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Researchers’ Find May Solve Vil Vana Mystery : Discovery: Crew off Santa Cruz Island accidentally hooks equipment bearing the name of the lost trawler, which disappeared in 1993 with seven aboard.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Marine researchers on a salvage mission off Santa Cruz Island believe they have inadvertently located the sunken wreck of the Vil Vana, a commercial shrimp trawler that mysteriously disappeared with seven men aboard nearly two years ago in one of Ventura County’s worst maritime disasters.

The discovery was made last Wednesday, when UC Santa Barbara researchers were trying to retrieve a computerized sediment-trapping instrument belonging to the university’s Marine Science Institute.

The 80-pound device, attached to a buoy by a 1,400-foot cable, had been adrift all the way from Point Conception to Santa Cruz Island--a distance of 60 miles--before getting snagged on a large, unidentified mass on the ocean floor, 700 feet below the surface.

Working aboard the 110-foot Jolly Roger, crew members struggled for three hours before pulling the half-inch cable free and reeling it up with a hydraulic winch. What emerged from the water at the end of the cable, however, was not the instrument but a muddy tangle of 30 shrimp traps and two rubber buoys marked with the Vil Vana’s name and fishing registration number.

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The instrument is still under the waves, held captive by the unidentified mass, which UCSB researcher Monte Graham believes is the Vil Vana.

“The instrument had to have gotten caught up on a boat,” Graham said. “There aren’t many rocks in that region.”

Lt. Cmdr. Pete Rennard, who manages the U.S. Coast Guard’s investigating office in Long Beach, is still studying details of the find and doesn’t want to jump to conclusions.

“I have no reason to doubt that something large is down there,” Rennard said, “but it would be a leap of faith to suggest what it is.”

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If the researchers have indeed found the Vil Vana, they may also have provided a clue to its fate. The 30 traps were hauled up in the commercial shipping lanes, lending credence to family members’ theory that the boat was struck by a larger ship.

The 41-foot Vil Vana left Ventura Harbor at 4:30 a.m. April 9, 1993, setting a course for the shrimp beds off Santa Cruz, and was never seen again. That afternoon, satellites began picking up distress signals. About 9 p.m., a Coast Guard helicopter spotted a small debris field 1 1/2 miles north of the island, but despite an intense 42-hour search no boat and no bodies were ever found.

The Coast Guard investigation ruled out collision or fire and speculated that the wooden vessel may have been capsized by a rogue wave or due to pilot error. Investigators believe the boat was unstable because 3,000 pounds of stone ballast had been removed by the ship’s owners to make room for saltwater tanks in the hold.

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But the Coast Guard’s explanation never satisfied next of kin, who are still tormented by the seemingly implausible event.

“I’d like to get finality,” said Don Watkins of La Conchita, whose son Donnie was a crew member. “It’s obvious nobody is coming home, but I’d like to know if the boat is there.”

Rennard, however, said the Coast Guard has no immediate plans to “go down and take a closer look” at the possible wreck.

“At my level, we have no access to any (equipment) that would be able to look at what’s down there,” Rennard said. “That is way out of our league.”

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After he examines the traps and interviews the Jolly Roger’s crew, Rennard will decide whether to ask his superiors to requisition the proper equipment. An examination of the wreckage could be done by surface side-scan sonar, a remote sub or even a hard-hat diver using mixed gas, but “it would be a very short bottom time at that depth,” Rennard said.

Confirming the Vil Vana’s location would put a new spin on the mystery. In its investigation of the accident, the Coast Guard eliminated the possibility that the trawler was either struck or swamped by one of the deep-draft vessels that ply the Santa Barbara Channel shipping lane.

Tanker- and cargo-ship captains were interviewed and hulls inspected without finding any indication of a collision. The Coast Guard also assumed that the experienced crewmen aboard the Vil Vana would have stayed out of the shipping lane.

But the 30 traps were found in an area five miles north of the island, well inside the southbound shipping lane.

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From the beginning, Watkins has held firm in his belief that a collision is the only logical explanation for the Vil Vana’s demise. The location of the recent discovery makes him more resolute.

“They were mowed down by a cargo ship,” he said.

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Next of kin are furious at the Coast Guard over the agency’s failure to release the official report of the investigation nearly 22 months after the accident. Although the investigating officer, Lt. Cmdr. Adeste Fuentes, and his commanding officer, Rennard, both signed off on it, the report is still in Long Beach, “being looked at repeatedly and closely by my bosses,” Rennard said.

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The absence of an official report continues to fuel rumors that the government has something to hide, next of kin say. It also creates problems for the families.

“I don’t have a death certificate,” Watkins said. “I still get tax bills for my son. I have all kinds of legal problems that can’t be resolved because he could still be alive.”

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

The Story of the Vil Vana The Vil Vana, a commercial trawler, vanished just north of Santa Cruz Island on April 9, 1993. It was last seen at 4:30 a.m. that day, leaving the E dock at Ventura Harbor Village Marina. That afternoon, satellites picked up distress signals. The Coast Guard only recovered debris from the boat. Last week, marine researchers pulled up 30 shrimp traps and two buoys marked with the Vil Vana’s name. *

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1. Jan. 18, 995, Vil Vana equipment found. 2. April 9, 1993, debris found. *

About The Boat The vessel was built in San Pedro 45 years ago. The Vil Vana was owned by Seong Chol of Oxnard and John Kim of Glendale. Chol and Kim purchased the boat for $18,000 in December, 1992. *

Those Aboard Dan Pelton, 33, of Ventura. Captain of the Vil Vana. He didn’t have a captain’s license, but friends considered him an able and experienced skipper. *

Donnie Watkins, 41, a friend of Pelton’s and a longtime sailor. Was along as a crewman on his first voyage on the Vil Vana. *

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Ben Jordan, 24, of La Conchita. A longtime friend of Watkins. Had never been on the Vil Vana before. *

Seong Chol, 30, of Oxnard, co-owner of the Vil Vana. *

John Kim, 25, of Glendale, co-owner of the Vil Vana. *

William Chol, 17, nephew of John Kim,. No relation to Seong Chol. Was on board to dive for abalone. *

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Unidentified male crewman, thought to be a Salvadoran immigrant. Sources: U.S. Coast Guard, families and friends of victims.


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