Shipwrecked sailors survive months adrift

From Ocean Navigator #127
January/February 2003
Two American sailors who departed U.S. ports in small fiberglass sloops this past summer spent a bit more time at sea than they expected.

When the crew of the U.S. Navy frigate McClusky approached the battered sailboat belonging to Richard Van Pham in September, they were 120 miles southwest of Costa Rica. The crew was certain they would find no one aboard. The vessel had the look of a ghost ship: A shredded sail was flapping from a stub of a mast; marine growth had encircled the little sloop in a green beard. If they found the vessel abandoned, they would scuttle the boat to prevent it from being a hazard to navigation. Instead, McClusky’s crew was greeted by a ragged-looking sailor seated in the cockpit, busily grilling the carcass of a gull over an open fire. He raised his hand in greeting as the ship approached, startling the Navy sailors.

The boat, dismasted and adrift, had been at sea for almost four months, they discovered, having sailed from Long Beach, Calif., on what was supposed to be a brief jaunt to Catalina Island 23 miles away. The skipper, 62-year-old Van Pham, a Vietnamese American, said his mast had been sheared from the vessel shortly after departure from Long Beach, and his outboard motor and VHF radio failed shortly thereafter; he had been adrift ever since, racking up some 2,500 miles under his keel.

Off the U.S. East Coast at about the same time, another American sailor was carrying on with a similar adventure. Three weeks after Van Pham was found off Costa Rica, Terry Watson turned up about 40 miles east of Charleston, S.C., his sloop also dismasted. He reported to the Coast Guard that he had been at sea for more than two months, having set out for Bermuda from the Florida Keys in July. At the time, he had been reported missing by a friend who was supposed to sail in convoy, but an extensive air search failed to locate his 23-foot sloop. “We didn’t know where to start,” a Coast Guard spokesman said to reporters from the Charleston Post & Courier.

Both Watson and Van Pham suffered from exposure and weight loss from the ordeal, but Van Pham fared better than his East Coast shipmate, having caught numerous fish and seabirds and collected rain in a bucket. He was reported by Navy personnel as being heavily tanned but otherwise in fine health. He was treated to a few warm meals and dropped off in Guatemala in the care of U.S. authorities. Watson, on the other hand, was severely dehydrated and malnourished. He was found muttering incoherently and was belligerent with his rescuers, initially refusing to abandon his derelict vessel. He was found by the captain of a sportfishing boat, who then radioed the Coast Guard. Still, a rescue swimmer could not convince Watson to abandon ship, so a surface vessel was deployed, according to Coast Guard reports. Crewmembers finally talked him into ditching his vessel, and he was transported back to shore for medical treatment.

Both vessels were scuttled following the rescues.

By Ocean Navigator