Charter Boat Captains Shocked by News of Deadly California Fire

No one likely escaped the flames that tore through a boat packed with scuba divers, with all 34 people sleeping below deck presumed dead during a Labor Day weekend expedition off the Southern California coast.

A deadly boat fire off the Southern California coast has charter boat captains in Connecticut wondering what could have possibly gone wrong. 

Just like the Conception, the boat that went up in flames, the boats at Sunbeam Fleet in Waterford are all Coast Guard inspected and in compliance with their safety standards. For the captain in charge, the news of what happened off the coast of California is chilling.

“It was horrifying,” Captain Bob Wadsworth said.

Sunbeam Fleet has been in his family for three generations.

“We run a 60-foot party boat. We also run two private charter boats, and we also have what we call a floating condo,” said Wadsworth, whose sons also help run the business.

Summer is their busiest time of the year, with thousands of people coming on board to fish or get away for a few nights.

“The Coast Guard’s down here every year making sure everything’s safe for the passengers, the crew,” he said.

For Wadsworth, safety is number one.

“We have a fire suppression system on board all the inspected boats. That’s automatic, so any flames start, that’s supposed to put the fire out by itself,” he said.

He’s anxious to know what went wrong in California that led to so many lives lost.

“What could’ve happened is beyond me,” Wadsworth said. “I’m sure they’ll get to the bottom of it hopefully they do. We’d be certainly falling in line with any regulations that come out of it.”

Collin Reichelt, of the Coast Guard Sector Long Island Sound, said commercial boats get inspected every year to make sure they are safe for travel.

“We are mandated by the code of federal regulations to inspect any passenger vessel that carries more than six passengers,” explained Reichelt. “The Coast Guard is deeply saddened by the tragedy that happened off the coast of Santa Cruz Island in California, and our hearts go out to the victims and their families,” Reichelt added.

Despite the sad news out of California, it’s business as usual for the fleet in Waterford — a hot spot for visitors from across the country.

“We’re going out on a charter fishing trip,” said Carol Richardson, of Oxford. “This will be my second one actually. The first one was down in Key West. We can’t live scared, so we plan on going out, having a good day.”

“I come out on charter boats a couple times a year, I love it, It’s a lot of fun,” Tony Christensen, of Windsor, said. “If you’re prepared you have nothing to worry about.”

Captain Greg Dubrule, of Blackhawk Sport Fishing in Niantic, was also shocked to hear the news of the boat fire off the coast of California.

“I just don’t see how something like that happens. Number one, that’s an inspected boat,” said Dubrule, who’s been in the charter boat fishing business for over 50 years.

“We take well over 12-to-14,000 people a year,” he said. “They come from Ohio, Virginia, West Virginia, Jersey, South Jersey, Maryland. We’re getting ready to leave right now on one, we’ve got 40 people going this afternoon.”

Before every excursion, Dubrule gives his passengers a safety tour.

“Everybody on board should know where everything is,” he explained. “By Coast Guard regulation we have to tell them.”

His boat, Blackhawk, has extensive fire safety equipment, too.

“We have smoke detectors in the engine room, we have alarms in the engine room, we have television camera in the engine room looking at both engines —so if anything happens we see it instantaneously.”

Lt. Danny Spisak, of Plainville, has been fishing on charters since he was 10 years old.

“Safety is the most important thing about entering any ship, vessel, boat, raft or going on any water, even fresh water,” Spisak said.

Some passengers, like Robert Santerre, of Newington, like to take their own additional safety measures.

“I wear a yellow shirt just in case so I’m pretty bright in the water,” said Santerre.

At the end of the day, the dangers of being out on the water won’t stop fishing fans from enjoying the Long Island Sound.

“You gotta be able to live life to its fullest with no regrets,” Santerre said.

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