BY MERIT McCREA
CHANNEL ISLANDS — Thursday morning, June 15, this writer gets a flurry of texts, the Sea Jay hit the island and is sinking. The Sea Jay is one of the 12-pack class charter boats out of the Gold Coast region. These are known for their targeting of surface and game fish in preference to the region’s rockfish and other bottom fish.
It was around 10:30 when Bob Valney called in response to an earlier text, having recognized his boat the Seabiscuit in an early-arriving photo.
Valney said the fleet had been making bait at Scorpion and Sea Jay owner-operator Chauncey (Preal) had been first to leave west-bound. Valney was 3 or 4 miles behind when the May Day went out. The Sea Jay had hit the island at about 02:30 somewhere between Pelican and Twin, had made it back to Pelican and put the hook (anchor) down there.
Valney arrived to find Chauncey’s 10 passengers offloading into their IBA raft, along with passenger tackle, and lit up the small anchorage for them with his boat’s squid lights.
He said, in addition to the bow being smashed, the boat’s port side was badly “scratched” down to the stern, and the way was down by the stern made him think the boat’s running gear and bottom there had also been badly damaged.
Shortly thereafter the CDFW patrol boat Cojo’s RHIB inflatable boarding skiff arrived to assist, followed by the 50-foot patrol boat and the 85-foot Ranger 85.
With two other sailboats having been already anchored in the small bay, under 350 yards wide, traffic was getting heavy. Valney was relieved by Coast Guard to continue on around 04:00. He was in transit between fishing halibut and seabass and the rockfish grounds when he called in, having put a half-dozen nice halibut and a trio of seabass aboard.
The Sea Jay ultimately sank, down by the stern, in the small 40-foot-deep anchorage.
That evening this writer spoke briefly with Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuaries Resource Protection Coordinator Sean Hastings about the incident. He was very concerned about shortening the timeline to getting the boat re-floated, to limit the environmental impacts.
He’d indicated a substantial fraction of the estimated 220 gallons of diesel fuel aboard had escaped.
In the recent grounding of the seiner Speranza Marie, the aluminum vessel had been towed off and moored off the island and left on anchor pending better weather for the tow to a safe harbor. Windy weather then caused the vessel to re-ground causing much greater environmental damage and the vessel to become a total loss.
Hastings also noted a spate of four recent groundings in the Sanctuary and an interest in further investigating the situation.
Capt. Randy Kramer on the Sea Biscuit posted having heard the call and changed course to assist, handing the helm off to Valney and standing by. He said, “Upon arrival, with the boat slowly sinking, I witnessed what I doubt anyone else will tell you…..a group of people, calm and collected, sitting in a life boat. This all comes down to Capt. Chauncey Preal, who stayed on the boat, not only to communicate with first responders but to keep his people informed. While we train for this sort of situation, we never anticipate it will ever happen.”
Preal would post, “We would like to thank the Seabiscuit, the Ranger 85, Fish and Game vessel the Coho and Coast Guard. Like to thank you all for your arrival, your care of our passengers and crew and your professionalism. You are all lifesavers and I appreciate you looking out for my people.”
Chris Bricker was aboard the Sea Jay and posted, Our boat hit Santa Cruz Island roughly about 3:00 in the a.m. We were sleeping. We are safe we are on the Coast Guard boat. The boat we were on has sunk. Thank you to the Coast Guard for a quick recovery. Scariest (explicative) THING I have ever gone through! We were fortunate of just being banged up and some small cuts and bruises. Thank god for a good crew and getting us into the life raft quickly. At this time we don’t know what happened. Just thank God everyone is ok.”
Scott Treadway, also aboard, later posted, “I got to say yesterday was one of the scariest days of my life but a big shout out to Chauncey the owner and captain of the Sea Jay he was on top of things stayed calm and collected. (He) was not driving at the time of the incident but made sure everybody was safe and off the boat. (He) was the last one to come off and was even willing to help save some of our gear, also a big shout out to the Coast Guard who got there and what seemed like only a few minutes and made sure we were all safe, dry and going back to our families! I will never forget this event!”
By Saturday June 17, the USCG posted the Sea Jay had been salvaged and “This operation included underwater assessment, re-floating, stabilization, and the safe transfer of the vessel to harbor.”
Federal On-Scene Coordinator Capt. Ryan Manning is quoted as saying, “Our partnerships played a crucial role in the swift response and safe recovery and removal of the vessel. At no time during any phase of the operation were recoverable hydrocarbons present”
The U.S. Coast Guard, OSPR (CDFW’s Office of Spill Prevention and Response), and all participating agencies have concluded recovery operations. Their statement concluded the cause is still under investigation.