Vil Vana

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Vil Vana (#) (-1993), 41-foot wood fishing vessel that sank off Santa Cruz Island on April 9, 1993 with seven men aboard. There were no survivors.

  • Sung Gyu Choi (30)
  • Dan Pelton (33)
  • John Kungso Kim (26), [SS#617-01-1995]
  • William Choi (17)
  • Donnie Watkins (41)
  • Benjamin Jordan (24)
  • unnamed


In the News~

April 11, 1993 [LAT]: “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 owner 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 in 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 fiance, 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 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 take 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 on 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. Watkin's father, Don Watkins, Sr., said Saturday evening the his son "is a strong swimmer. He's built like a 25-year-old." His son is 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."”


April 12, 1993 [LAT]: “Coast Guard Suspends its search for boat with 7 aboard. Missing father of one man continues to hold out hope after scouring of Channel Islands area turns up no survivors. A search for seven men feared drowned after their fishing vessel sank off Santa Cruz Island was suspended Sunday without a clue as to what happened to the men, a Coast Guard spokesman said. "If something else should occur that indicates we should resume our search, that's what we'll do," Petty Officer Jay Bride said. The Coast Guard would not classify the fishermen as drowning victims but were doubtful that the men could survive long in the 59-degree water. "In this temperature of water, without any type of survival gear, a normal person can survive up to 12 hours," Bride said. The Coast Guard said it increased the search area Sunday to more than 2,800 square miles surrounding the Channel Islands looking for the 41-foot Vil Vana. The search began after the Coast Guard started receiving signals from an emergency transmitter about 6:30 p.m. Friday. Searchers on Saturday recovered a life ring, an ice chest and identifiable fragments from the Vil Vana about 3 miles off the east coast of Anacapa Island, but turned up nothing more Sunday before suspending the search at 2:30 p.m. The area where the Vil Vana was last reported — about a mile and a half north of Santa Cruz Island — is within a major shipping lane, leading to speculation that the trawler could have been rammed by a tanker or freighter. A life raft believed to be aboard may be the only hope for the seven fisherman, Coast Guard Petty Officer David Sears said Sunday. "We're unsure on how big the life raft was," he said. "We had a report that it was 6 to 10 feet, so we're hoping they could all fit in there and that they made it to the island." The Vil Vana, an older wooden boat that was purchased in December by Sung Gyu Choi, 30, of Oxnard, was believed to be carrying its owner and six others when it left Ventura Harbor early Friday morning on a fishing trip. Others on the vessel were crew members Dan Pelton, 33, who lives on a boat in Ventura Harbor and was signed on as captain of the Vil Vana; Benjamin Jordan, 24, of Ventura; Donnie Watkins, 41, who also lives on a houseboat in Ventura Harbor; John Kim of Glendale, who works for Choi; Kim's 17-year-old nephew, William Choi, who is not related to Sang Choi, and an unidentified man, the Coast Guard said. Authorities initially believed that six men were aboard the Vil Vana, but on Sunday they revised the number to seven. Friends and relatives of the missing men held out hope Sunday that their loved ones would be found. "My son's awful resourceful," said Don Watkins Sr., who lives in La Conchita. "Everything he ever did he excelled in. I envision him in this raft keeping everybody in stitches or they've landed on an island and he's showing them all how to live." The elder Watkins credited the Coast Guard for doing what it could to locate the men. "There's nothing we can do," he said. "I know enough about boating to know that if the Coast Guard can't pull it off, you can't pull it off. If they can't find anything, there's nothing to find." But others on Sunday said that they feared the worst. "It looks like they had an argument with a Honda Express (freighter) and lost," said Chuck Connor, a lobster trapper and friend of Pelton's. Connor and a group of others were at Ventura Harbor Sunday monitoring marine radio transmissions for updates on the search. "It's a little dangerous to be out there now," said rock cod fisherman Jack Morgan, another friend of Pelton's who lives in the harbor. "We'd have left on a moment's notice if we felt it would have done any good." High winds and intermittent patches of coastal fog made for dangerous conditions throughout the weekend and could have played a role in the boat's disappearance, Morgan said. "All the sudden you're patched in and then it's like this," he said, waving his arm under clear blue skies. "I was out there Friday night and saw lots of patchy fog." The Coast Guard employed five aircraft and five cutters in making a pattern search for signs of the men or the boat before the decision to suspend the effort was made, Petty Officer Elizabeth Brannan said. "If there was anything out there on the surface of the water we would see it, with as many assets as we have out there," she said. Watkins Sr. said his son and the others could have made it to shore on one of the Channel Islands. "I'm hoping they found that inflatable and found themselves a little cove over there," he said. "We're going to keep the faith." ”


