Monday, March 19 , 2018, 10:18 am | Fair 58º


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Bill Macfadyen: Capt. Fred Benko Had a Whale of a Following, On Land and At Sea

Condor Express news dominates NoozWeek's Top 5, which also includes Paula Lopez (again), super bugs and Lower State Street construction plans

Condor Express Heads to Dry Dock in Ventura from Noozhawk on Vimeo.

(Don Barthelmess video)

What were you reading on Noozhawk this past week?

1. Capt. Fred Benko, Founder of Condor Cruises, Dies

Capt. Fred Benko, 1939-2013. (Don Barthelmess file photo)
Capt. Fred Benko, 1939-2013. (Don Barthelmess file photo)

Capt. Fred Benko was a fixture at the Santa Barbara waterfront and as responsible as anyone around here for making whale-watching tours one of the South Coast’s most popular pastimes. On March 7, he lost his battle with a long and debilitating illness and died at age 73.

Benko founded Condor Cruises and Sea Landing in the harbor, and was a popular and energetic presence and champion of Santa Barbara’s maritime past and possibilities.

“Fred was a person to whom you were easily attracted due to his energy and vision,” Harbormaster Mick Kronman told Noozhawk executive editor Tom Bolton. “When he brought the Condor here, he took whale watching to a new level. He ... will be deeply missed.”

Mike Edwards, a former top Venoco executive now living in Denver, was a frequent passenger on the Condor fleet while leading public tours to the oil seeps off UC Santa Barbara.

“Fred was a great captain and I’m sad to hear of his passing,” he told me. “Over the years, I had the pleasure of spending many hours with Fred in the wheelhouse of his ‘Condors’ on ocean tours.”

City Councilman Randy Rowse, who owns a boat docked in the marina, praised Benko for his work to enhance the public’s understanding of whales and the marine environment in the Santa Barbara Channel.

“Fred put it all together,” Hillary Hauser, executive director of Heal the Ocean, said of Benko’s vision for whale-watching excursions.

“Fred’s legacy to Santa Barbara is that he really built Sea Landing,” she said. “He was the one who made it happen.”

Benko is survived by his wife, Hiroko; his daughter, Dody Livingston, and granddaughter Hunter; his son, Mathew, and grandsons Tyler and Brennan; and his mother, Dorothy Benko.

A celebration of his life was held March 15 at the Santa Barbara Maritime Museum. In lieu of flowers, the family requests donations to the Maritime Museum, the Santa Barbara Zoo or Visiting Nurse & Hospice Care.

Click here for Capt. Fred Benko’s online memorial.

2. Condor Express Catches Fire in Santa Barbara Harbor

Just two days after the Condor Express’ skipper died, the boat caught fire while docked at Sea Landing. There were no injuries in the blaze, but the damage was estimated in the hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Investigators believe an electrical fire sparked in the wheelhouse about an hour after the boat returned to port from a whale-watching voyage.

The vessel was towed to a Ventura dry dock for repairs March 12, and the original Condor is being brought back from its work as a fishing boat in San Diego.

Capt. Mat Curto, operations manager for the Condor Express, said the replacement Condor will resume whale-watching tours March 17.

3. Bill Macfadyen: No News in the Paula Lopez Story, But That’s Still the News

This is what I wrote last week: The story of Paula Lopez is still drawing reader traffic, more than a week after the KEYT News anchor’s Feb. 27 disappearance and subsequent safe return.

What’s new? It’s now more than two weeks.

4. Super Bug Pathogen Reported in 2 Patients at Cottage Hospital

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has reported a sharp jump in cases of potentially deadly types of carbapenem-resistant Enterobacteriaceae, a super bug resistant to nearly all last-resort antibiotics.

Two of those cases are from Santa Barbara Cottage Hospital, which twice encountered CRE in the last year.

While Cottage Health System spokeswoman Maria Zate declined to provide details, she emphasized that Cottage hospitals already are working to prevent CRE through diligent hand-washing, educating staff to identify and isolate an infected patient, and limiting the use of intrusive devices like catheters.

5. Big Changes En Route for Santa Barbara’s Lower State Street

It’s ironic that a community like Santa Barbara, which prides itself as a tourist mecca, has as its gateways two of the saddest-looking entrances one could imagine: Montecito’s derelict Mirarmar property and much of Lower State Street between Highway 101 and the Mission Creek cesspool at Cabrillo Boulevard.

The Miramar recently got a bit of a sprucing up after a mere 12 years of deterioration, and now the biggest blight on Lower State is about to get an overhaul of its own. How long has the hapless La Entrada project been languishing? Twenty years? 30? Seriously.

Anyhoo, change is in the air there — albeit at Santa Barbara’s typically glacial pace. State Street is being narrowed to two lanes from four, and brick sidewalks will be added to make everything new look old. Much of the long-closed Californian Hotel has been demolished to make way for the most visible piece of the puzzle, La Entrada de Santa Barbara. That repeatedly delayed project is now on its third developer — coincidentally, just like the Miramar — and officials expect construction to commence sometime next year.

There are several other critical components of the area’s transformation, however, and John Ewasiuk, principal engineer in the City of Santa Barbara Public Works Department, sat down with the Santa Barbara Region Chamber of Commerce on March 13 to explain what to expect.

As our Lara Cooper reported, the Cabrillo Boulevard bridge near the mouth of Mission Creek is one of seven bridges that will be replaced or renovated in the neighborhood. Complicating that project is the presence of Rusty’s Pizza, 15 E. Cabrillo Blvd., which actually is built on the bridge. To deliver on the improvement, crews must take a slice out of the Rusty’s building.

Meanwhile, Tony Romasanta’s newest hotel has received Planning Commission approval for a site at Mason and State streets and the Children’s Museum of Santa Barbara is still creeping toward adulthood.

Finally, there’s the half-finished youth hostel that at one point was being constructed across the street from the Reagan Ranch Center. Aside from the absurdity of a youth hostel occupying a half-acre of prime State Street real estate, the more things change, the more they stay exactly the same.

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Noozhawk is excited to announce that Chris Donahue, our advertising manager and an original Noozhawk, will be marrying his longtime “significant other,” Calla Morris, this weekend. My friend, Denny Wayman, pastor of Free Methodist Church of Santa Barbara, will be officiating. Congratulations and best wishes to the happy couple, and to their beautiful and absolutely adorable daughter, Ciena.

                                                                  •        •        •

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— Bill Macfadyen is Noozhawk’s founder and publisher. Contact him at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address), follow him on Twitter: @noozhawk, or click here to read previous columns. The opinions expressed are his own.

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