SANTA BARBARA, Calif. - The fire damaged Condor Express boat is in the final stages of a major repair job, and it should be back in the water this month.
It was badly damaged by a fire in the Santa Barbara Harbor in March. Flames broke out in the wheelhouse upper deck area, just a short time after the boat was secured after an outing in the Santa Barbara Channel.
It happened just days after legendary owner Fred Benko passed away from a long illness. A double shock that broke the hearts of the waterfront community.
When he got the call about the fire, Captain Mat Curto said, "I dropped everything and ran down. I got there and about 15 firefighters and people were all over the place."
Now in the Ventura boatyard, the fire ravaged Condor Express is in the final days of an extensive repair project. It could be back in the water for testing within two weeks, and back in Santa Barbara by June.
It's been a monumental $650,000 project for Curto and a team of workers.
In the once blackened wheelhouse Curto pointed to an area where the fire started. "They think a lithium battery got hot and burned up," he said.
An off duty San Francisco firefighter grabbed a hose the day of the fire, and saved the boat from being destroyed.
Curto says he's been told two homeless men also jumped in with hoses to help.
"If this fire would have made it to the lower deck, all it had to do was burn through here (the wheelhouse floor) it would have been a total loss," said Curto.
When he was told how much work was needed to bring the boat back from near destruction, "I had a knot in my stomach. All I kept thinking is longer, longer, longer out of the water," said Curto.
Many key components have been replaced. "We're looking at 10,000 feet of new wiring throughout the boat," said Curto.
Curto is putting in six and seven days a week with his repair team, to make the rebuilding process happen as quickly as possible.
Curto says soon he will be "back in Santa Barbara and going out and finding whales, doing what I do. That's what I love to do. I love finding whales. That's my passion. It's tough talking to the other boat hearing how great the whale watching is and I'm stuck here," said Curto who remains optimistic despite the back breaking work.
The original Condor, now a fishing boat in San Diego was found after the fire and brought back to Santa Barbara to fill in on the daily trips.
"So many people have said 'I grew up on this boat. I did my first whale watch on this boat, I did my first fishing expedition at San Miguel Island on this boat,' so it's really good that it's back in service in Santa Barbara," said Captain Dave Beezer.
On a recent trip, whales were spotted within minutes of the Santa Barbara Harbor. Some were very playful and came close to the Condor to check out the vessel and the passengers on board.
"It was just amazing. We have never seen something like that before. I think we were very, very, lucky to see that today," said passenger Daniella Eggers from Germany.
"We've seen it all today. The calves are on the backs of the moms," said Beezer. "There's probably some feeding going on here in the kelp and it's as good as it gets to see all these whales so close in."
This was his pride and this boat made him life," said Benko's widow Hiroko. "He built it and designed it." For those on board the Condor or Condor Express, the whale watching trips will provide, "beautiful, meaningful, all kinds of experiences," said Benko who says the Condor legacy will live on for everyone to enjoy.