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Fishing Boat With Up to 6 Men on Board Vanishes : Channel Islands: Debris from the 41-foot Vil Vana is found near Anacapa. Officials plan to resume their search today.

April 11, 1993|GARY GORMAN and TIMOTHY WILLIAMS | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

U.S. Coast Guard teams searched unsuccessfully Saturday for as many as six men believed to have been aboard a 41-foot shrimp boat that apparently sank near Santa Cruz Island late Friday, officials said.

Officials planned to resume the search today. Before suspending the search about 8:15 p.m. Saturday, Coast Guard and National Park Service helicopters, aircraft and boats had been searching for the Vil Vana since receiving a distress signal about 5:30 p.m. Friday, officials said. Saturday morning, searchers found debris from the boat near Anacapa Island, the Coast Guard said.

Anacapa Island, part of the Channel Islands National Park, is about 14 miles off the coast of Ventura.

A Coast Guard official said the boat's last known location--about 1 1/2 miles north of Santa Cruz Island--was in a major shipping lane, and he speculated that the boat may have been hit by a tanker or other ship. Weather was not believed to have been a factor in the boat's disappearance.

The Vil Vana was owned by Sang Gyu Choi, 40, of Oxnard, who was aboard the vessel when it disappeared, according to Choi's business partner, Alan Kwong of Alhambra.

Also aboard, Kwong said, were the boat's captain, Dan Pelton, 33, who lives on a boat at Ventura Harbor; John Kim of Glendale, who works for Choi, and Kim's 17-year-old nephew, William Choi, who is not related to Sang Choi.

Several friends of Pelton, who said they watched the boat leave early Friday, said two crewmen also were aboard: Donnie Watkins, 41, who also lives at the harbor on a houseboat, and another man identified only as Ben.

The boat left Ventura Harbor about 3 a.m. Friday, headed toward the Channel Islands on a fishing excursion, said Coast Guard Lt. Robert Kroeger.

The distress signal, which was housed in a buoyant, hard-plastic casing, sent out incorrect tracking information, Coast Guard Petty Officer Kelly Ream said. As a result, it was more than three hours before searchers found the bright-orange device and were able to narrow the search, he said.

The Coast Guard searched the area during the night with boats, helicopters and a C-130 aircraft from its air station in Sacramento, officials said. The National Park Service supplied additional aircraft and boats, a park official said.

About 11 a.m. Saturday, debris from the boat--including a placard with the vessel's identification number--was found about three miles off the east coast of Anacapa Island, officials said.

"I would think that for a boat to have been shattered like this, it must have been run over in a collision," Ream said. "It's not unheard of for it to happen and the other ship not even be aware that it happened."

Kwong said Sang Choi bought the shrimp boat in December and moved it from its berth at San Pedro to Ventura Harbor. He said Choi is a native of Korea who has lived in the United States at least 15 years.

Kwong said he believes the boat was on a brief fishing and diving excursion to Santa Cruz Island so Sang Choi could entertain Kim and his nephew. He said Coast Guard officials told him that they had found wet suits owned by Pelton, Kim and William Choi.

Choi's fiancee, who also lives in Oxnard, was supposed to go on the trip but was tired and decided to stay home, Kwong said.

Laurena Langlo, 24, who lives on a boat at Ventura Harbor across from the Vil Vana's berth, said she too had planned to go on the excursion. She said she spent Thursday night helping Pelton prepare shrimp nets but was too tired to join the expedition when it left early Friday.

"It's weird," Langlo said Saturday. "I feel I was real close to death."

She said Watkins dropped off his bicycle for her to watch while he was at sea.

Like many harbor residents, Langlo said she had not given up hope that the missing men might be found.

"They could have made it to the islands," she said. "They could be floating on a piece of wood."

She said the Vil Vana was a sturdy boat. The night before the ill-fated excursion, she said, "We were talking about what a great boat it was."

Janet Davis-Woods, another boat dweller at the harbor, said Pelton is an experienced captain but has been skipper of the Vil Vana for only about a month. "He was all excited," she said. "They were paying him whether he brought back shrimp or not."

She said Pelton's nickname is "Dangerous Dan," a holdover from his days as an especially fearless surfer. But he is not one to run risks at sea, she said.

Davis-Woods said Pelton has survived previous brushes with death, including once when he was trampled by a buffalo on Santa Catalina Island and suffered several broken bones.

About 5 p.m. Saturday, some of Pelton's friends flew out of Oxnard Airport in a private plane in hopes of spotting survivors. On board the plane was a professional swordfish spotter experienced at looking at waves and discerning objects from the air.

Pelton is a native of coastal Santa Cruz in Northern California, friends said. His brother, Tom Pelton of Santa Cruz, said the Coast Guard had informed the family about the boat's disappearance and said relatives planned to come to Ventura to see if they could assist in the search.

Watkins' father, Don Watkins Sr., said Saturday evening that his son "is a strong swimmer. He's built like a 25-year-old." His son is very familiar with boats, he said.

"He's very strong and has a lot of moxie," said Watkins, who lives in Ventura. "If there's a chance, he's going to make it."

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