Lost at Sea : Family Clings to Hope for Sailor Who Vanished

Times Staff Writer

For more than eight months, Milla and Milan Vucurevich have clung to the belief that their son, Milan, is alive and well on an island somewhere in the Pacific.

Not a day goes by that they don't think of him, wonder what he is doing, whether he has had enough to eat or whether he's warm enough.

"You never stop worrying," said Milla Vucurevich in her home in West Los Angeles. "You worry equally whether they're 7 years old or 40. They never grow up. . . . He is out there somewhere. We know it."

The authorities know that on June 3, Milan, 37, took Jim Chouinard and Mary Huston out for a Sunday afternoon sail in his 18-foot catamaran off the scenic island of Kauai, the fourth largest of the Hawaiian chain.

Intending to make only a short trip up the coast, Milan left his wallet behind and gave a friend $10 to refill the cooler with beer and soda. Chouinard left his Australian sheep dog on the beach.

The three was supposed to be back by nightfall, but they never returned.

Milan, who was raised in West Los Angeles and attended University High School and Santa Monica College, made his living on the island as a builder and home designer. Chouinard also lived on the island and Huston was visiting.

The disappearance touched off a massive air and sea search by the Coast Guard, the Navy and civilian volunteers. Naval ships from five countries participating in war games nearby were asked be on the lookout. Neither the boat nor its passengers were found and the case has remained a mystery.

No one, not the Navy, the Coast Guard, or the psychics whom the families hired to find their children, has been able to determine their whereabouts. Navy and Coast Guard officials say there is little chance that they survived.

Coast Guard spokesman Bob Jones said that the search for Vucurevich, Chouinard and Huston was called off after eight days. He said that 44 airplane flights covered 28,700 square miles of ocean and that helicopters flew another 600 miles of island coastline. The operation cost $155,000, he said.

Coast Guard and Navy officials said they can only speculate on what happened.

"The weather could have been a factor or maybe the kind of boat they were on. . . . The boat could have broken apart," said Forest Telfer, chief petty officer on Kauai. "We don't know what happened because we never found anything."

He said the seas were calm when the trio left, but latter got choppy.

Navy Cmdr. Pete Freas, the executive officer of the Pacific missile range facility on Kauai, met with members of the Vucurevich family.

"One thing we discussed was the possibility that they could have landed on a (deserted) island," Freas said. "We didn't want to give them any false hope or encouragement, but we did speculate that they could have drifted ahead of the search." The commander said there was a "low probability" that they survived.

Family members cling to the belief that Milan is on an island waiting to be rescued. "It has happened," Milan Vucurevich Sr. said. "What about that (World War II Japanese) soldier who was found on one of the deserted islands after all those years?"

Pointing to a map and indicating the direction of the water currents around the island of Kauai, Vucurevich, a 71-year-old retired U.S. Army colonel who fought in New Guinea during World War II, said he believes that Milan had trouble with his boat, drifted ahead of the search parties and landed somewhere on an uninhabited island in the Pacific.

"We continue to have hope, but it is pretty rough," Vucurevich said. "We have not given up. It would be easier if we could get some kind of evidence or something, but they have gone without a trace. And I'm just sick trying to determine whether he is alive or not. We are keeping our fingers crossed that they're alive on one of the many thousands of islands out there."

The belief that Milan is still alive because he is a "survivor" was expressed by several family members.

There was the time in 1981, they say, when his homemade 42-foot catamaran broke up two days off shore in a race from Los Angeles to Honolulu. He drifted in the water for hours until he was picked up by another boat in the race. Then there was the time in November, 1982, when a hurricane destroyed his house and he lost all his belongings. He was unharmed.

Coast Guard officials told the Vucureviches that the chances for survival were better because all three of the missing people were in good physical condition.

Milan is 6-feet-5 and a muscular 230 pounds. He is described as an excellent sailor and athlete with a respect for the sea. Chouinard, 35, is also an experienced sailor who jogged 10 miles a day and ran marathons. Huston, 27, is a Colorado ski instructor.

Chouinard, originally from Fenton, Mich., was married three weeks before his disappearance. His bride had to work on the day he went sailing. Huston, who had come to the island for the wedding and a vacation, joined Chouinard for the sail.

"If it was anyone else I would would have given up," said Barbara Kral, Milan's sister. "Corky (Milan's nickname) always said, 'Don't worry about me, I can survive,' and I totally believe that. And I can't believe that three people and a boat can just totally vanish."

Kral, who lives in San Marino, speculated that one of three things could have happened to her brother. He could have been stranded on an island, he could have strayed into an area frequented by drug smugglers and then been killed, or he could have drifted into the area where the Navy was holding its exercises and been accidentally blown up or run over by one of the big military ships on maneuvers.

Cmdr. Freas said it is not likely that the boat was hit during the exercises. "Something like that would not go undetected," he said.

Because of numerous questions surrounding the disappearance and the possibility that the Navy could shed some light on what happened, the family asked for a review of satellite photos taken on that day.

But Kral, in a letter to President Reagan, said that that suggestion met with a "stone wall of silence at worst and opposing answers at best."

Her letter stated: "Did my brother stray into the restricted area where the maneuvers were being held. Right now we feel much like an MIA (missing in action) family in the Vietnam War except it is not the Vietnam government that may be withholding information from the families. It is my government, the United States government."

Kral said a letter from an assistant secretary of the Navy stated that there were no satellite photos of the boat. Naval officials said that ships from the United States, New Zealand, Australia, Canada and Japan took part in the exercises. The response did not satisfy the family.

"I find it difficult to accept the government's statement that there were no satellite records of the boat," she said. "It is hard for me to believe there is no information detecting my brother with all the sophisticated equipment they have."

Psychics hired by the family offered several different versions of what happened to Milan and his two companions. One said she saw them 50 miles off the coast trapped underwater. Another said Milan was alive on a primitive island. After a psychic said Milan was trapped in an undersea cave, a relative flew to the island and hired skin divers to explore several caves. Another psychic got no reading at all.

Kral said she experienced her own visions.

'He Looked Tired'

"About six weeks after he disappeared," she said, "I saw my brother carrying Mary, and Jim was walking behind him. My brother looked really tired."

Then there was another vision she said she experienced. "I saw an old red bus, hidden in tall grass," she said. "There were chickens on the road and arms hanging out the bus."

She added, "I have a picture of him next to my nightstand and every night when I go to bed, I say 'I hope you are OK.' And then when I wake up in the morning, I say to myself maybe today there will be something on the news that says 'Missing people found on an island.' "

She said her brother, who preferred to dress casually and sported a full beard, reminded people of Tom Selleck on the television show "Magnum, P.I."

"He was always doing something for people and never had any money," she said. "I have family who refuse to watch that program now because they just relate so much to Corky.

"I would always say that when my brother comes back Tom Selleck will play the part of my brother."

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