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Tide Turns for Rescued Sailor as Offers of Boats and Aid Pour In

September 26, 2002|LEE ROMNEY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Offers of free boats and financial help poured in Wednesday for a Vietnamese-born sailor who says he spent nearly four months drifting at sea after a Santa Catalina Island voyage went horribly awry.

Richard Van Pham's saga may never be fully confirmed--he lived and sailed alone, and many details of his life remain uncertain. But his unlikely tale of survival--he says he subsisted on tuna, sea turtles and rainwater as he drifted aimlessly with a broken mast, motor and radio--captivated and amazed recreational sailors and others across the Southland. Several said they'd like to give Pham another boat.

"He has an inner strength that is not based on education or money, but on personal strength," said Erwin Freund, a 49-year-old Amgen scientist who hopes to donate a 25-foot Coronado Sloop to Pham, who lost nearly all his possessions when he abandoned his disabled 26-foot home, the Sea Breeze, about 300 miles off Costa Rica.

Freund said he has sailed for two years and is "super-cautious, overcautious" about safety, never leaving his slip without his Global Positioning System and radar equipment. But, faced with the conditions that sidetracked Pham, he would have faltered.

"His boat was not properly equipped. He did not have the proper gear. But he maintained a positive attitude where I would have panicked," said Freund. "He's someone who is really a role model."

The diminutive Pham recounted his harrowing tale from a hotel room Tuesday, proudly sporting a crisp baseball cap from the Navy frigate McClusky, which rescued him off the Central American coast last week.

An Elusive History

That story, like the 62-year-old Pham, proved elusive Wednesday. Although he says he lived for several years on his boat in Long Beach's downtown marina, city records show he paid to stay there for only four days in May. Addresses on identification cards that Pham carried show that he had bounced around downtown Los Angeles and MacArthur Park since 1998, living the life of a drifter.

When he left for what he says he intended as a three-day jaunt to Catalina, Pham filed no float plan, so no one knew where he was going. When he disappeared for nearly four months, no one reported him missing. Wednesday, as offers of help poured in, Pham was swept into a broadcast news vehicle after meeting with a Travelers Aid social worker at Los Angeles International Airport.

Pham had arrived at LAX at 9 p.m. Monday on a flight from Mexico City. Sailors aboard the McClusky had taken up a collection to provide him enough money for a ticket back to Los Angeles after they rescued him. After he arrived, he was kept overnight in the custody of the Immigration and Naturalization Service in downtown Los Angeles, said Francisco Arcaute, a spokesman for the INS.

A man found alone in a boat in a highly trafficked drug corridor raises obvious suspicions, and officials were eager to ensure that Pham's record was clean.

"We had multiple questions on this individual, given the circumstances of his rescue and whatnot," the spokesman said.

On Tuesday, INS officers ran his name through law enforcement databases, but no pending charges or immigration irregularities were found, the spokesman said. Pham was finally allowed to leave sometime Tuesday afternoon and was taken to Travelers Aid, the spokesman added.

A Navy spokesman said the McClusky sailors were on a counter-narcotics mission and would have spotted anything untoward. Still, Pham's story is spectacular, and his solitary nature ensures that many parts of it cannot be entirely corroborated.

According to that account, after arriving from Vietnam in 1976, Pham built a life as a successful entrepreneur. He opened three furniture stores, in North Hollywood, Culver City and Los Angeles, and an auto repair business. But about a decade ago, he said, an auto accident left him in a coma for six months. When he regained consciousness, he had lost much of his memory and was forced to relearn even the most basic tasks.

"My memories before the accident, they are gray, with no pictures," Pham explained.

Pham said the accident also drained his savings. He slowly built a new life, living on disability checks and "traveling a lot."

"I had a girlfriend for a while, but she didn't like that I traveled so much," he said.

His dream was the ocean: "I love nature. I love the ocean. I wanted to sail it every day."

For the past few years, he said, he took mostly short trips, to Catalina and the Channel Islands. But he also took one six-month round-trip voyage to the coast of Chile. And he had carefully calculated that it would take six months to cross the ocean to his native Vietnam.

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