29 May 2009 • 11:35 am

Military Ship Sinks off Florida Coast

Today’s offering is a departure from the sometimes dry prose of change and strategy offered here. A story that began over sixty years ago culminated on Wednesday in the very wet Atlantic Ocean about six miles off of Key West, Florida. A story of remarkable tenacity.

On Wednesday 27 May, the USS Gen. Hoyt S. Vandenberg, a 523-foot, 10-story-high ship, disappeared beneath the ocean’s surface as thousands watched from boats. The Vandenberg, a decommissioned military ship that had been used to transport World War II troops, bring refugees to freedom, spy on Russians during the Cold War and serve as a sci-fi thriller set, is now the world’s second largest, intentionally sunk artificial reef.

“It was a little smoky, but she went down perfectly,” dive boat captain Joe Weatherby said Wednesday of the scuttling, 14 years in the making. “This is the happiest day of my life.”

For the past 13 years, Weatherby’s been lobbying, proposing, and researching to bring the Vandenberg to Key West. Weatherby examined roughly 400 obsolete ships in the United States Military’s fleet, and set eyes on the Vandenberg at the ship’s last home in the James River. He formed his non-profit organization, Artificial Reefs of the Keys, in 1999 for the specific purpose of creating the artificial reef off Key West. “She caught my eye because she’s big and unique,” Weatherby said. “The radar dishes are iconic I think. I like all ships, but I prefer something like this for a reef because she has so much structure. We picked one that looked cool and would hold a lot of fish.”

At over 520 feet and 13,000 tons, the Vandenberg is among the largest ships ever intentionally sunk for this purpose, and is the largest wreck in the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary. This ship is expected to become a world-class diving destination, but will also offer many other benefits to the environment and to education and research. Meticulously cleaned and prepared, the vessel will become a habitat and breeding site for countless marine species.


According to ARK’s website, Joe had been involved in his youth with a marina that his father owned on the seacoast in New Jersey, where he gave sailing lessons, went fishing, conducted repairs of vessels and was involved in the management of the business. After college he was part owner of a diving business in Key West, including wreck diving, reef diving, deep diving, and spear fishing. He was the driving force behind the ARK project, passionately and tenaciously engaging the extraordinary fund raising, political, legal (a ‘mountain of permits’), environmental, and project management challenges for nearly fourteen years. At several critical junctures the project was in jeopardy, and the ship came within hours of being repossessed because of a missed payment to a contractor. But Joe stuck with it, and today his dream is a reality.

The Tortoise offers an admiring nod to this outstanding role model for the tenacity to get an important job done.

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