Mystery at sea still has one missing piece
Wreck may be boat lost in ’94, but finding a photo of it afloat is vital
Calm seas and clear weather greeted the fishing boat Tammy as it set out from San Pedro on July 11, 1994, to cast its nets for sea cucumbers — and then disappeared.
The 40-foot, steel-hulled vessel carried a crew of four Vietnamese fishermen that night. Two of their bodies were found the next day in the shipping lanes off Newport Beach. The others were never recovered.
“To this day, we do not have even a death certificate for my dad because they never found him,” Thai Minh Ta said of Cong Minh Ta, the boat’s owner.
He and other children of the ill-fated fishermen have longed to know what happened to the men — and the boat that carried them to their deaths.
“I always wonder if some ship hit my dad and run away, hit my dad and not turn around to save him,” said Lisa Nguyen, the daughter of Nhieu Van Nguyen, whose body was recovered.
The Coast Guard concluded that the Tammy sank, but closed its investigation without pinpointing a cause or locating the wreckage.
Now, more than two decades later, two men with extensive experience in researching and identifying submerged wrecks think the long-lost fishing boat might rest on the ocean floor in 70 feet of water near the entrance to the Port of Long Beach.
Steve Lawson, a techni-
cal writer and avid wreck diver, and Gary Fabian, a computer consultant and maritime historian who discovered the sunken vessel in 1995, have spent more than a decade trying to identify it.
Its location, dimensions and steel-hull construction bolster their theory that it is the Tammy. But Lawson and Fabian say they can’t be certain without comparing it to photos of the boat before it sank.
Three children of the fishermen contacted by The Times said they have no pictures of the Tammy. Nor were they able to identify the wreck — now corroded and covered in sea anemones and other growth — from an electronic data image and underwater photos the researchers have compiled.
“Circumstantial evidence suggests this is the wreck, but more definitive proof is needed,” said Lawson, 52. “It’s a mystery that needs to be solved.”
Refugee saw boat as an opportunity
Cong Minh Ta and his family joined the waves of Vietnamese “boat people” who fled their homeland in the 1970s.
His sons Thai, 48, and Daniel, 46, said the family lived in a refugee camp in the Philippines before coming to the United States in 1980. They eventually wound up in San Gabriel, where Cong Minh Ta worked in construction.
Thai said he and his father bought the Tammy for about $300 when it was little more than “a piece of metal floating on top of the water,” and spent thousands rebuilding it.
“We worked on it for like at least eight months,” he said. “New cabinets, new engine. Everything on it was new except the name.”
Unlike other crew members, he said, his father was not a professional fisherman. He bought the boat as a business venture, but in the short time it operated, “We didn’t even make good money with it,” Thai said.
Nhieu Van Nguyen, an experienced fisherman and skipper, came to the United States with a younger brother in the early 1980s and later worked alongside Cong and Thai to overhaul the Tammy, then 30 years old.
They outfitted it with nets and based it at Fish Harbor, home to San Pedro’s fleet of commercial boats — many of them immigrantowned, aging and in ill repair, according to news reports at the time. The Tammy would be the third net-fishing boat from Fish Harbor to sink in accidents that year.
Lisa Nguyen was in her early 20s and had been in the U.S. for less than a decade when her father died at 52. Her mother was still in Vietnam, with plans to join her family.
“He was always a fisherman, even back home,” said Nguyen, who now lives near San Diego. “He had lots of experience with the boats and the water. My dad [was] all the time in the boat fishing, all the time working.”
The Tammy’s ill-fated voyage
On board with her father and Cong Minh Ta, 54, that summer night were Khanh Nguyen, 50, and Gioi Nguyen, 59, who was described at the time as a sometimes fishing partner of the others. Their families could not be reached for this article.
According to a Coast Guard investigation report, the Tammy disappeared without so much as a distress call. Weather apparently was not a factor.
“It was calm,” said Thai Ta, who now lives in Texas and recalled checking conditions at the time. “There was no wind, no storm, nothing.”
Early on the morning of July 12, 1994, a pleasure boater found a man’s body floating in the shipping lanes south of Long Beach. A second body was recovered about two hours later, amid debris that included ice chests, line, tarp and a white drum used to carry bait.
Rescue vessels and aircraft scoured 450 square miles of the ocean for signs of the missing fishermen and the boat before giving up at dark.
“It’s hard to have a funeral when you can’t see a body,” said Daniel Ta, who lives in Florida. “Over time, I hoped he was still alive. Over time, my hope was dashed.”
Because two bodies were found in the shipping lanes, initial speculation was that the Tammy had been struck and sunk by a deep-draft vessel.
The Coast Guard ruled that out, however, after all four freighters known to be in the area at the time bore no signs of a collision when examined at their next ports of call.
