Tuesday, August 21 , 2018, 3:27 pm | A Few Clouds 76º


Local News

Condor Express Returns to Santa Barbara Harbor with Fanfare and Remembrance

Whale-watching vessel underwent $600,000 in repairs after a fire in March

Capt. Fred Benko’s widow, Hiroko, hugs a well-wisher Friday as the Condor Express returns to the Santa Barbara Harbor after being repaired. (Lara Cooper / Noozhawk photo)
Capt. Fred Benko’s widow, Hiroko, hugs a well-wisher Friday as the Condor Express returns to the Santa Barbara Harbor after being repaired. (Lara Cooper / Noozhawk photo)

Friday proved to be a new beginning as well as a time of sweet remembrance for friends and supporters of the Condor Express, as they got a glimpse of the repaired vessel returning to the Santa Barbara Harbor after sustaining major damage in a fire.

The ship caught fire March 9 while docked at Sea Landing in the Santa Barbara Harbor, and $600,000 worth of repairs were needed to restore it.

There were no injuries in the fire because the boat had been docked for about an hour after returning with passengers from a whale-watching tour, and firefighters were able to knock down the fire quickly.

The cause of the fire was likely a battery charger that shorted out, authorities say.

Repairing the damage has taken two and a half months, however, and supporters cheered on the returning boat Friday morning as it sailed into the harbor, led by a Harbor Patrol boat spouting water along the way.

The repaired ship will begin service this weekend.

The original Condor, which was built in 1979, has been conducting whale-watching tours since the other vessel underwent the repairs at the Ventura Harbor.

The company is a waterfront staple, giving tourists and locals alike glimpses of whales and marine life on their tours each year.

The fire wasn’t the only setback the company encountered this year, however.

Just three days before the fire, Condor Cruises founder Fred Benko died at 73 from an undisclosed illness.

One of those reeling from the news of his death was Matt Curto, operations manager for the Condor Express, who worked with Benko for 17 years.

“I was a wreck that day,” said Curto, standing on the bow of the boat Friday as community members wandered around the vessel, admiring the changes. “Fred was like a father to me.”

Just days after Benko’s death, a co-worker called Curto to tell him the boat had caught on fire, and he couldn’t believe it.

Seeing the charred wheelhouse forced him to face reality, however, and Curto spearheaded the repairs, working on the boat while other staff members conducted the whale-watching tours up in Santa Barbara.

They gutted the boat’s wheelhouse and put on new doors.

New wiring was needed, too — 10,000 feet of it.

“Nobody could believe we got it repaired in that amount of time,” he said. “Even the Coast Guard was amazed we got it done that quickly.”

The loss of Benko made the Condor’s return Friday that much more poignant.

When asked what Curto thought Benko would say if he could see the repaired ship, Curto answered without hesitation.

“He’d hug me and say, ‘I’m proud of you,’” he told Noozhawk.

Benko’s widow, Hiroko, was on hand Friday to welcome people aboard the ship before setting sail for a short trip along the coast.

She called the ship’s return “a new beginning” for the Condor Express, and thanked Curto for his work on the renovation.

“Fred is looking down on us and is so proud,” she said.

Noozhawk staff writer Lara Cooper can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address). Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.embrance

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