Click here for Merit McCrea – WHEELHOUSE SCOOP

Thursday, August 29, 2019
By hook or by crook
Wednesday, September 25, 2019
Land vs. water

Sorrow and grief
Friday morning, 6 a.m. walking down the path toward SEA Landing in Santa Barbara — kind people had woven flowers into the fence all along the walkway. There was a solid wall of tokens of sorrow and grief in honor of the victims of the tragic fire aboard the dive boat Conception, stretching for some 50 yards.

The sun remained just below the horizon to the east as the scene was lit by dawn's early glow. Here, that meant the brilliant superposition of sun behind both land and sea. Sol lights up, then peeks over the Santa Monica Mountains, low in the far distance — spilling across the Channel waters. Just to the left, the very tips of the tallest peaks in the towering Santa Ynez are afire with the chiaroscuro pattern of the sun's earliest rays — splayed across just the very highest ridges with shaded canyons between.

Along the path to the landing are several national news crews, gearing up for their morning broadcasts. The morning prior a similar scene had played out, but with fog shrouding the harbor and out to sea. Yet, over land and mountains had been clear and crisp.

Already, a few people had come early to place additional offerings to the spirits of those passed mariners and divers lost in the tragic events transpiring early Monday morning.

Down on the docks the Stardust had a few anglers already aboard, one of the lightest loads in recent weeks — understandably. It was the week following Labor Day at the home base of the Conception. We waited for a large party to arrive, which would represent 13 of the just 17 total anglers.

Winds already building in the Channel promised gale force conditions the following day. We would fish the coastal areas, strike out in the deeper zones and have to break out the axiomatic rabbit-bearing hat — saved for desperate times. A tiny inshore spot surrounded by miles of mud was loaded with mixed rockfish that day.

Back at dock with limits early, the news crews had retired to their vehicles in the parking lot, or nearby hotels. A now steady stream of onlookers and contributors filed past, lingered over and added to the impromptu memorial along the walkway. A vigil was set for the coming evening, at Chase Palm Park, just a half-mile down the beach.

Some people came to share the grief and contemplate the lives lost. Others came to share the grief and get noticed — dressed to the nines and such. And mixed among those, almost indiscernible in the gathering were a few family members and close friends of those lost.

Down on the dock, mostly away from the public, was the tiny true memorial, attended only by those most familiar — a place of reverence, contemplation and sadness for landing crews, close friends and family of the lost. At the base of the Conception's empty berth was placed a heart shaped wreath of flowers. On the Conception's dock steps sat just 4 small bouquets.

From up above, there was no way to know it existed. But for families and close friends, it was clear there was no peace, no closure without seeing that dock space. In impromptu secrecy, her empty slip offered a moment of relative solitude, free of news crews and the public.

Those lost were members of one of Truth Aquatic's most long-time regular charter groups — since the company’s inception. For crews working that day, having known those lost as acquaintances at best, it somehow seemed our job to be as we ever were, part of the very fabric of the landing, just there, enduring as ever, a promise of eventual recovery.

And while there were unavoidable moments of silent contemplation of events, it seemed part of the job to be strong, to continue forward as if it were just another day at the dock.

The few who instinctively knew where to come, had suffered the loss of a family member or close friend. No matter how deeply affected we were, it paled by comparison and had little standing.

With outer waters already rough and gale force winds promised for the following day, the launch ramp docks hosted a small fleet of recovery vessels and post major marine incident craft — a couple of vessels with the initials FBI emblazoned across their cabins, sheriffs' dive team.

In the launch ramp lot a small cordoned-off tent city was still growing that afternoon, with additional agency tents/shelters being set up within. Several large team support vehicles, like the Governor's Office of Emergency Services converted RV, were behind additional screened sections of portable fencing.

While news crews had earlier seemed overly eager to paint the darkest picture possible of events as they had unfolded, the truth had finally hit the street, by now some 5 days later — as much as could be released. Virtually none of the sins major media had so eagerly earlier implied had proved correct at all.

In fact, a day or two earlier I'd received a call from a gentleman claiming to be a reporter for CNN, seemingly in search of dirty laundry with respect to the Conception's operation. When it became clear that I, as all others familiar he'd spoken with, considered Truth Aquatics as setting the bar within the dive boat industry on dive safety, vessel maintenance, crew experience, training and client care, he lost interest.

The fire had ultimately forced 5 of Conception's crew into the water after escaping the wheelhouse. The skipper risked life and limb to quickly get a mayday out with the vessel's location, nature of distress and total number of people aboard before the wheelhouse burned. They were forced back by the flames in every attempt to access the boat's interior spaces. Both bunkroom access points were blocked by fire.

Saturday's fishing charters re-scheduled for a later date — hopefully for calmer waters and a brighter day.

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Merit McCrea is saltwater editor for Western Outdoor News. A veteran Southern California partyboat captain, he is a marine research scientist with the Dr. Milton Love Lab at the University of California at Santa Barbara’s Marine Science Institute. He can be reached at:

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