The investigation also raised doubts about the Tammy’s seaworthiness and the crew’s skills.
A harbormaster in San Pedro and an employee of the boatyard where the refurbishing was done told Coast Guard investigators that the Tammy had a tendency to “excessively heel,” or tip, while turning. It was not clear that the boat carried proper running lights.
The investigators wrote in their report that the “vessel master’s past history as a prudent mariner is questionable” and that he had owned and was operating another fishing boat that sank in a collision.
The Coast Guard report did not name the skipper, but The Times, quoting friends and relatives, reported in the days after the sinking that Nhieu Van Nguyen was a licensed fisherman who owned a boat that sank three years earlier after colliding with a ship.
A year after the Tammy disappeared, Fabian was motoring back to the docks when his boat’s sonar “fish finder” bounced off something big beneath the surface, 3.1 miles beyond the Long Beach breakwater.
“I see this huge bump come up,” he recalled recently. “Any bump on the bottom to a fisherman is like buried treasure, because that’s where the fish are. So I swing the boat around and get right on top of it. I didn’t know it was a wreck. It could’ve been a rock.”
Fabian later shared the location with a diver friend, who confirmed it was a sunken boat, all but untouched: Its brass steering wheel and portholes, souvenirs coveted by divers, were still intact.
“We’d found a virgin wreck — right off of L.A.,” he said. “How the hell did it get there?”
Fabian, 54, who now lives in Texas, described researching shipwrecks as “an intense hobby.” He has spent much of the last two decades crunching sonar data from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to locate lost ships and aircraft.
In 2003 he made his first significant find: the wreckage of a German U-boat that the U.S. government had acquired and sunk off the Southern California coast in a live-fire exercise in 1921. Until he found the UB88, it had been one of California’s most elusive wrecks.
Just last year, he worked with NOAA to locate a Boeing B-29 lost off the coast of Saipan during World War II and a Japanese cargo ship that sank off Wake Island in 1942.
“Part of the excitement for me is doing the digging,” Fabian said, conceding that so far, the mystery of the Tammy “has been an impossible nut to crack.”
Over the years, as the site became popular with scuba divers, the wreck was identified as the African Queen — a replica of the boat made famous in the 1951 movie starring Humphrey Bogart and Katharine Hepburn.
But Fabian and Lawson did some research and came to a different conclusion.
“We discovered the African Queen was wood and not steel like the wreck,” said Lawson, a Laguna Hills resident. The pair have compiled a raft of Coast Guard reports and other documentation on the Tammy, its ownership chain and its ill-fated crew.
Fabian has used sophisticated electronic imaging to visualize the wreck, and Lawson has examined it on about a dozen dives. Its steel hull and dimensions point to it as the Tammy, they say, but it has lost many of its identifiers over time.
“There is no paint or anything left on it and no numbers are discernible,” but the hull is largely undamaged, Lawson said.
Some nets are still attached to the wreck, which has become a haven for wolf eels and other sea creatures.
“It is covered in red strawberry anemones, giving it a red or pink color,” Lawson said. “Also, the amount of growth and corrosion is much less than that of older wrecks, suggesting it is newer.”
One possible explanation for what happened to the Tammy is that a larger vessel snagged its nets and pulled the boat under, perhaps taking the two missing fishermen down with it.
“There is something inherently fascinating about finding man-made objects underwater,” Lawson said, but fleshing out their history is all the more rewarding.
“Any time you can make a connection between the archival record with physical and tangible underwater wreckage — bridge the gap between the two and identify a wreck — that in itself is a discovery,” he said.
He and Fabian said photos of the Tammy in its prime would close the loop.
“Undoubtedly there are people with knowledge about the Tammy who unknowingly hold the missing piece of the puzzle,” Lawson said, “and we hope they come forward to prove or disprove the wreck’s identity.”
What took the Tammy down is the “million-dollar question,” Daniel Ta said. Even after all these years, he anxiously awaits an answer.
“I have prayed about it. I have always thought about it: What really happened out there with my dad, and my dad’s boat,” he said. “That question has always lingered and floated. I really do want to know.”
‘Undoubtedly there are people with knowledge about the Tammy who unknowingly hold the missing piece of the puzzle.’ — Steve Lawson, diver, on the need for a photo of the boat taken before it sank
AN IMAGE from electronic data shows a wreck off Long Beach, perhaps the fishing boat Tammy.
STEVE LAWSON at home in Laguna Hills. Lawson, an avid wreck diver, and Gary Fabian hope to confirm the fishing boat Tammy’s fate.
A WRECK found in 1995, the year after the Tammy was lost, is now thought to be the fishing boat. A photo showing what the boat looked like is needed to confirm.