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Submarine May Dive for Vil Vana : Mystery: With aid of Scripps Institution and UCSB, the Delta would search for a trawler that went down near Santa Cruz Island.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

An Oxnard-based two-man submarine--which has dived on such storied shipwrecks as the Lusitania and the Edmund Fitzgerald--may travel to the Santa Barbara Channel to search for Ventura County’s mysterious Vil Vana, a commercial shrimp trawler that vanished with its seven-man crew nearly two years ago.

UC Santa Barbara’s Marine Science Institute, the Scripps Institution of Oceanography and sub owner Delta Oceanographics hope to send the Delta down in April, UCSB researcher Monte Graham said Wednesday.

Graham believes the ship sank in 700 feet of water about five miles off Santa Cruz Island.

Last week, Graham and other UCSB researchers were trying to recover a lost sediment-trapping instrument snagged on a large mass on the ocean floor, but they instead hauled up 30 plastic shrimp traps and two buoys marked with the Vil Vana’s name and fishing registration number.

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The instrument--which got snagged after drifting 60 miles from Point Conception--is still captive on the bottom.

Officially, Graham said, the submarine’s mission would be purely scientific: to find the sediment trapper containing valuable research data and Scripps’ current meters, which are lost somewhere between Santa Cruz and San Miguel islands.

But the opportunity to solve the mystery of the Vil Vana is also compelling. “The boat makes it pretty interesting,” Graham said.

Doug Privitt, an owner of the Delta, has a personal reason for wanting to locate the wreck and perhaps discover why the Vil Vana sank. Privitt is a longtime friend of Don Watkins, whose son, Donnie, was a Vil Vana crewman.

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“My friend’s kid is down there,” Privitt said. “Finding out what happened would bring (the victims’ families) peace of mind.”

Privitt has told Watkins that he would find the Vil Vana “if it took 10 years.” He almost had a chance to search for it last fall, when the Delta was operating in the Santa Barbara Channel on a three-day assignment for Scripps, but he couldn’t get the time.

Now, with the shipwreck’s location possibly pinpointed, finding it might take less than a day, said Rich Slater, Privitt’s partner.

The biggest stumbling block in launching the Delta is finding the funding, Graham said. Paying the crew of the 15-foot sub and its mother ship, the 110-foot Cavalier, runs about $6,000 a day.

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“What if the search goes two or three days?” Graham asked. “We don’t want to spend a lot of money to look for something that may or may not be down there.”

Slater said he’s confident they’ll find a way to send the Delta after the Vil Vana. With 19 portholes, TV and 35-millimeter cameras, strobe lights and a robotic arm, the Delta would be able to get close to the wreck if it’s found, Slater said, adding that an underwater examination of the hull would almost certainly explain why the Vil Vana went down.

“We’ll be able to tell if the boat was involved in a collision,” Slater said.

The U.S. Coast Guard, which conducted the investigation of the Vil Vana’s disappearance, believes the boat sank outside the commercial shipping lane and therefore has ruled out a collision between the Vil Vana and a deep-draft vessel.

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But UCSB’s find casts doubt on that theory--the large mass on the bottom is well inside the shipping lane.

“If the wreck’s where we think it is,” Slater said, “it means the boat could have been run down or swamped by bow wake.”


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