SEATTLE — Don Tipton wants an oceangoing freighter so he can deliver groceries to starving nations as the start of a worldwide, multimillion-dollar, eight-ship program of mercy voyages directed by his Park West Children's Fund.
Unfortunately, there's only $38 in Park West's account at the Pacific Palisades branch of Wells Fargo.
Yet at a mooring next to clattering Russ Trask Shipyard, just across Puget Sound from here. . . .
Ex-Navy Store Ship
There's the former USS Palisana, a 4,000-ton, ex-Navy store ship that a local marine company recently deeded to Tipton and his Los Angeles charity. A crew of experts and handypersons is working for nothing on her mothballed innards and diesels pickled in Cosmoline. A British engineering officer, another volunteer, will come on board as soon as he can thumb a ride from London.
And Tipton's list of freebies stretches from there to Alabama; legal counsel from O'Melveny & Myers of Los Angeles, sheets and pillowcases from the Holiday Inn in Brentwood. Toilet rolls. A five-day loan of a water blaster. Fast food by the bucket and farm produce by the ton. Plumbing parts and 200 gallons of yellow paint. A $3,000 tug tow from Tacoma to the Trask yard.
And he's got his eye on what might become additions to Tipton's navy: a Czech yacht currently frozen by a marshal's sale; a wooden tug that nobody wants to insure; and seven of Palisana's sister ships, one a derelict World War II mortuary ship that carried American dead from European battlefields.
"So why rattle a tin cup and bang on doors for money when there's another way?" Tipton boomed. He's a bearded, 40-year-old rain barrel in a Woolly Pully. His L.A. Raiders cap is worn backwards and it looks like Raider muscle man Lyle Alzado himself drove over it.
Those who know Tipton as be-blazered owner of the Park West Polo and Hunt Club should see him now.
"The other way of getting things without money?" Tipton continued. "There's people and there's energy. There's spoilage and corporate waste.
"Example. The sheet metal I need for this ship is in some corporate backyard right now, rotting. There are samples, bad orders that weren't picked up, overruns. If you ask them (corporations), they'll tell you it's very valuable. But if you ask 'em properly and they realize what you're doing and recognize the tax value of a donation . . . well, they'll deshelf it to make room for other things and give it to you."
Timing helps. Then, Tipton says, there's the power of prayer. If faith can move mountains, imagine how far it can pull a small ship. But just in case divine attention falters, meat-and-potatoes money ("you can't find anybody to donate things like these . . . Duracell batteries") has come from Brentwood Farms, an equestrian facility operated by Tipton on 750 acres of West Los Angeles land leased from the Getty Foundation.
"Right now, I don't need the money," he said. "If I run into a problem with the ship--something that needs money, can only be solved by money--then I'll go out after it. Until then, I'm after corporations and waste."
Tipton's Project Spirit graduated from California planning to Washington donkey work five weeks ago. Volunteers commited to Bruce Springsteen and world hunger haven't been in short supply. Goodliness must be next to contagious because local hands have started to pitch in.
But let's face it, who could resist the romance of returning a future to a tough little supply ship (butter and eggs and pot roasts from Seattle to Aleutian bases in 1944) that surely once felt the impatient footfalls of Mr. Roberts?
So dry dock and sandblasting is being planned for Palisana, and her stern has been measured for a new name: Spirit. A vintage diesel generator fired up at the first touch and is running power to refrigerator holds and engine room.
Resident Sea Dogs
Toilets flush and cabins are moving from chilly towards cheery and the ship smells lived in. Better yet, Tipton's scar-faced retriever (Capone, of course) and a beagle (John Henry), his gift to project vice president Sondra George, have signed on. As resident sea dogs.
"Are we going to make it happen?" Tipton said. "Yes. Absolutely. In less than a year from now, Spirit will sail with her first cargo and we'll go wherever the need is.
"You know, there are places where people are spending the equivalent of $60 for a chicken. There are 2,000 people a day dying in Ethiopia and that's down from 400 an hour. There's North Kenya. Uganda. Nigeria.
"Project Spirit will have at least one ship going around the world at all times. Then I'd like to see one ship in every major port city in the country . . . and they'll be floating, Queen Mary types as day-care centers, as shelters for battered children, and operated by senior citizens who have so much to give. . . . "
Ambitious. But, Tipton said, when your life has been geared to the outlandish, ambitious becomes only mildly challenging.
Owned a Store at 16