Santa Barbara dive boat captain found guilty of seaman’s manslaughter

November 7, 2023


A jury on Monday found the captain of the Santa Barbara-based dive boat that burst into flames in 2019, killing 33 passengers and one crew member, guilty of a federal felony offense.

Jerry Nehl Boylan, 69, of Santa Barbara, was found guilty of one count of misconduct or neglect of ship officer – an offense commonly called “seaman’s manslaughter” – a crime punishable by up to 10 years in federal prison. According to evidence presented at a 10-day trial, Boylan, as captain of the Conception, committed a series of failures – including abandoning his ship instead of rescuing passengers.

“Mr. Boylan’s failure to carry out his duties as Captain of the Conception led to the catastrophic loss of 34 victims who suffered a horrifying death and perished needlessly in the end,” said Donald Alway, the assistant director in charge of the FBI’s Los Angeles Field Office. “Let this tragedy be a lesson to anyone who commands a boat with vulnerable passengers that proper training, diligence and life saving measures – when called for – are necessary to safeguard those left in one’s charge.”

The Conception, a 75-foot commercial diving vessel, was anchored off the north side of Santa Cruz Island for a weekend diving excursion. During the early morning hours of Sept. 2, 2019, a fire engulfed the boat and led to its sinking, resulted in the deaths of 34 people who had been sleeping below deck. Five crew members, including Boylan, escaped and survived.

As the ship’s captain, Boylan was responsible for the safety and security of the vessel, its passengers, and its crew. The jury found he failed in his responsibilities in several ways, including by:

  • failing to have a night watch or roving patrol;
  • failing to conduct sufficient fire drills and crew training;
  • failing to provide firefighting instructions or directions to crewmembers after the fire started;
  • failing to use firefighting equipment, including a fire ax and fire extinguisher that were next to him in the wheelhouse, to fight the fire or attempt to rescue trapped passengers;
  • failing to perform any lifesaving or firefighting activities whatsoever at the time of the fire, even though he was uninjured;
  • failing to use the boat’s public address system to warn passengers and crewmembers about the fire; and becoming the first crewmember to abandon ship even though 33 passengers and one crewmember were still alive and trapped below deck in the vessel’s bunkroom and in need of assistance to escape.


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What a terrible incident, but the fact is maritime law is different than State law it comes from a time when you were required to execute your duties in an honorable way. The Master of a vessel is responsible for passenger and crew safety. Unlike our public officials and law enforcement who are seldom held responsible for their actions or inactions today.

I guess the old saying of “A captain goes down with his ship” is a myth, plus been told we have no legal expectation of protection from LEO’s, they have no responsibility to do so, that should change.