Going Off Course as a Matter of Course

Times Staff Writers

Perhaps it's a good thing the U.S. Coast Guard came across Rich Van Pham's sailboat in local waters two days ago. Otherwise, the itinerant sailor might have ended up thousands of miles off course -- again.

Pham, who received national attention last fall after surviving four months alone at sea, was towed into Dana Point Harbor on Wednesday evening, more than five hours after the cutter Blacktip found his ill-equipped sloop 15 miles from shore and traveling in the opposite direction of his destination.

"He had no radio, no charts and no distress signals," said Blacktip skipper Mark Preston, a senior chief boatswain's mate. "He assumed he was headed to Long Beach, but it was clear he was going in the wrong direction."

Pham, 62, has been lost before while sailing from the port of Long Beach. Really lost.

In mid-September, a U.S. Navy frigate found his battered craft -- the Sea Breeze -- drifting helplessly, mast broken and sails shredded, about 350 miles off Costa Rica. The 25-foot sailboat was in such bad condition it had to be scuttled.

Pham, who apparently drifted 2,500 miles after his mast snapped, originally left Long Beach for a 22-mile hop to Santa Catalina. According to his story, he survived for almost 120 days on rainwater, roasted sea gulls and a boiled sea turtle.

Shortly after his rescue, Pham settled for a few months in the Ventura harbor. While there, he was showered with offers of assistance from around the world.

A bioengineer from Thousands Oaks gave him a used 25-foot sloop worth more than $4,000. A talent agent has talked about doing a television movie or docudrama about the ordeal. Free hotel rooms, airline flights, clothing and boat slips also have come his way.

"I am sorry to hear this," said Erwin Freund, who donated the sloop to Pham after his four-month ordeal.

"It surprises me. The boat had a compass, VHF radio and a [global positioning satellite] when I gave it to him. It was not a poorly equipped boat."

GPS devices, widely used by mariners, pilots and the military, rely on special satellites to fix positions.

Pham had been sailing alone for several days when the Blacktip happened to come across him about noon Wednesday during a routine law enforcement patrol. Their position was about 15 miles south, southwest of Dana Point. The ocean swells were about 1 to 3 feet, and visibility was 6 to 8 miles.

Crew members from the 87-foot cutter said they boarded Pham's rust-stained vessel for a safety inspection and discovered that he was not carrying distress signals as federal regulations require.

Recreational boaters must be equipped with basic safety gear, including government-approved life jackets, fire extinguishers and emergency signals such as flares, bells or whistles.

Crew members further noted in their report that Pham's sloop was not equipped with communications or navigation aids. Such items, however, are not required.

According to Coast Guard records, Pham told crew members that he was trying to get back to Long Beach and had become "lost and disoriented."

Preston decided to terminate Pham's trip--an official action that gives the Coast Guard the power to take vessels to the nearest port.

"With the violations, the lack of extra equipment and from the information he had given us, we did not feel he was safe," Preston said, adding that Pham was polite and cordial throughout their encounter. "He had no complaints."

The Blacktip, which is based in Oxnard, towed Pham's boat to a spot near the Dana Point Harbor mouth, arriving about 5:30 p.m. He was handed over to the Orange County Sheriff's Harbor Patrol, which moored him in a guest slip.

On Thursday, Pham was aboard his sloop, which was cluttered with plastic bags, cereal boxes, pots, pans and a stroller. Though he had a compass and what appeared to be a map, he said, his radio was broken and his GPS device lacked batteries.

During a disjointed interview, Pham tried to explain in broken English what happened before the Coast Guard towed him in. His story contradicted official reports and was filled with inconsistencies.

The Vietnamese refugee, who lives on Social Security payments, said he somehow ended up in Mexico after 10 days at sea and was sailing north to return to Long Beach when the Coast Guard found him.

"Maybe someone towed me. That is all I can think of," Pham said.

Sheriff's Sgt. Paul Falk of the Harbor Patrol said Pham plans to stay in Dana Point for a few days before heading on another cruise along the coast -- something that worries a few local boaters and commercial fishermen who had heard of Pham's first ordeal.

"They should not let him out again," Dana Point-based fisherman Mike Wolowicz said.

"The first time he got lost, I thought, 'Wow. He's a hell of a survivor.' Now I am thinking, 'He's got a problem.' "

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