From USS McClusky Public Affairs
September 25, 2002, abord USS MCCLUSKY, At Sea (NNS) - A calm but firm voice crackled across the ship's primary command and control circuit, "McClusky this is Alfa-Bravo, request you investigate suspected sailboat in distress in your area."
As the helmsman swung the ship around toward the sailboat's reported position, the rest of the crew sprang into action, manning the ship's boat and scouring the horizon for the stricken vessel.
The ship had a Search and Rescue (SAR) operation on its hands, the first of its deployment. A SAR mission means that a fellow mariner is in need of aid, may be injured, or, possibly worse.
In this instance a sailboat had been spotted by a U.S. Navy P-3C "Orion" long-range surveillance aircraft that earlier had been working in tandem with McClusky. Now, the mission had changed. Someone's life was at stake.
With the ship traveling at maximum speed, the ship's commanding officer, Cmdr. Gary R. Parriott, addressed the crew, notifying them of the new mission and the need to get to the sailboat quickly and to be prepared to render all necessary assistance. Within an hour the ship arrived on scene.
Standing just outside the boat's small cabin, the man broke into a wide grin; Mr. Richard Pham - adrift at sea for more than four months - had at last been rescued.
A native of Vietnam, Mr. Pham fled that country and its protracted war in the early 70's. He made it to the United States and for 26 years lived in the Los Angeles area, working small jobs and earning just enough money to support a spartan lifestyle aboard his small boat.
He kept the boat at a marina in the Long Beach area. An avid mariner, he frequently sailed long distances for the sheer pleasure of getting away from it all.
This past June he had planned on a simple day sail from Long Beach to Catalina. As he had not planned on a lengthy voyage he did not take much. And he did not bother to tell anyone, save possibly a friend at the marina, that he was going away.
It is not known exactly what happened that day in June 2002. But this much Pham was later able to relate.
At some point during his ill-fated journey, the wind came up - suddenly and much stronger than he had anticipated. His mast and sails began to groan under the strain of the sudden gale.
He attempted to alter course back to Long Beach but in so doing catastrophe struck - his mast broke in two. With no other means of propulsion, little food and an inoperative radio, Mr. Pham was in very deep trouble.
For days he drifted at the mercy of the ocean currents, hoping to happen upon a rescuer. For days he experienced disappointment, at the lack of contact with another boat; anger, at himself for getting into this predicament; and fear, at what lay ahead.
As the days turned into a week and then two weeks and more, Mr. Pham ran out of food. It was then that his previous ocean sailing experience and his lifelong close association with the ocean saved his life. He collected rainwater; stayed indoors the boat's cabin during the hottest part of the day, and, most impressively, fished and caught sea turtles and gulls to eat.
Weeks then turned into months. Without any family to report him missing he continued to drift, alone at sea. Finally, after some four months on the high seas, Mr. Pham saw the sleek hull of a Navy frigate making its way toward him. He was rescued.
Onboard McClusky the Damage Control Assistant, Ensign Matthew Chesnik, and his leading Chief, Chief Damage Controlman David Britton readied the ship's Rescue and Assistance Team. The ship slowed to a halt and launched its small boat.
The crew, including boat officer Lt. j.g. Charlie Collins, readied themselves. They did not know what to expect. The ship's Surface Combat Action Team, led by Chief Fire Controlman (SW) Scott Lee, manned their topside guns - just in case.
The boat approached Mr. Pham's small craft gingerly. The first thing noticeable was the vessel's mast - broken and lashed to the side. There was a makeshift sail, tattered and full of holes that was doing little good capturing the wind.
As the ship rolled with the waves, the revealed hull was covered in barnacles; brown rust streaked the vessel's sides. As McClusky's boat neared the sailboat, the crew could see birds - dozens of them - sitting all over the boat.
"It seemed like if there was a spare space of freeboard, the birds were on it," said Collins. Continuing to close, the crew was surprised to see California registration markings on the boat's hull.
As the boat crew approached, a wispy little man in tattered jeans, a torn shirt and a longish beard appeared topside and began jumping up and down.
A quick inspection of the boat revealed no other passengers. Mr. Pham was brought aboard and transferred to McClusky.
Once onboard he received a thorough check up from the ship's Independent Duty Corpsman. He was in remarkably good shape.
After several days McClusky made a regularly scheduled port call to Guatemala. Mr. Pham was put ashore and transferred to the American Embassy personnel for further transfer back to the marina he calls home in Long Beach, Calif.
Before he left, however, the crew extended their hand in generosity once more, presenting him with $800 they had collected to help him start a new life.