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Two brothers and an old boat

The Sunstar is in an Oxnard boatyard, up on screw jacks under a canopy of sun-beaten tarps. The orange wheelhouse is peeling, with scraps of plywood standing in for missing window panes. The blue of the hull is scuffed off along the angles. Spots of fiberglass are coming off in brown lesions.

The Herzik brothers are hunkered down in the hold, sanding the corners of two new gas tanks they built of plywood and fiberglass.

Terry is the captain, 64 years old, solid, broad-shouldered, a bit craggy from the years of sun and sea. Doug is 61, leaner, smoother, with blond-gray hair and hooded, slightly wary eyes.

PHOTOS: Refurbishing the Sunstar

They don't say much. In half a lifetime working on the boat alone together, harvesting sea urchins and sea cucumbers off the coast, they never have.

When they do speak, the words are utilitarian.

"You got another flashlight?" Doug asks.

"Yeah, I do."

"I want to look down in there and see if I can putty."

"OK."

Terry occasionally tries to persuade his younger brother to have surgery to fix his bilateral hernia, which he is treating with a rolled-up sock wedged under his belt.

Larger traumas are left mostly unspoken. They know conversation will not change what happened to their little sister, Robin, or bring meaning to it. They could never fix her with words, just as they couldn't 24 years ago for their little brother, Charlie.

They are the last of their family, at a time of life when they don't need to bicker or compete, when they just appreciate the simple state of being brothers. They share something inexpressible in the quiet work on a boat they spent much of their adult lives on.

The Sunstar they can fix.

::

Their father was an engineer who took jobs around the world; their mother was a housewife. The family lived in Okinawa, Korea, the Philippines and Tokyo.

When Terry went off to Texas A&M, his father's alma mater, the family moved to the San Fernando Valley. At Birmingham High School, Doug found it hard to make friends with people who had grown up with one another.

In Texas, Terry felt stifled at the all-men's university, dropped out and chased a girl to Maryland, where he worked as a mailman. He was quiet and inward in a way, but also restless and ready to explore.

Doug — who didn't appear in his 1968 yearbook because he refused to cut his hair — was classified 1-A for the draft, ready for service. Because he loved the ocean and wanted to be among the best, he enlisted in the Navy and made the cut for the SEALs. He came back after three years with little to say about the experience and ready to jump into the Age of Aquarius.

He moved to Redondo Beach and worked as a commercial diver inspecting pilings in the port. He heard guys were diving for sea urchins and selling them for good money to Japan. He called Terry, who jumped at the idea. He came west and bought in on a boat Doug had purchased.

The two brothers loved the money and the liberation of the open sea.

One day off San Clemente Island, overladen with urchins, a back corner of the boat scooped up water as they frantically shoved the 300-pound bags overboard. They knew the bilge pump was shot, but the auxiliary bilge didn't work, either. Doug jumped down into in the engine compartment, stripped some wires with his teeth and twisted them back together.

The pump sputtered to life and began spitting the water out before the boat could capsize.

Such were the experiences they would share, too many to recall.

But after that day, they would share them on a more stable boat.

Partly with a loan from their parents, they bought the bright orange Sunstar on the docks of Santa Barbara from a hippie ex-cop who owned a commune by the same name near the Oregon border. The low-bow, low-draft Radon boat was built specifically for urchin- and abalone-diving in the local waters.

For the next 28 years, fishermen up and down the coast knew the Herziks were coming when they saw that orange beacon in the distance.

The work was rough — crossing the channel, diving in often murky, cold currents for hours, sleeping nights in a cramped cabin.

They'd argue over boat upkeep, finances, where to dive, whether to risk rough seas.

"Oh, this spot again!" Doug might gripe, emerging to see where Terry was anchoring.

They both appreciated and annoyed each other — knowing each other so well that talking was often redundant. Terry was both more optimistic and more cautious. Doug was more fatalistic, with a cynical streak inculcated by Vietnam.

They got married within a year of each other. Terry wanted to raise a family. Doug never mentioned the topic.

