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Angling to Get His Dream Afloat : Mercy Voyages Would Aid Worldwide Victims of Famine

Times Staff Writer

Don Tipton wants an oceangoing freighter so he can deliver groceries to starving nations as the start of a worldwide, multimillion-dollar, eight-ship program of mercy voyages directed by his Park West Children’s Fund.

Unfortunately, there’s only $38 in Park West’s account at the Pacific Palisades branch of Wells Fargo.

Yet at a mooring next to clattering Russ Trask Shipyard, just across Puget Sound from here. . . .

Ex-Navy Store Ship

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There’s the former USS Palisana, a 4,000-ton, ex-Navy store ship that a local marine company recently deeded to Tipton and his Los Angeles charity. A crew of experts and handypersons is working for nothing on her mothballed innards and diesels pickled in Cosmoline. A British engineering officer, another volunteer, will come on board as soon as he can thumb a ride from London.

And Tipton’s list of freebies stretches from there to Alabama; legal counsel from O’Melveny & Myers of Los Angeles, sheets and pillowcases from the Holiday Inn in Brentwood. Toilet rolls. A five-day loan of a water blaster. Fast food by the bucket and farm produce by the ton. Plumbing parts and 200 gallons of yellow paint. A $3,000 tug tow from Tacoma to the Trask yard.

And he’s got his eye on what might become additions to Tipton’s navy: a Czech yacht currently frozen by a marshal’s sale; a wooden tug that nobody wants to insure; and seven of Palisana’s sister ships, one a derelict World War II mortuary ship that carried American dead from European battlefields.

Another Way

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“So why rattle a tin cup and bang on doors for money when there’s another way?” Tipton boomed. He’s a bearded, 40-year-old rain barrel in a Woolly Pully. His L.A. Raiders cap is worn backwards and it looks like Raider muscle man Lyle Alzado himself drove over it.

Those who know Tipton as be-blazered owner of the Park West Polo and Hunt Club should see him now.

“The other way of getting things without money?” Tipton continued. “There’s people and there’s energy. There’s spoilage and corporate waste.

“Example. The sheet metal I need for this ship is in some corporate backyard right now, rotting. There are samples, bad orders that weren’t picked up, overruns. If you ask them (corporations), they’ll tell you it’s very valuable. But if you ask ‘em properly and they realize what you’re doing and recognize the tax value of a donation . . . well, they’ll deshelf it to make room for other things and give it to you.”

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Timing helps. Then, Tipton says, there’s the power of prayer. If faith can move mountains, imagine how far it can pull a small ship. But just in case divine attention falters, meat-and-potatoes money (“you can’t find anybody to donate things like these . . . Duracell batteries”) has come from Brentwood Farms, an equestrian facility operated by Tipton on 750 acres of West Los Angeles land leased from the Getty Foundation.

“Right now, I don’t need the money,” he said. “If I run into a problem with the ship--something that needs money, can only be solved by money--then I’ll go out after it. Until then, I’m after corporations and waste.”

Tipton’s Project Spirit graduated from California planning to Washington donkey work five weeks ago. Volunteers commited to Bruce Springsteen and world hunger haven’t been in short supply. Goodliness must be next to contagious because local hands have started to pitch in.

But let’s face it, who could resist the romance of returning a future to a tough little supply ship (butter and eggs and pot roasts from Seattle to Aleutian bases in 1944) that surely once felt the impatient footfalls of Mr. Roberts?

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So dry dock and sandblasting is being planned for Palisana, and her stern has been measured for a new name: Spirit. A vintage diesel generator fired up at the first touch and is running power to refrigerator holds and engine room.

Resident Sea Dogs

Toilets flush and cabins are moving from chilly towards cheery and the ship smells lived in. Better yet, Tipton’s scar-faced retriever (Capone, of course) and a beagle (John Henry), his gift to project vice president Sondra George, have signed on. As resident sea dogs.

“Are we going to make it happen?” Tipton said. “Yes. Absolutely. In less than a year from now, Spirit will sail with her first cargo and we’ll go wherever the need is.

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“You know, there are places where people are spending the equivalent of $60 for a chicken. There are 2,000 people a day dying in Ethiopia and that’s down from 400 an hour. There’s North Kenya. Uganda. Nigeria.

“Project Spirit will have at least one ship going around the world at all times. Then I’d like to see one ship in every major port city in the country . . . and they’ll be floating, Queen Mary types as day-care centers, as shelters for battered children, and operated by senior citizens who have so much to give. . . . “

Ambitious. But, Tipton said, when your life has been geared to the outlandish, ambitious becomes only mildly challenging.

Owned a Store at 16

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Tipton--the unconventional son of a mother who raced jalopies and a father who was a master glass blower--owned a secondhand store in Newhall when he was 16. He also was the only kid on the block driving a new Corvette.

With a wife (now divorced), he operated Windbrook Farms, a hunter-jumper horse ranch in Malibu. That led to operation of the Park West Polo and Hunt Club at Will Rogers State Park for five years. Now he’s running Brentwood Farms and overseeing finances and final details of his proposal to establish a five-field polo facility at the Sepulveda Dam Recreation Area.