April 13, 1993 [LAT]: “Missing Boat Had Ballast Removed. Coast Guard officials looking into the disappearance of a 41-foot fishing trawler and all seven crew members off Santa Cruz Island focused Monday on the possibility that the vessel capsized because 3,000 pounds of ballast recently had been removed. The loss of ballast "would have made the boat less stable," increasing potential for a rollover, said Lt. Cmdr. Pete Rennard, who is heading the investigation for the Coast Guard's Marine Safety Office in Long Beach. Alan Kwong of Alhambra, co-owner of the Vil Vana, confirmed that stones in the cargo hold were removed a few months ago to make room for pallets of bait. Removing ballast is not illegal, the Coast Guard said. Depending on the original specifications of the Vil Vana, the removal of 3,000 pounds might not have affected the vessel's stability, a Port Hueneme boat maker said. But ballast "arbitrarily removed could be catastrophic," said the boat builder, who asked not to be identified. "An improperly stabilized boat is the common cause of rollover." The rollover theory took on credence Monday when the Coast Guard virtually eliminated the possibility that the trawler collided with a freighter or tanker. The boat was 1 1/2 miles north of Santa Cruz and near a major shipping lane when the Coast Guard received an automatic distress signal at 5:34 p.m. Friday. The Coast Guard, which has suspended its search for the missing fishermen, investigated six deep-draft vessels that used the southbound shipping lane Friday between noon and the time the signal was detected by a satellite. Paint scrapings were taken from the hulls of the vessels, but none matched the blue hull of the Vil Vana, Rennard said. "We have neither a witness nor any physical evidence that suggests a deep-draft vessel was involved in any kind of collision--particularly a collision with a blue-hulled vessel," Rennard said. Debris found at the scene and taken to the Coast Guard station in Oxnard "has nothing to indicate an impact from something hitting the vessel," Rennard said. The fact that no part of the hull has been found indicates that the trawler sank intact and quickly, he said. The debris included three wet suits, a life ring and an ice chest, investigators said. Rennard believes that the men, who were trawling for shrimp, had little or no time to react: Other than the automatic signal, no emergency radio calls were sent. Rennard also eliminated fire or an explosion as the cause of the sinking. The debris shows no evidence of fire, he said. The Vil Vana, a wooden boat believed to be more than 25 years old, was purchased for $35,000 in December by Kwong and Sang Gyu Choi, 30, a native of Korea who has lived in the United States for 15 years. Choi, an Oxnard resident, was believed to be on board when the accident occurred. Other members of the crew were Dan Pelton, 33, of Ventura, who was captain of the Vil Vana; Benjamin Jordon, 24, and Donnie Watkins, 41, both of Ventura; John Kim of Glendale; William Choi, Kim's 17-year-old nephew who is no relation to Sang Choi, and an unidentified man, the Coast Guard said. Although the Vil Vana's automatic distress signal was picked by a satellite at 5:34 p.m., the Coast Guard was not able to pinpoint the transmission until about 8 p.m. For the next 45 hours, five Coast Guard aircraft and five cutters searched for survivors over a 2,800-square-mile area.

Missing Fishing Boat: The Vil Vana, a 41-foot fishing boat with seven aboard, was near commercial shipping lanes in the Santa Barbara Channel when it sent out a distress signal Friday. Searchers found debris from the boat nearby.”


January 24, 1995 [LAT]: “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. 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." 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. 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." 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. 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. 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. 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.”


February 11, 1995 [LAT: “A 19-hour search of the ocean floor off Santa Cruz Island did not turn up any trace of the lost fishing trawler Vil Vana, the U.S. Coast Guard said Friday. The Coast Guard, with the U.S. Navy's help, conducted the search earlier this week using a Navy sonar research vessel. Special equipment aboard that vessel allowed the crew to videotape its search for the ill-fated Vil Vana in the Santa Barbara shipping channel. The Vil Vana disappeared under unknown circumstances west of Santa Cruz Island on April 9, 1993. The vessel's crew of seven was lost in the accident and no bodies were ever recovered. Last month, Santa Barbara marine researchers attempting to collect ocean-floor sediment accidentally snagged shrimp traps and rubber buoys marked with the Vil Vana 's name. A 19-hour search of the ocean floor off Santa Cruz Island did not turn up any trace of the lost fishing trawler Vil Vana, the U.S. Coast Guard said Friday. The Coast Guard, with the U.S. Navy's help, conducted the search earlier this week using a Navy sonar research vessel. Special equipment aboard that vessel allowed the crew to videotape its search for the ill-fated Vil Vana in the Santa Barbara shipping channel. The Vil Vana disappeared under unknown circumstances west of Santa Cruz Island on April 9, 1993. The vessel's crew of seven was lost in the accident and no bodies were ever recovered. Last month, Santa Barbara marine researchers attempting to collect ocean-floor sediment accidentally snagged shrimp traps and rubber buoys marked with the Vil Vana 's name. Coast Guard officials had hoped the discovery would help them find additional wreckage or equipment from the Vil Vana, but that did not happen. The search yielded a large field of old lobster traps and lines embedded on the ocean floor, but none bore the name of the Vil Vana, officials said. The search's chief investigator, Lt. Cmdr. Pete Rennard, was not available for comment late Friday. It was unclear whether another search would be attempted.”