LOS ANGELES (AP) – A 62-year-old man who survived three months adrift at sea by grilling turtles and seabirds returned to the United States on Tuesday after what one Coast Guard official called an “amazing story of survival.”
Richard Van Pham was rescued by a Navy warship last week after he was spotted 275 miles southwest of Costa Rica. He had vanished over the summer after leaving on a sailboat trip to Santa Catalina Island, off the coast from Los Angeles.
Van Pham arrived on a flight from Guatemala and was detained until his legal residency was confirmed, said Francisco Arcaute, a spokesman for the Immigration and Naturalization Service.
Van Pham, a native of Vietnam from Long Beach, was then turned over to Travelers Aid, an organization which helps stranded travelers. There was no telephone listing for Van Pham in his hometown of Long Beach.
Navy officials said Van Pham was found aboard his damaged sailboat by the San Diego-based frigate McClusky and turned over to U.S. officials in Guatemala on Sunday.
The McClusky’s crew collected $800 to pay for his plane trip home.
“He’s a tough old bird,” Cmdr. Gary Parriott, the McClusky’s skipper, told The San Diego Union-Tribune. “I’m not sure I would have fared as well as he did.”
Officials said Van Pham survived by catching fish, seabirds and turtles for food and collecting rainwater. Despite losing about 40 pounds, Van Pham was said to be in good condition.
He apparently set sail from Long Beach in his 26-foot sailboat, Sea Breeze, bound for Santa Catalina Island, some two-dozen miles offshore. En route, a storm broke his mast and his outboard motor and two-way radio failed.
When the McClusky spotted him Sept. 17, crew members saw a man cooking a seagull on a makeshift grill. A sail flapped from a splintered mast.
The ship’s corpsman, Petty Officer 1st Class A.J. Davis, said Van Pham described bashing sea turtles with a bat as they swam near his boat and then cooking part of the meat while using the remainder as bait for seabirds.
“This is an amazing story of survival,” said Coast Guard Chief Warrant Officer Lance Jones. “But it also shows the importance of filing a float plan with friends or family.”
Unable to fix his sailboat, Van Pham approved its sinking and crew members torched it.
“He waved goodbye to his sailboat,” said Petty Officer 3rd Class Joseph Slaight. “He was upset … and said he was going to miss it.”