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Boat's Disappearance Mystifies Officials and Fuels Imagination

April 24, 1993|JEFF MEYERS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The mystery deepens every day since a 41-foot fishing trawler and its seven crew members vanished without a trace off Santa Cruz Island.

Like an old sea yarn, the saga of the Vil Vana grows more haunting and unfathomable both to Coast Guard officials and family members of the missing men.

Two weeks after the disappearance, Coast Guard investigators are still unable to explain what caused a well-equipped boat to apparently sink quickly and intact in nearly 300 feet of water.

Nor do they know why diesel fuel hasn't bubbled to the surface or why no bodies have been found.

"It's mysterious that there is no hard physical evidence," said Lt. Robert Camillucci, an investigator for the Coast Guard's Marine Safety Office in Long Beach. "What I find particularly unusual is that none of the victims' bodies have been recovered."

The absence of facts has sparked the imagination of local fishermen, said Don Watkins, whose son Donnie was on board the Vil Vana when it vanished April 9.

Some of the conjecture has been in the realm of science fiction. "They're talking Bermuda Triangle," Watkins said. But one idea isn't as wild as it sounds.

Even the Coast Guard has discussed the possibility that the Vil Vana could have been involved in an incident with a submarine.

"We've considered that," Camillucci said.

The notion that a submarine could have caused a boat to sink is not as preposterous as it appears. Four years ago off the coast of Los Angeles, the nuclear-powered Houston snagged a tugboat's tow cable and dragged the vessel under, drowning one crew member.

Although the Navy called the incident "freakish," two days after the tugboat accident the Houston apparently sliced through a trawler's fishing net outside the Port of Los Angeles.

The Vil Vana incident fits a macabre profile of unexplained disappearances around the world: Since 1980, several dozen fishing boats have inexplicably vanished in the Irish Sea, tragedies that have resulted in the loss of more than 100 lives. Members of both the British and Irish parliaments are demanding to know what role submarines may have played in the mysterious disappearances. Officials of the U.S. and British navies have denied submarines are responsible.

For security reasons, the U.S. Navy said it will not confirm or deny if any submarines were in the Santa Barbara Channel the day the Vil Vana vanished.

Capt. Mark Newhart, head Navy public affairs officer in San Diego, said submarine commanders are required to report accidents, but added: "I have not seen any kind of incident even remotely associated with a missing fishing trawler."

Newhart conceded, however, that a submarine could get involved in a boating accident without its crew ever becoming aware of any trouble.

Operating about 1 1/2 miles north of Santa Cruz Island, the Vil Vana had laid out a series of buoys that marked shrimp traps on the bottom. Newhart said a submarine could have easily snapped the half-inch rope attached to the buoys and its sailors might not have known.

The Coast Guard, however, has narrowed its investigation to events that might have occurred on the surface.

A few weeks before the Vil Vana and its crew left Ventura Harbor on the morning of April 9, the 44-year-old vessel was modified in ways that might have affected stability, the Coast Guard said.

About 3,000 pounds of stone ballast were removed from the cargo hold to make room for four open tanks containing 112 cubic feet of seawater. The deck was fitted with a makeshift cage made of 2-by-4s with which to secure shrimp traps when they were not in use.

Having eliminated the possibility that a freighter or tanker rammed the Vil Vana, Coast Guard investigators believe the modifications unbalanced the vessel and made it prone to capsizing. The force necessary to tip the heavy trawler is open to speculation, but investigators are leaning toward nothing more formidable than a large rogue wave or a sudden gust of wind.

The open tanks also might have been a factor, creating what the Coast Guard's Camillucci called the "free-surface effect," a sloshing motion counter to the movement of the boat.

If Vil Vana did roll over, the cage might have become a death trap for the crew, "keeping them from getting free of the vessel," Camillucci said.

Although the men on board evidently were unable to call for help on the radio, one of them was able to activate an emergency electronic device that floats on the surface and is supposed to guide rescuers to the scene.

But even though the signals from the Vil Vana's device were picked up by a satellite at 5:34 p.m., Coast Guard searchers did not pinpoint its location until about 8 p.m. Darkness had already fallen, making the 2 1/2 hours a critical factor in the search for survivors, who would not have lived longer than 12 hours in the cold water, experts said.

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