|Five years after the 58-foot, steel-hulled A.C.E. drum seiner sank off the coast of San Clemente, a team of divers from Beach Cities Scuba (BCS) recently located it and prepared the site for recreational diving.
Now buoyed about five miles south of the Dana Point Harbor, the A.C.E. offers divers an opportunity to explore a new wreck that's roughly halfway between Los Angeles and San Diego.
Completely intact and resting on its port side with her mast pointing away from shore, an ecosystem is thriving on the sunken vessel. It's rich with strawberry and white seaplume anemones. Calico and black sea bass are abundant, and what looks like rust in several areas is a large number of rockfish that have staked their claim on the A.C.E.
The wreck begins at 95 feet and hits the ocean floor at 114 feet.
Last summer, Rod Surratt, vice president of operations for newly launched Riviera Dive Charters, received a tip about the vessel's general location. Surratt and Beach Cities Scuba owner-operator Hosam Elshenawi assembled a team that included D.J. Mansfield and Andrew Bolling.
Using the Riviera's sonar, they passed over the coordinates several times, verified the bump and dumped markers in a 50-yard square.
Mansfield, who used a single steel 100-cubic-foot cylinder with 31 percent Nitrox, needed only 12 minutes to find the A.C.E. "I started a u-shaped pattern oriented north to south. The first thing I noticed was all of the fish. That indicated to me that we were in the right area. As my bottom time clicked to 12 minutes, I was about to give up at 114 feet. I was on my fourth pattern when I saw a shadow to my left. I meandered over and ran right into the mast," said Mansfield, an experienced wreck diver. "The very first thing out of my regulator was a garbled 'HOLY COW!', and I did a little dance on the sea floor. I couldn't believe how encrusted she was. She's covered in anemones."
After Mansfield returned to the Riviera, another team went down and rigged the buoy system. In less than a day, the BCS team had opened up a new chapter in A.C.E.'s history, which had served the sport fishing community from the Mexican border to Newport Beach for 30 years.
The Saturday after Thanksgiving in 2005, the A.C.E. (named after the company's founder Adolphus Charles Everingham) was heading toward the Dana Point Harbor from Oceanside with a full load of anchovies and mackerel about 3 a.m. With offshore winds blowing at 25 knots and 10-foot swells breaking on top of it, the vessel got caught in a sharp and quick chop and rolled over.
Meanwhile dentist Ed Westberg, who had woken up to go to the bathroom, spotted an emergency flare from his bluff top home. He contacted the Orange County Sheriff's Harbor Patrol and helped guide the rescue boat to the crew who were aboard the 14-foot skiff that was chained to the slowly sinking A.C.E.
Luckily, all four crewmembers were rescued, but the vessel went down taking the skiff with it. Attempts were made to locate it a few days later. "We had a half a dozen boats searching the area for a week, trying to figure the current, the swell and the wind," Captain Robert Machado told The Orange County Register in February 06. "It's a needle in a haystack."
Air in the vessel's holds--the boat was built with two large air voids on either side of the bait tanks--allowed the ocean current to bounce it around quite a bit.
As to when the A.C.E. was first located is still a bit of mystery but Machado, during an interview on the eve of the accident's five-year anniversary, said that fisherman started to notice something on the ocean's sandy floor where there hadn't been anything before. "The San Pedro commercial fishing fleet would snag their nets on something in between Seal Rock and Cotton's Point," he said. "That's where we rolled, and that's where I was looking for a possible beach area to swim to in case we weren't rescued."
On the way out to the site, divers can get a good idea of what the A.C.E. looked like when it was topside. The Cachalot is docked near the eastern entrance to the harbor and south of the launch ramp.
In an effort to protect it, Riviera Dive Charters and Beach Cities Scuba have established a policy prohibiting divers from penetrating or taking anything from the site. "That's part of our diver briefing," Elshenawi said. "We're really trying to preserve this wreck."
Besides offering divers a new wreck to explore, it opens up discussion about whether the area might support another artificial reef.
"I think there's a lot of support in community for what artificial reefs will bring to Dana Point now and in the future," says Joel Geldin, chief executive officer of nonprofit California Ships to Reefs.
Like the bump on the Riviera's sonar, Dana Point and surrounding areas will no doubt experience a "bump" in recreational diving now that the A.C.E. wreck is short 15-minute ride from the harbor.