The general rules for first-time sailors is to travel in calm, uncrowded waters.
It’s also recommended to use a small boat since it’s easier to maneuver and is usually more responsive. Although one California man thought he dotted all his I’s and crossed all his T’s in preparation for an upcoming sailing trip, unforeseeable events left him in serious danger…
The Sailor- Richard Van Pham
Richard Van Pham is a 62-year-old Vietnamese immigrant currently living in the United States. He arrived here in 1976 as a refugee and became a successful businessman. Richard owned furniture stores in North Hollywood, Culver City and Los Angeles, and even had an auto mechanic shop.
But about 10 years ago, a car accident left Richard in a coma for six months and he suffered severe memory loss. Richard had to relearn English and simple tasks such as taking the bus. His injuries left him unable to run his business and his hospital bills exhausted his savings. Richard was at the lowest point in his life and he had no family to help him…
A New Life
Richard decided to change his life and he got rid of his Los Angeles apartment to purchase a sailboat called the Sea Breeze. He planned to set out on a 22-mile journey from Long Beach, California, to Catalina Island in May 2002. What should have taken about three hours, however, wound up taking a lot longer…
During the trip, a sudden storm knocked the mast of Richard’s boat and ruined his outboard motor. Richard didn’t have a working VHF radio on board his boat to call for help and he also had not filed a boat plan. This meant no one would even know that Richard was missing…
Lost At Sea
The 26-foot Sea Breeze began drifting since it was so windy and Richard went to sleep praying he would wake up and someone would find him. But when Richard woke up in the morning, there was not another boat in sight.
Preparing For The Worst
Richard decided to stay below deck during the day to keep out of the sun. He didn’t know how long he would be stranded at sea for, and he knew he needed to conserve every morsel of his energy…
Words Of Wisdom
As his boat drifted, Richard remembered one thing: “If you travel at sea, you take what you find. If you are scared, you will die.” This is the saying he would have to remember when times would get really tough.
Barnacles started collecting on the Sea Breeze’s hull, but Richard was lucky his solar-power generator worked and he was able to watch videos on his small television. He put out a five-gallon bucket to collect rainwater and for food, Richard caught fish, eating some and hooking others to his broken mast to attract seabirds to roast.
Using His Resources
Richard even came up with the clever idea to tear the wood paneling off his boat to set up a makeshift grill. He also was able to net a sea turtle that swam near the Sea Breeze. Using evaporated seawater, Richard learned to preserve the meat he caught, as it would come in handy when food was scarce.
He was using all of his resources as this was literally do or die for Richard. His fate was dependent upon staying alive for as long as he possibly could and hoping that someone would find him…
But days and then weeks went by where no one saw Richard’s stranded boat. While this is hard to believe, since he was somewhere in the middle of Long Beach and Catalina Island, there wasn’t a soul in sight.
Since that Tuesday night and every day after as Richard drifted at sea, he scanned the horizon for any sign of life and any sign of land. “I see nothing,” he said. For two months the wind continued nonstop and the breeze changed the ocean currents and pushed Richard towards the South…
Time Was Passing…
Another two months passed and now Richard drifted 2,500 miles at sea, all the way from Long Beach to the waters off Costa Rica. He continued to eat roasted turtle, tuna, and a seagull and drank rainwater.
Had Hope Finally Arrived?
Then, one day, Richard saw a plane and he knew he was close to people. He saw the men on the plane tip their wings to say hello and Richard thought his prayers had been answered and he had been found…
Two hours passed and a ship came over to Richard’s boat. This was the first human life he has seen since he set sail for Catalina Island in late May 2002. The Navy found Richard 300 miles off Costa Rica on September 17, nearly four months after he set off from Long Beach for a short, easy sailing.
Help Was On The Way
The McClusty, a 432-foot guided-missile frigate was finishing up six months of counter-narcotics patrol off the coast of Central America when a U.S. customs P-3 drug-hunting plane reported a broken-down sailboat bobbing in the water. The frigate headed to Richard at maximum speed and an hour and a half later spotted his sailboat…
The McClusty blew its whistle and a skinny Richard came on the deck and began waving his arms frantically. Sailors and a medic were lowered into his boat and sped over to him. Richard refused medical treatment and he told the sailors all he wanted was a new sail and help fixing his mast so he could continue sailing on.
Although Richard was doing pretty well despite being lost at sea for the past four months, the Sea Breeze was in pretty bad shape. The fuel was contaminated with water and the mast was beyond repair. The sailors finally persuaded Richard to go aboard the frigate, and he gave the Navy permission to sink the Sea Breeze.
Richard went below deck so he wouldn’t have to watch it. He was pretty distraught as he had just lost his home, and crew members were saddened to learn Richard was homeless.
A Kind Gesture
He didn’t have the money to get back to the U.S., so sailors raised $800 for Richard’s plane ticket to get to Los Angeles. There, he was directed to Traveler’s Aid. After his journey, Richard received several gifts from donors around the world. One of these gifts was a brand new 25-foot boat.