When their parents died in the early 1980s, they worried about their younger siblings. Charlie wanted in on their business. He was a sweet kid, 10 years younger than Terry and six younger than Doug. But he was using drugs and hanging with an outlaw motorcycle group. He and his new wife lived in their folks' house in Van Nuys and wanted to stay there. Terry and Doug wanted to sell it. They felt as though Charlie's wife was pressuring him, that she was more into that motorcycle group, that he was not hard enough for that life.

In June 1987, at age 31, he shot himself in the head with a .357 revolver.

Terry and Doug still choke up when they talk about his death. In a teary ceremony, they spread some of Charlie's personal effects off Santa Barbara Island.

They turned their concerns to Robin, four years younger than Charlie. She was living in a trailer in Pearblossom, relentlessly drunk or high, in need of money and verging on homelessness.

Her brothers tried to help, sending her money, trying to talk her into rehab. She bought a car with the proceeds of her parents' estate, then wrecked it. Doug gave her his old truck. She lost it.

Terry felt he couldn't help her anymore. Doug, clinging to memories of her as a little girl in a kimono in Tokyo, held out a bit longer.

Doug and his wifeMartha moved out into the country near Santa Paula. Terry and his wife Deborah bought a house in Redondo Beach and had two boys.

Terry needed the business; his sons went to an expensive college prep school. Doug was dreaming of escape. He let Terry buy him out and worked on the boat as a "walk-on diver" for a while, giving his brother a cut of every haul for maintaining and fueling the Sunstar. In 2005, he made the leap.

He and Martha moved to a little island off Panama that could be reached only by skiff.

::

Terry missed his brother's company. He took on another "walk-on" and set out for the southern Channel Islands from San Pedro as often as the weather allowed.

The wind and sea never stop gnawing at a boat. Terry taped flashlights to the bow when the running lights went out. He replaced corroded wiring, put in new outdrives, rebuilt the transmission and diesel engines. But the old boat wasn't going make it much longer.

Terry picked up the phone.

"Doug, I need your help," he said.

It was this May, six years since Doug had decamped to Central America. Terry got a government grant to replace his old engines with cleaner-burning ones. He planned to overhaul the entire boat, get five more years of work out of it, and then sell it — "sail it into the sunset," as he says.

Terry's older son was starting medical school in the fall. His younger boy was headed to graduate school. He was almost at the finish line.

"I'll come up," Doug said.

Robin was dying of liver failure at a hospice in San Diego. Terry talked to her on the phone for the first time in 20 years. She already sounded dead.

By the time Doug arrived in June, she was gone.

::

The Sunstar wheelhouse looms like an orange watchtower at the back of the boatyard, surrounded by tanks, compressors, pallets, trash barrels, coffee cans with brushes, bits of plywood, barrels of Resin Solution and rusted engine blocks veiled in spider webs. The boat next to it is sprouting weeds from the seat cushions.

The Herzik brothers' grinders pierce the quiet like hornets. It is August, and Deborah and Terry have persuaded Doug to get his hernia fixed at a Veterans Affairs hospital. Terry hopes the Sunstar will be born anew by October. At night, they sleep in an old Econoline RV they bought years ago for trips to the North Coast.

They talk mostly over coffee in the morning. They don't need to tweet or use Facebook or discuss what they know intuitively to give it merit. Doug says he is cynical, but he also has, like Terry, a child's naked candor.

He answers a stranger's question without a blink: "Terry has been my only friend."

They move slowly and deliberately. They have ripped up the deck, sand-blasted the hull and purged 200 gallons of toxic sludge that had seeped into the hold. They are rebuilding the bulkheads, gas tanks, fish hold, engine compartment — waiting for an engine, transmission and outdrive.

After everyone else has left the boatyard in the evening, they carry on. The tarps flap in the sea breeze. The rabbits come out on the dirt at dusk.

"We need more resin," Doug says.

"I'll make it," says Terry.

PHOTOS: Refurbishing the Sunstar

joe.mozingo@latimes.com

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