Free divers survey Matador wreck

by Garth Meyer

Free divers Lance Lee Davis and Johnny Carabajal were training just off of Veterans Park the morning of Feb. 9 when a Harbor Patrol boat pulled up to their inflatable raft. The officer asked if they would dive on the wreck of the Matador. 

The King Harbor-based, 42-foot commercial fishing vessel had sunk the night before, a thousand feet off of Redondo Beach. Its four crew members were pulled from the water. 

“The (Patrol’s) concern was they wanted to make sure there weren’t floating debris that would come up,” said Davis, who worked in the marine stunt unit for “Avatar II” for five weeks in 2018 – filming motion-capture in a soundstage tank in Los Angeles.

“Because it was such a fresh wreck, there were still bubbles coming up,” Davis said. “The bubble trail made it very easy. We kept working, deeper, and got eyes on the wreck. You can touch it at 166 feet.”

To free dive that far down – free divers use no air tanks – he and Carabajal set a buoy at the surface and dropped a line into the water with a weight attached. 

“We need a straight line down,” Davis said.

Diving one by one, each took a 20-pound “variable” weight with them, connected to a separate line that they could pull up later. Its purpose was to help the diver descend quickly.

Carabajal already had a GoPro camera with him that morning.

“I’ve seen The Matador a thousand times (above water),” Davis said. “It was actually a very clear day. Sometimes it’s pitch black down there.” 

He estimated 40 feet of visibility at the site.

The Matador landed on the ocean floor – upright, heeled starboard with no obvious damage – about a half-mile from an artificial reef made from the old container ship “Pacawan.”

Davis said it took about a minute to get down to the Matador, a minute to swim around filming the scene, and another minute to return to the surface. 

On the descent, it took him six to seven kicks with his fins (and the 20-lb. variable weight) to get down 40 meters, the point where negative buoyancy makes you sink. Davis and later Carabajal, at that point, left the variable weight on the separate line and relaxed for 30 to 40 seconds in “free fall.” 


Lance Lee Davis briefs safety divers at last year’s “Vertical Green” free-diving competition in Redondo Beach. Photo by Rene Hallen


Without the the extra 20 pounds, it would have taken a diver 18 to 20 kicks to get to free fall. From the wreck, Davis said he needed about 60 kicks to get back to the surface. 

“It was a vertical, straight-down dive,” he said. “Technique really counts in free-diving because we’re so interested in efficiency.”

He noted he will not take any other divers to the Matador.

“It’s a free ocean, go find it, but I’m not going to take people to it,” he said. “Professional courtesy. The boat sank, it’s a business, they’re going to salvage it. If your neighbor’s house burnt down, you wouldn’t tell people, ‘Hey go pick through the rubble.’”

The Redondo Beach-based Davis teaches free diving through his company SoCal Spear-It.

“The water here is very, very clear. It’s just a matter of how much light penetrates,” he said. “The worst visibility is mostly going to be near the surface (because of populations of phytoplankton).”

In ‘variable-weight’ diving, “You still have to pull the weight up, but you can do that when you’re breathing,” said Davis.

Carabajal, of San Pedro, was the winner of “Vertical Green,” a free-dive competition held off of Redondo Beach last year. 

Davis has dived Hawaii’s Kona coast, in the Caribbean, the Mediterranean and other spots around the world. But Southern California is his favorite place, he said, because of the “ruggedness, the wildness” of the steep cliffs, the kelp forest off of the rocky bottom of Palos Verdes and the “Redondo Submarine Canyon” – an underwater crevice that runs right toward the beach off of the Pier.


Johnny Carabajal at the surface off of Redondo Beach last summer. Photo by Rene Hallen


“In 3-4 minutes of swimming, you’re in 200 feet of water,” Davis said.  

He was born in Singapore and lived his early years on a beach in Thailand, the son of a U.S. civilian contractor in Vietnam and a Chinese mother.

“My earliest memory is the taste of saltwater,” he said. 

Back in the U.S., Davis grew up in Arkansas where he became a competitive swimmer at age six.

He now holds the U.S. national free-dive record for “Constant Weight No-Fins” at 74 meters (242.7 feet).


Coast Guard investigates cause

A Coast Guard investigation followed after the sinking of the Matador off of King Harbor Feb. 8. The four survivors, who were pulled from the water by Harbor Patrol near 2:30 a.m., were interviewed by the Coast Guard the next day. 

“They haven’t indicated to us anything suspicious,” said Jason May, Harbor Patrol division chief/operations, a week later. “Though I don’t know that they would.”

A commercial dive operation has been hired to raise the boat, using air bags. The project was set to happen Feb. 22, but was put on hold due to unfavorable weather. ER


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