Fred Benko — who built the Sea Landing center on the waterfront and captained the Condor and Condor Express to fame as the best whale-watching boats in the world — died Thursday morning, and it is impossible to think of the Santa Barbara Harbor without him. He was 73 years old.
It’s also hard to think that Captain Fred won’t be around all the numerous nonprofit events he attended and supported with his longtime wife, Hiroko. “Hello, you beautiful woman!” he’d say — to every woman — and, to his friends and acquaintances and fishermen and philanthropists alike, he’d give a strong handshake, a grin, and unique pleasantness.
Though a salty character most known for his association with the sea and the harbor, Fred was also a serious singer who toured Europe and helped form the Santa Barbara Civic Light Opera. He got his start at the age of 8 as a soprano in a boys’ choir, performing at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Akron, Ohio. He was paid a quarter for each rehearsal. He sang in Handel’s Messiah, and did a lot of Bach — “Remember,” he once said, “this was an Episcopalian church.”
By the time he wrapped it up with the boys’ choir at the age of 14, Benko had gone from soprano to bass, but he quit singing to play football. He once said his real singing got its start in the Marine Corps, but then he “got into the wrong crowd” and spent a couple of years on the beaches of North and South Carolina, Georgia, and elsewhere, “running around with a guitar and singing for beer.”
He eventually landed in Washington, D.C., performing at the Cellar Door in Georgetown and, after that, the Bitter End in New York City. In 1963, he toured Europe as a solo act in a U.S. Food and Agriculture exhibition of American music. He was about to perform in Amsterdam when John F. Kennedy was assassinated. “They loaded us on a plane the next morning and brought us home,” Benko recalled.
He met his first wife, Patricia, on that plane and ditched singing to become a corporate salesman as well as a father to a son, Matt, and daughter, Dody. During one of his West Coast trips, he discovered Santa Barbara and gave up sales for fishing. The Santa Barbara Harbor became his home.
In 1973, Captain Fred founded a charter service on the breakwater side of the harbor, where he moored the Hornet and other boats that took people sport fishing, out to the Channel Islands, and on evening coastal cruises. (From the beach, you could hear his party cruises from very far away!)
When Fred’s business was moved to the other side of the harbor, he wasn’t so happy about it and worried that he’d lose business because all the tourists were on the breakwater, not “way over there.” But away he went, to the other side, where he established Sea Landing with its own building and series of docks for his sport fishing boats Hornet, Island Fox, and Sea Hawk, which were moored next to an impressive fleet of dive boats and the original Condor, built in 1979. Many a boat captain today will say they got their training, sea legs, and love of the sea from Fred Benko.
In 1985, Captain Fred sold his boats and the Sea Landing itself to Glen Fritzler so that he could go into whale watching full-time. When submarine blasting was halted in the Santa Barbara Channel, the whales — grays, humpbacks, finbacks, and even the majestic blues — began to come back. Fred took the greatest pride in saying that anyone who wanted a near-guarantee to see a blue whale came to Santa Barbara for that purpose — and they did come from all over, including Japan, Germany, and Australia.
In 2002, Fred launched the new, modern Condor Express, and his business became even more renowned. Mat Curto, who came to work for Benko in 1995, became operations manager for the Condor Express cruise business, giving Fred more time to talk to people about marine life.
A few of us remembering Captain Fred now will see him in our minds’ eye as Dick Deadeye in the Civic Light Opera performance of Gilbert and Sullivan’s H.M.S. Pinafore at the Lobero Theatre. At the time, we all thought he’d been typecast: the villainous pirate with the black eyepatch. “He’s an ugly son-of-a-gun, and he has bad habits,” said Benko of the role, with a big laugh. “He has a pessimistic attitude, so the crew hates him. At one point, they throw him overboard, but he crawls back on board again.”
Ah, Fred! You have gone to the Great Overboard in the Sky, and you’re not going to crawl back on board again. What can we do but wish you a bon voyage and hopes that your sailing is peaceful. We give our love to Matt and Dody, your sisters Kathy and Diane, your mother Dorothy (oh, those bridge games we played!), and of course Hiroko, who voyaged by your side as your wife for 28 years.
Hillary Hauser, a pianist as well as executive director of Heal the Ocean, once provided piano accompaniment for Fred Benko’s private solo performance of Schubert’s “Ave Maria.”