Three years ago, he was owner of the Park West Polo and Hunt Club in Beverly Hills. Now, Donald H. Tipton says a religious rebirth has caused him to cut his materialistic ties and dream of becoming a shipping magnate in the cause of international charity.
Judging from the activity around Berth 54 at the Port of Long Beach, Tipton's unusual dream may soon turn into reality.
Sometime in the next two to four weeks, his 180-foot, converted tuna boat, Gratitude, will set sail to the Philippines and Micronesia. Its 850-ton cargo bay will be nearly filled with medical supplies, clothing, food and construction materials donated for relief work there. Also on board will be a medical clinic and a doctor for treating the poor at ports along the way.
Until then, Tipton and his Park West Children's Fund will be trying to fill the ship's remaining cargo space with donations from the Los Angeles area--all of which will be transported overseas at no cost to the charities that participate.
Tipton, 42, explained that his organization is trying to help solve what he says is a chronic problem for charities. Many of the smaller ones, he said, are willing to help out the Third World's destitute, but the cost of shipping is prohibitively high.
"What we are trying to do is to give groups a greater incentive to ship donated material overseas," Tipton said recently. "Once money comes into play, people start backing up. But if the shipping is free, charities can ship more, and more people can live."
One of the charities, the Edmonds Charismatic Center, based in a Seattle suburb, is using this trip to ship a Volkswagen bus to its Philippine mission, along with other supplies and medicine.
"You can't send a van on an airplane and it would cost too much to ship it," said Shirley Rinnell, a spokesman for the charismatic center. "So it wasn't feasible to do so until this opportunity came along."
The ship took on most of its cargo at its home port of Seattle in August, but also stopped for donations in San Francisco last month.
Much of the cargo was destined for the junk heap, Tipton said, had it not been rescued by his group or the other charities that collected donations for the voyage.
"We have bicycles in our hold that were not being used in the U.S. except for collecting dust. They had no real value. But to a missionary, they are a means of transportation," Tipton said. "We often throw away shoes because they are out of fashion, but to a man in a poor country they are a way for him to walk to work to support his family."
The ship's doctor, Alexander Chikanchi, said that among the donations to his clinic was a $30,000 X-ray scanner--outdated because it takes 20 minutes to develop film, whereas newer models take about two minutes.
Sondra George, Tipton's wife and chief assistant, said that while Park West accepts cash donations, it solicits corporations only for merchandise and food.
"(Companies) are leery about giving funds because they don't know how they are being spent," George said. "But they will give us their product."
Long Beach port officials also let the Gratitude moor for free, she said, and local unions provided a pilot and linesmen for docking.
Neither Tipton nor his 18-member crew is paid, and they eat food donated by Seattle-area grocery businesses.
"What we do is go and pick up their excess produce--the stuff they throw away," George said. "We get odd-shaped potatoes, 10-pound bags of oranges with one bad one in them, that kind of thing. In the three years we've been doing this, we've collected 400,000 pounds of produce."
Two With Experience
Only two of the Gratitude's crew, Capt. Frits DeQuilettes and chaplain and chief engineer Jami Saunders, had seagoing experience before signing on.
DeQuilettes, 53, a retired Seattle contractor who had been a sailor in his native Indonesia before coming to the United States 20 years ago, said his platoon of former landlubbers has taken well to the sea.
"(Seamanship) is not hard to teach because we have computers to do everything now, such as navigation," DeQuilettes said. "Some of these guys are already better sailors than I am. In the old days, the saying goes, you had iron men and wooden ships. Today we have iron ships and computers."
Saunders said the program is an answer to his prayers.
"Two years ago, I was a missionary in India and a big typhoon hit in Bangladesh," said Saunders, who is 28. "But there was no way to get to them the things they needed. I thought 'if we just had a ship.' When we returned from India, my wife and I heard about an old cargo ship being refitted in Seattle for just that purpose. So we decided to go work with them."
Tipton, who dropped out of school in the eighth grade and owned his own retail business at 16, began his odyssey from polo ponies to shipping magnate in 1980 when he founded Park West as a charity for battered, orphaned and handicapped children.
Converted Two Years Ago