SAN DIEGO — Tipton's Navy, unsteady as she goes, navigating more by faith than seamanship, has docked here to add to its small yet precious first cargo of food, clothing and medical supplies for children in the Fourth World.
In keeping with the bodacious, audacious, who-said-it-can't-be-done doings of the venture, the MV (motor vessel) Gratitude is skippered by Fritz de Quilettes, a Dutch electrician who hasn't been to sea for almost 30 years.
Undergraduate Cabin Boy
The second mate is Mark Higman, a sous chef fresh from a tour with the Salvation Army in Sacramento. Tending the spiritual needs of the ship's mighty diesels is the Rev. Jamie Saunders, missionary and ordained minister. His 12-month-old son, Regan, is undergraduate cabin boy. And the ship's cat gets seasick.
"They may not have the right tickets (maritime licenses) or experience but they've got the right attitude . . . they're willing to try and willing to do and that's how you get things done," grinned Don Tipton, proud admiral of the effort. He's another retread. Tipton once owned the Park West Polo and Hunt Club in Beverly Hills and assorted equestrian facilities.
Two years ago, Tipton grew irritated with Southern California's monied, power-breakfast scene. Doing something beyond self seemed much more compelling. So Tipton decided to do something about world hunger . . . with the outrageous idea of using prayer to find free ships he could man with unpaid crews and fill with donated groceries to be delivered gratis to hungry chunks of Africa, Asia and Pacific Islands.
And now he's doing it . . . although, agrees Tipton, 42, soft of heart but built like a capstan, there surely is a whole lot of "McHale's Navy" about Tipton's Navy.
"But look at how far we've come in just two years and one month when we had $38 in our bank account. We have three ships free and clear and 50 crew members . . . a 13,000-square-foot warehouse and seven offices with telephones and Telex in Redondo Beach . . . trucks and 33 acres at Petaluma where we intend to open a missionary training school . . . and we have never asked anyone for money."
Nor were the land and facilities and the ships purchased by rich patrons or through fat foundations.
They were freebies engineered and wheedled by Tipton from individuals willing to trust the strength of his beliefs and handshake.
He has been given--in order of appearance in the life of his Park West Children's Fund--buckshee titles to about $1.3 million worth of shipping: Spirit, a 4,000-ton, ex-Navy supply ship; Gratitude, a converted, 180-foot tuna seiner; and Reverence, a 150-foot riverboat veteran of brown Sacramento waters, plus her 200-foot barge.
No matter the repair, renovation or modification to any of the ships, from rebuilding engines, through drydocking or tug transfers, to painting and overhauling of electronics and hydraulics, all services and parts and labor have been donated.
The first segment of Tipton's vision--the feeding and clothing of hungry youngsters with medical treatments and missionary resupply--cast off in August when Gratitude sailed from Seattle and began filling her holds with relief supplies. At San Francisco. At Sacramento. At Long Beach and now San Diego.
A Hand-to-Mouth Voyage
Granted, the voyage south has been hand-to-mouth, port-to-port, a coastal hopscotch in search of donated fuel and waived pilot fees, until Gratitude arrived at Pier B here. With her fuel tanks near empty.
Yet her holds are rich, with canned salmon, with used clothing, with powdered baby formula and hospital beds and bicycles and wheelchairs and Mylanta and an orange Volkswagen van.
Another 22 tons of aid will be loaded in San Diego.
Then Gratitude and her 14 crew members (13 if Ricky, the green-whiskered cat, decides to jump ship as he did in Seattle) will sail to serve the Marshall Islands, the Carolines, Ralik, Truk and the Philippines.
And after those two years and one month, Tipton's charity is fully afloat and steaming in the right direction and still has just about $38 in its checking account.
"But to some of those who look at me, I don't measure up," Tipton said. True. Here's an evangelist in baggy Levi's who doesn't own a Rolex. He's married to Sondra whose chief beauty aid is a comb. "Others expect me to be a saint, a walking Moses, a special gift from God.
"I'm just a common Joe . . . someone who believes what it says in the Bible that a righteous man's prayers availeth much. You know, at this very moment, there are 1,000 people on their knees praying for medicine to keep a child alive, or for a blanket to keep an old lady warm . . . and there are men and women in Africa and India, in the villages and jungles and on hilltops, who are ministering to these people, feeding them, educating them, healing them.
"I'm simply trying to get stuff to these missionaries, to prove that the prayers of righteous men are prevailing."
Five years ago, Tipton wasn't all that righteous. Nor was he praying.