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Sailor Lost at Sea Finds a New Life

After his rescue, Rich Van Pham has another boat and is the toast of Ventura Harbor.

October 20, 2002|David Kelly | Times Staff Writer

Disaster has been very good to Rich Van Pham. A few weeks ago, the 62-year-old itinerant sailor was drifting helplessly off the coast of Costa Rica, mast broken, sails shredded and faith ebbing.

"I prayed for a quick death," he said.

Now, very much alive, Pham sits aboard his new 25-foot sloop in Ventura Harbor, discussing the healing benefits of boiled sea turtle and roasted sea gull.

An unopened copy of "Practical Sailing" sits beside a donated global positioning system that baffles a man more accustomed to ragged maps and compasses.

"For four months I see no one," he said, sitting in the cramped boat. "I have a new life, everyone wants to talk to me. I have no plans to go anywhere; I will relax here for awhile."

Since being rescued last month from his battered vessel floating off Costa Rica, Pham has been showered with offers of aid from around the world.

The boat was a gift from Erwin Freund, a bioengineer at Amgen in Thousand Oaks. Hotel rooms, flights, clothing and navigation equipment have also been donated to Pham, who appears simultaneously grateful and puzzled by it all.

"I think they are interested in the story, not in me," he said. So far, nothing about Pham's murky background or memory lapses about past scrapes with the law seems to have dampened the public's enthusiasm for him.

Law enforcement records show the Vietnamese immigrant was arrested three times in the last 17 years on suspicion of felonies that include aggravated battery and marijuana possession in Texas, California and Florida. No charges were ever filed and details of the case were not available.

"The arrests don't make me change my mind: He was not prosecuted; he didn't spend a day in jail," said 49-year-old Freund of Camarillo.

Freund felt strongly enough to donate his boat, which he was selling for $4,400, to Pham.

"I figured this guy deserves it," he said. "He appeals to our alter ego. I'd like to be carefree and sailing. He's living the way I'd like to."

Pham's new home occupies a prime slip in Ventura Harbor and has five sails, a radio, flares, television, VCR and small bedroom. He apologizes for the clutter and draws a curtain over his ruffled sleeping quarters.

"When Erwin showed me the boat I loved it," he said. "Now I need to find a [permanent] place to put it."

Pham has remained an enigma since the McClusky, a Navy narcotics interdiction frigate, found him floating 350 miles off Costa Rica.

He had left Long Beach Harbor in his 26-foot-boat, Sea Breeze, for a 22-mile jaunt to Santa Catalina Island. But high winds snapped his mast, his radio failed and he drifted for 2,500 miles, living for 120 days by his wits and off the bounty of the sea.

It was a compelling story, and when he returned to the U.S. he was an instant media star, though not without detractors.

"Why is someone as incompetent as him getting such recognition for being a screw-up?" asked Steven Bien, a veteran long distance sailor from Los Angeles. "His story seems a little farfetched."

Pham, a slightly built man with a deep tan, smiles at such comments.

"People find it hard to believe," he said. "I understand that."

"Sometimes you read something and it just grabs you," said Vance Vaughan of Woodland Hills. "I am married to a Vietnamese woman who was a boat person. For a guy to come here and learn English and then lose it all really struck a note."

Phillip Nguyen of Tustin wanted to donate $1,000. "I want to help him get on his feet, find a job," said the Cal Fed loan officer. "Lots of us ended up with no family or friends because of the war. I don't want to dig up his past; he's not a politician. When someone needs help, you help."

Jerry Pool, owner of Larry Dudley Yacht Sales in Ventura Harbor, is letting Pham keep his boat in his dock for awhile.

"I thought this was really bizarre when I heard it," Pool said. "I had red flags going up all over the place. But when you talk to him you realize he doesn't have a dishonest bone in his body. He seems to draw people to him."

Pham doesn't know his next move. He disappears for days at a time before returning. He says he may sail down to San Diego or Oceanside. "If you travel on the sea you love it," he said. "Water, sea and yourself--that's the best; that's No. 1."

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