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Boater Drifts 4 Months at Sea

Ordeal: Consuming fish, a bird and rainwater, Vietnamese immigrant travels 2,500 miles before sailors find him--in good health.

September 25, 2002|JESSICA GARRISON and LEE ROMNEY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Richard Van Pham drifted and slept, slept and drifted--for nearly four months and 2,500 miles--from Long Beach to waters off Costa Rica.

He ate roasted turtle, tuna and a seagull and drank rainwater. And when he was finally rescued by the U.S. Navy, all he wanted was help fixing his broken mast and motor so he could sail on again.

Instead, the Navy sank his boat and dropped him off in Guatemala.

He was able to buy a plane ticket after sailors aboard the frigate McClusky took up a collection for his fare. On Tuesday, he arrived back in Los Angeles.

Pham said Tuesday night that every day as he drifted at sea, he scanned the horizon for any sign of life, any sign of land.

"I see nothing," he said, describing his ordeal. "Then one day, I see a plane. I know I'm close to people. They tip their wings to say hello. Two hours later, a ship comes to my boat. I am very, very happy."

Capt. Terry Bragg, commander of Destroyer Squadron One in San Diego, which oversees the McClusky, said he had never heard a story of survival like Pham's.

"It's a three-hour cruise gone bad," Bragg said. "It's like a cross between Gilligan's Island and Robinson Crusoe."

The Navy came upon Pham 300 miles off Costa Rica on Sept. 17, nearly four months after the Southern California man had set off from Long Beach for a short, easy sailing jaunt to Santa Catalina Island.

Somewhere on that 22-mile journey, a storm blew in and whipping winds broke the Sea Breeze's mast. Then the outboard motor failed, and so did the radio, according to Navy officials.

'"For two months the wind continued nonstop," Pham said. The breezes augmented the ocean currents that pushed him steadily south.

What's more, the 62-year-old Vietnamese immigrant, who told Navy officials he had no family, had not filed a float plan. No one reported him missing, so no one went looking for him.

So he drifted, alone in his 26-foot boat. He stayed below deck during the day to keep out of the sun.

Though barnacles collected on his boat's hull, his solar-powered generator worked, and sometimes he watched videos on his small television. He put out a five-gallon bucket to collect rainwater. He caught fish, eating some and hooking others to his broken mast to attract seabirds to roast. He tore the wood paneling off his boat and set up a makeshift grill. He netted a sea turtle that swam near his boat and salted the meat to store for times when food was scarce.

"If you travel at sea, you take what you find," Pham said. "If you are scared, you will die."

Gary Parriot, captain of the McClusky, still sounded flabbergasted Tuesday as he related the tale of the rescue via satellite phone to his commanding officer in San Diego.

The McClusky, a 453-foot guided-missile frigate, was finishing up six months of counter-narcotics patrol off the coast of Central America last week when a U.S. customs P-3 drug-hunting plane reported a broken-down sailboat bobbing in the water nearby, he said.

The frigate headed up to the area at maximum speed, and an hour and half later spotted "a very dilapidated sailboat."

The McClusky blew its whistle, and a skinny man came up on the deck of the Sea Breeze and began waving his arms frantically, Parriot said.

Sailors, along with a medic, lowered into a little boat and sped over to him.

It was early afternoon, and they found Pham in the middle of fixing a lunch of roasted seabird on his homemade grill. Later, he told sailors that what he really liked to eat was turtle.

They hailed him in Spanish, but the sunburned mariner said he couldn't speak that language, though his English was excellent.

Pham was delighted to see the sailors, but he refused medical treatment, Parriot said. Instead, what he wanted was a new sail and help fixing his mast, so he could sail on. He thought he was somewhere near Hawaii.

Back on the frigate, Parriot said he listened to the radio transmissions from his crew with growing amazement. "It was coming in in pieces," he said. "It was unbelievable ... the guy had been lost at sea for four months."

Engineers on the McClusky told Pham it didn't look good for the Sea Breeze. The fuel was contaminated with water, the mast was beyond repair and the vessel was simply not seaworthy.

They persuaded Pham to come aboard the frigate. They thought about towing his boat but soon concluded that wasn't possible. Reluctantly, Pham gave permission for the Navy to sink the Sea Breeze. But he went below deck so he wouldn't have to watch as they loaded it up with smoke floats and set it aflame.

"He was pretty distraught," Parriot said. "The sad part is, he lost his home."

Pham told the sailors that he was retired and had been living on the Sea Breeze, docking it in Long Beach in between trips. He said he had come to the United States from Vietnam in 1976 as a refugee. Among the items he grabbed from the Sea Breeze before it sank was his green card, Parriot said.

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