Conception back in the water

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Posted by on August 29, 2005 at 20:30:38:

At the Ventura Harbor, cruise vessel damaged in a bizarre theft is reborn

Five months ago, Glen Fritzler watched his beloved cruise vessel, the Conception, struggle to stay afloat after a homeless man stole it and ran aground on the rocky shore off Vandenberg Air Force Base.

Friday morning, after repairs at the Ventura Harbor boatyard that included a new keel, rudder, shaft and propellers, a new bow and renovated interior, the Conception was christened once again and lowered into the water.

"What a tragedy it was," Fritzler told about 50 relatives and crew members watching Friday. "And here we are, five months later. Everybody worked so hard, and we really appreciate it."

Fritzler, owner of Santa Barbara-based Truth Aquatics, which offers trips to the Channel Islands, excitedly snapped photographs and circled the 75-foot-long boat to examine it.

The Conception, a 60-ton vessel worth $2 million, sustained $375,000 in damage when it ran aground 50 miles from where it was stolen on March 23. Most of the damage occurred during the beaching and the salvage efforts.

Authorities arrested Donald Patrick Kelley, 41, a transient, on suspicion of grand theft and other charges. His trial is set to begin Thursday.

Kelley is suspected of breaking into the wheelhouse late at night, starting the engines and navigating through the Santa Barbara Harbor, striking three vessels docked nearby as he headed north, Santa Barbara Police Lt. Donald Paul McCaffrey said. One of those vessels, the Slick Chick, sank and is still at the bottom of the harbor.

Hours after the Conception was reported missing, Vandenberg Air Force Base security dressed in camouflage and U.S. Coast Guard officials circled the grounded boat by air and sea in search of the person responsible for the theft.

"It was quite a sight," Fritzler said.

Kelley was arrested about a quarter-mile away. He had bottles of Grey Poupon mustard and A1 Steak Sauce and a box of tea, all apparently taken from the boat, said Fritzler's wife, Dana.

"The whole thing was just bizarre," Glen Fritzler said. "It's a big white boat. It's not like you can fly under the radar with it."

The boat will stay in the Ventura Harbor for a few days and be inspected by the U.S. Coast Guard on Monday before it is taken out to sea.

Family members will be the first passengers. Then it will return to Santa Barbara and be put back into service, Dana Fritzler said.

Cruises scheduled over the past five months had to be canceled while the boat was being repaired -- a large financial loss for the company, she said. Insurance only covered the cost of repairs, not the lost income, she said.

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