A survival-at-sea tale for the ages

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

You'd think that after being stuck at sea for over three months with uncertain prospects for survival, Richard Van Pham would be ready to spend some serious time ashore, on stable ground. But, for this survivor, almost as grizzled and gritty as Hemingway's old man of the sea, the ocean hasn't lost its mysterious pull.

"I love nature. I love the ocean," he told a reporter after being rescued off the coast of Costa Rica.

The Vietnamese-American skipper from Long Beach had been discovered adrift 2,500 miles from his original day-trip destination, sustained by rainwater, fish, and some roasted birds.

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His singular story of survival is also a tale almost as old as the sea itself. From St. Paul to Captain Bligh and beyond, the watery reaches of the earth have been a liquid proving ground for the buoyancy of the human spirit. Land-born mankind has confronted the vast and unmerciful aquatic other, and often – remarkably – prevailed.

"For Van Pham and everyone else who goes to sea for more than just to traverse it, there is the romantic notion of the elusive, aquatic horizon," the elusive, aquatic horizon," says Chief Douglas Stutz, spokesman for the US Navy whose frigate McClusky found and rescued Van Pham.

Unlike Hemingway's fictional old fisherman, Santiago, who went "84 days without catching a fish," Mr. Van Pham was able to catch tuna, often without bait. He also survived on rain water.

"The allure is that you are in your own world, master of your own fate, fighting against the elements with both wit and brawn ... anything that mother nature can throw at you."

Heading from Long Beach to nearby Catalina Island one June day, Van Pham and his 26-ft. boat Sea Breeze confronted a sudden storm. It broke his mast, destroyed his outboard motor, and incapacitated his two-way radio. By the time the Navy warship found him adrift off the Latin American coast, the 62-year-old immigrant had lost 40 lbs. and a tooth, but was alive and well, thanks to ingenuity and perseverance.

"Nothing about this story is typical. It's unbelievable, I've never seen anything like it," says Dan Tremper, spokesman for the US Coast Guard in Los Angeles. The Van Pham incident, he says, is outstripping many survival stories for sheer details of derring do, cunning, steadfastness, and good old-fashioned stamina.

And, while seaborne survival is a recurring theme in history, Van Pham's odyssey comes on the heels of other remarkable rescues – and of documentaries that have revived interest in the epic 1916 saga of Ernest Shackleton. The Antarctic explorer and all his men survived for 16 frigid months before finding help.

Earlier this month, two sailors – a Scot and a Canadian – were rescued from their capsized yacht in the North Atlantic. The duo lived to tell how heavy storms swept their 40 ft. schooner – headed from Iceland to Florida – to one of the most dangerous sections of the ocean, 400 miles north of the Outer Hebrides. The two sailors strapped themselves to the helm as 12-ft. waves washed over them for 10 hours.

In 1997, Frenchman Thierry Dubois, a competitor in a round-the-world solo yacht race, spent nearly two nights alone clinging to his overturned yacht, just 900 miles from Antarctica. The rescue from freezing water was considered the most ambitious ever mounted by Australian authorities.

San Diego lawyer Dwight Ritter says he knows all too well, how treacherous the sea can be. He too, had a close escape after he was talked into going deep-sea fishing from a friend's yacht near Miami in June, "looking to hook the big ones." When a nasty thunderstorm wedged itself between the boat and shore, the foursome almost didn't live to tell about it.

"It scared us real bad," recalls Mr. Ritter. "We thought we were stuck in the Perfect Storm. The rain was hitting us like rice shooting out of bazookas. There was lightning, 12-ft. waves ... I thought it was all over."

What threads connect these triumphs of endurance over? Survival experts and sailors say it is absolute conviction that the individual can overcome adversity of any kind. Those who make it against incredible odds rely on inner strength that transcends the elements swirling around them.

Van Pham had fashioned a makeshift grill on board, hoisted hand-caught fish onto poles to capture sea birds. He also captured sea turtles. Then he used wood siding off the ship to cook meals. His ordeal might have been cut dramatically shorter, say authorities, if he had employed an emergency positioning radio indicating beacon, similar to the one used by the duo off the Outer Hebrides. In that case, an emergency signal triggered by a distress beacon is what summoned help via satellite. Says Ritter: "We found our way back to land through a storm because of our GPS navigational tools.

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