox-lifeboat for company…”

As it so happened, the extreme weather conditions ended up being a blessing in disguise for ‘Survival’ and ‘Instincts’. With the rainwater, a natural side effect of the storms, providing them with fresh drinking water on a daily basis.

They floated on the waves, with only some dead fish at the bottom of their icebox-lifeboat for company, until the 17th of Janurary. It would seem that Lady Luck was smiling on the pair, if you ignore the initial sinking of their fishing boat, because it was only by sheer fluke that a customs search plane spotted them and came to their rescue.

Following their rescue, 60 nautical miles north-west of Horn Island, the pair were treated for severe dehydration, starvation and a nasty bout of sunburn. The pair had survived 25 days, floating in an icebox, in shark-infested waters. Good effort, lads.


2) The Fiji Teenagers – 50 Days At Sea


They might look about 36 but Samu Perez, Filo Filo, and Edward Nasau weren’t even 16 when they set off from Atafu Atoll in the South Pacific. You already know where this is going right? Yep, you guessed it. They got swept off course, and were recorded missing (presumed dead, soon after).

After a widespread search of the ocean proved fruitless, their friends and family back home held a memorial service for them. A whopping 500 people turned up to make their peace and say kind words about the boys, but what the service-goers didn’t realise was that the teenagers were still alive; fending off death by catching and eating raw fish.

“They might look about 36 but Samu Perez, Filo Filo, and Edward Nasau weren’t even 16 when they set off from Atafu Atoll in the South Pacific.”

About two days before their rescue, a proverbial bucket-kicking hovered over the group and seemed unavoidable. A sudden lack of rain, which up until that point had been keeping them alive, had resulted in the desperate boys drinking sea water.

Thankfully, for everyone involved, they were picked up by a tuna boat near Fiji. Over the course of 50 days, they had drifted over 1600km. In hospital, they were treated for severe dehydration, starvation and sunburn before being reunited with their hugely relieved parents.


3) Louis Jordan – 66 Days On An Overturned Boat


In April of this year (2015), American Louis Jordan was spotted by the crew of a German tanker. He was sitting on the overturned hull of his 35ft boat. He’d been missing at sea for 66 days, and had survived by catching fish and drinking rainwater.

After his rescue, 200 miles off the coast of North Carolina, Jordan told reporters “Every day I was like ‘Please God, send me some rain, send me some water.” He went on to say that he initially thought the German container ship was a figment of his imagination, and that the crew did not see him until he began waving his arms in their direction.

During his ordeal at sea, Jordan rationed himself to roughly one pint of water a day, but revealed that “…for such a long time I was so thirsty.” A helicopter took him to a hospital in Norfolk, Virginia where, amazingly, he was able to stand and walk without assistance. Unsurprisingly, perhaps, he was diagnosed with dehydration.


 4) Steven Callahan – 76 Days At Sea

Steve Callahan was a naval architect, an inventor, and a sailing enthusiast. I mean, seriously, this guy loved boats so much that he decided to build his own.

Callahan planned on taking this “DIY” vessel, which was 6.5 metres in length, all the way from the Canary Islands to the Bahamas (across the Atlantic, in other words). But, as is so often the case in these types of stories, things did not go according to plan.

Approximately one week into his voyage, the boat was badly damaged during the night. The cause of the damage is unknown, with a large whale collision and bad weather both considered to be plausible explanations, but what is certain is that the boat took some serious damage.

Callahan, using his speed of thought, managed to inflate the life raft and salvage some emergency supplies before his self-built boat sank down into Davey Jones’ locker.

Fully aware that no one on land was expecting to hear from him for weeks, Callahan knew that he was well and truly on his own. Over the course of 76 days, his life raft drifted on the south equatorial current.

“…this guy loved boats so much that he decided to build his own.”

After using up his food supplies, Callahan chanced his arm at spear-fishing (he’d rescued a speargun from his sinking boat). Fortunately, he turned out to be a natural. Bagging himself mahi-mahi, tiger fish, and flying fish in the process.

But for every up-moment in these memorable survival stories, there’s usually a down one to counterbalance it (swings and roundabouts, hey?). At one point, during a round of speargun fishing, a spear broke off in a fish.

The fish with a spear in it’s back, who understandably might have had a vendetta against Callahan for the whole spear in the back thing, went off the side of the boat and caused massive tears on the underside of the inflatable life raft. The boat stayed afloat, thanks to a quick-fix job, but it was in bad way and Callahan needed to be rescued more than ever.

After 76 days at sea, Steven Callahan sighted land for the first time in over two months. He was picked up by some fisherman off the coast of Guadeloupe, and was taken to a local hospital. Amazingly, he didn’t even stay the night; choosing instead to spend a month chilling on the island before proceeding to hitchhike on boats through the West Indies.

It’s nice to see that even an ordeal as intense as the one Callahan went through, didn’t dampen his enthusiasm for travel and adventure. Top bloke.


5) Poon Lim – 133 Days At Sea


Poon Lim is a world record holder in the unusual position of possessing a record that nobody, in their right mind, would ever want to break. In 1942/1943, Poon Lim spent 133 days lost at sea. This incredible triumph of survival, and human endurance, has gone down in the history books as the longest period anyone has survived in a life raft. The story, as you’d expect, is an emotional rollercoaster.

Poon Lim, a 25 year-old Chinese seaman, left Cape Town on a British Merchant ship on the 23rd of November 1942. The ship had a crew of 55. Just two days into their voyage, they were torpedoed by a Nazi U-boat.

With the vessel sinking rapidly, Poon made a split-second decision and threw himself over board. After the ship had sunk beneath the waves, Poon spent two hours treading water; desperately trying to find a life boat

Eventually, and with the Grim Reaper well and truly knocking at his door, Poon spotted a raft and managed to haul his physically-drained body aboard. This, however, was only the start of his epic stuggle to survive.

“Poon Lim is a world record holder in the unusual position of possessing a record that nobody, in their right mind, would ever want to break.”

On board the raft, Poon found some biscuits, a torch, a handful of flares, and some fresh water. He calculated that by eating just two biscuits a day, and taking a few sips of water, he could survive for about a month. After a number of large ships went past on the horizon, but failed to spot him, it soon became clear to Poon that he’d have to float on the raft until he hit dry land.

Using the wire of his torch as a hook, and a piece of biscuit as bait, Poon was able to reel in some fish. Incredibly, during his 133 days at sea, he also managed to catch some seagulls and sharks; drinking their blood to quench his thirst.

Like a man making marks in a cricket scorebook, Poon notched the wood in his raft as a way of tallying up his days at sea. Not one to ignore his fitness regime, Poon also went swimming twice a day to prevent his muscles from seizing up.

On the 133rd day of his extraordinary voyage Poon, who had observed a changing in the colour of the water and more animals than usual a few days earlier, spotted the sail of a small boat in the distance. To his great relief, the boat spotted Poon and came to his rescue. He was at the mouth of the Amazon River.

Poon Lim had survived 133 days at sea, and had crossed the Atlantic Ocean. Take a bow, son. Take a bow.

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