It was Tipton who organized those East-West Polo Challenges for charity at Will Rogers’ Park in 1983 and 1984. Sylvester Stallone threw out the first ball and William Devane played in the celebrity game. Park West Children’s Fund and the Institute for Cancer & Blood Research were beneficiaries.

Tipton has been involved with kids, particularly battered kids, since 1982. He has brought them from shelters and halfway houses and given them riding lessons at Will Rogers Park. He was given a decrepit Chris-Craft, restored it and used it to take youngsters on fishing trips.

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There has been a Park West Christmas Party at Brentwood and a Park West Barbecue at Will Rogers and a Park West Wild West Week at South Tahoe. The charity grew to involve 20th Century Fox, Disneyland, Mrs. Michael Landon, Hank Williams Jr., Neil Sedaka, Sally Struthers and Alex Cord.

But that has changed. Because Tipton has changed. He has looked at persons of wealth and status and reached a conclusion: “Money and position really hasn’t given them much . . . but they’re afraid to turn loose because that might mean going back the other way, to when they didn’t have money.”

He looked at his own work with children and saw an unhealthy percentage of self-service: “It was an excuse for a party, it was beefing the business up. I decided there had to be something more . . . and it couldn’t be for building my business or lining my pockets.”

That’s when, he said, a year ago he gave himself to God and a cause: “My (adult) children and grandchildren were OK and I didn’t need to build an empire for them. So I decided to commit my life to the poor and the hungry of the world . . . but this time, not because it would be good for me.”

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Famine was a huge public issue. Ethiopia was its epicenter. Tipton said he considered the dedication of recording artists and Live Aid concerts, recognized the built-in impermanence and identified the realities of transporting continuing relief.

Less Expensive Way

“World Vision shipped 100,000 pounds of medicine, tents and food to Ethiopia for $240,000,” he said. “That’s $2.40 a pound.” Or $240 a ton. “The crew fee alone was $8,000 a day.”

But supposing there were volunteer crews aboard a donated cargo ship? “We figure that we can take it (relief cargo) for less than $30 a ton. If we can get fuel donated from Shell or Chevron, we can ship even cheaper.”

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In partnership with George, 32, a friend from polo and a companion professional weary of material superficialities, Tipton began hunting for a ship. Or ships. Several tuna boats were found in San Diego. They sold for real money with little interest in Tipton’s bid. “Lock, stock and barrel . . . for nothing.” The mortuary ship entered negotiations. But it has been rusting on the Mobile River, Ala., since 1947 and its usefulness is arguable. Then a ship broker made his donation to Project Spirit. “He called me from San Diego, told me he wasn’t looking for any commission and that the sister to the mortuary ship was available in Tacoma,” said Tipton.

The Palisana, a refrigerated store ship built in Beaumont, Tex., served four years in the Navy. Then she hauled coastal cargo for Alaska Steamship Co. In 1974, a syndicate of doctors bought the ship with plans to convert it to a fish processing barge: Sea Harvester. That fell through when financing died and one of the partners was killed in a hunting accident. So Coast Engine & Equipment Corp., the Tacoma firm working on the conversion, took possession of Sea Harvester in lieu of payment for work completed.

“We were left with a rusty elephant,” said Bill Walker, the 89-year-old owner and founder of Coast Engine. “She’s an oddball size and with a top speed of about 15 knots she’s certainly not any firecracker. Just sitting there she was costing us about $2,500 a month. So when Tipton came along. . . . “

Walker and Coast Engine got out from under their liability. Tipton got a vessel estimated by Walker to be worth $700,000, as is. The replacement cost, he added, would be in excess of $9 million.

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Navy Veteran

Volunteer sailors have come from Sommer Haven Ranch, an Indian relief mission at Palmdale. Darrow Burke seems to have assumed professional seniority. He’s a Navy veteran, a bosun’s mate with sea duty aboard fast frigates.

Spirit’s diesel mechanics are engineering students from nearby L.H. Bates Vocational Institute and their instructors. To them falls the task of bringing the ship’s relatively new main diesel and three auxiliaries out of hibernation and into action.

Tipton has put out a casting call for a volunteer skipper, engineers, electricians, cooks, a navigator and any able-bodied seamen interested in the Navy’s version of perpetual motion--chipping and painting steel decks, superstructure and hull.

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Tipton is, of course, a colossal dreamer. With a maritime background limited to ferry trips to Catalina Island, he is planning a world cruise and restoration of a working ship. There are no guarantees that his project won’t sink before it’s afloat.

But don’t tell Tipton that. Not anytime. Especially when he’s stumping his ship.

“It’s like a great old Bentley,” he enthused. “Underneath all the rust and flaked paint there’s a real ship and she’s all sound. She’s clearly restorable and we haven’t run into anything to tell us ‘no.’ But we’re taking one tiny step at a time until we get some more knowledgeable people.”

And when all the dry docking and overhauling is done, there will be a christening for Sea Harvester. Tipton said he might dip into Park West’s dusty account and spend some of that $38 on champagne.

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On the other hand, if Moet & Chandon can be persuaded to contribute to a good cause. . . .


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