Kopco Star Kelp Cutter

The Kopco Star was built at Terminal Island (San Pedro) in 1952 and measured 51.6’ long, 27.3 in the beam, 4.8 in-depth, and powered by 4 diesel engines with a rating of 900 hp. It was owned by the Kopco Star Co. of Los Angeles and was a kelp cutter that operated out of the Kopco kelp processing facility in Pt. Hueneme (Ventura County) harvesting kelp from Pt. Hueneme to Pt. Conception.

Kelp harvesting was a very important commercial industry with the harvesting of kelp along much of the California coast. Harvesting was permitted under leases granted by the State Fish and Game Commission, with regulations established by the Commission. The type of kelp Kopco harvested was the Giant Brown Algae to be used mainly in stock and fertilizer.

With only the top four feet allowed to be harvested, the Kopco Star would leave at midnight to be at her destination when the tides were most advantageous until one night in question when she had taken one heavy load of kelp and sunk.

On Tuesday, October 1, 1963, at around 10:00 pm the Kopco Star listed to port shortly after taking on a heavy load of kelp. It sunk about 6 miles offshore from Pt. Hueneme with almost no warning, preventing the crew from making a radio call for help. The uninjured captain and engineer were rescued by chance by a Navy tugboat about 1 ½ hours after the Kopco Star sunk. Given the circumstances of the Kopco Star sinking at night and not being able to make a call for help, they were very lucky to be rescued so quickly before their ordeal turned into a disaster.

Sometime after the Kopco Star sank; it was replaced by the Ellwood. Then on Friday, February 14, 1969, the Ellwood sunk tragically with a loss of all 4 of the crew about 5 miles off  Goleta Point, Santa Barbara on its way back to Pt. Hueneme. The search is currently on for the Ellwood and finding her would be an important step in the history of kelp harvesting in Ventura County.

Interestingly enough, The Kopco Star and Kopco kelp processing plant was used in an episode of Sea Hunt called the “Kelp Forest” (Season 2, episode 38-Sept.21, 1959) a few years before it sank.

There is a comment on the internet that mentioned the “Magnetic Mine” episode (Season 1, Episode 21- May 31, 1958). After watching both the Magnetic Mine and Kelp Forest episode it could only be the Kelp Forest episode that they were referring to. The “Magnetic Mine” episode does not have a Kelpcutter in it and the “Kelp Forest” has quite a bit of footage of a Kelpcutter, a kelp processing plant, and an underwater mine.

Below is the comment about the Kopco Star that was found on the internet

The plot of “Magnetic Mine” centered around a dispute between local commercial fishermen and a kelp harvesting barge. The fisherman blamed the kelp harvester for poor catches. The fishermen discover an old World War ll mine in their nets and drag it to the kelp bed. They are, of course, hoping that the kelp harvester will hit the mine and blow up. In true fashion, Mike Nelson saves the day.

I haven’t seen the episode in years, but I remember that much of the episode was filmed at the Port of Hueneme, California. My father was the manager of Kopco, Inc., which harvested and processed kelp. The kelp harvesting barge “Kopco Star” was depicted in the episode, and the Kopco processing plant was used for exterior shots. I was about 5 years old then, and with great excitement was able to watch the filming, including a fight scene where stuntmen back-flipped off the dock into the water.

Shortly after this episode was filmed, the strange-looking Kopco Star sank in the Santa Barbara Channel, but its three-man crew was rescued by a passing freighter. A few years after that, Kopco’s replacement vessel, the “Ellwood”, sank with the loss of all hands.

Port Hueneme, in the late ’50s, was a sleepy fishing village that shared the harbor with a small navy base. As a kid, I spent many hours fishing, crabbing, and making a general nuisance of myself amongst the Portuguese and Italian fishermen.

Today, the sleeping fishing village has been replaced by a busy, modern commercial port. Fresh halibut, mackerel, and sardines have been replaced by Toyotas and bananas. The small homes and businesses have been torn down to make room for million-dollar condominiums. They call it “progress”.

*I would like to thank Steve Lawson and Jonathan Hanks for their help in the research and identification of the Kopco Star.

Pictures credit to Peter DenHaan of Progressive Diving Institute