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Details key in creating artificial reef

After 10 years of planning, project organizers are ready to see their ship sink.

Associated Press
Published April 4, 2005

KEY WEST - It sounds like a simple proposition: Bring a new artificial reef to one of the nation's top diving and tourism destinations.

But legally sinking a 520-foot military ship in one most sensitive ecosystems in the country takes years of planning, millions of dollars and precision.

Just ask Artificial Reefs of the Keys, the group that has been working for nearly 10 years to raise the $2.9-million and win permission to sink the Gen. Hoyt S. Vandenberg off Key West.

Every door, hatch and console ripped out and hole placed in the Vandenberg must be carefully thought out. Exactly how, when and where the former transport and intelligence ship will be deployed off the shores of Key West must be carefully planned and executed. No detail can be overlooked.

The project is being closely scrutinized by half a dozen government agencies, especially vigilant after the botched sinking of the Spiegel Grove , which capsized off Key Largo in 2002.

Concerns about hurricanes moving large sunken ships have also raised the bar for such projects in recent years. There must be nearly $1-million put away or in insurance in case everything they planned, studied and analyzed for nine years doesn't work and the ship doesn't sink right.

"We're not just dropping it, we're placing it. We're launching this ship on its final duty, as an underwater classroom and laboratory and recreational destination," said Capt. Joe Weatherby, project organizer. "This ship has taken longer to sink than build it from scratch. The paperwork took 10 years and the actual sinking will take less than 3 minutes."

Some of the brightest minds in the businesses of ship building and creating artificial reefs are working on the project to make sure everything goes as planned and that, even years later, the ship won't shift on its side or be tossed around, Weatherby said.

The organizers, a group called Artificial Reefs of the Keys, plan to place the Hoyt Vandenberg in 130 feet of water 7 miles from shore. The wreck will serve as an artificial reef for diving and fishing.

Towers and satellite antennas will rise 6 feet from the surface allowing beginner, intermediate and advance divers to access it.

Local divers say the wreck will be a welcome relief to the monotony of diving the aging Cayman Salvager and Joe's Tug , the latter discovered by and named after Weatherby.

Engineers with the Stevens Institute of Technology of New Jersey have created and begun testing a scale model of the ship to understand what it will take to sink the ship correctly and how it will float during its voyage from Virginia to Florida.

Ship models are usually done to discover how to keep a ship afloat, not sink it. However, the company has sunk 14 ships and only one didn't end up keel down, said Dr. Michael Bruno, an ocean engineer with Stevens.

In a sinking, the physical characteristics and structural integrity of a ship change dramatically, Bruno said. Displacement of weight and how the vessel performs on the tow must be studied thoroughly.

"Since 1920, we have been trying to keep boats afloat and now we are coming up with ideas on the best way to sink one," Bruno said.

Organizers also formed Reefmakers, a group of experts in large ship and artificial reef construction. Along with experts with the Stevens Institute, the group includes a group of Canadian ship deployment experts that have sunk 18 large military ships keel down, worldwide, in a row, Weatherby said.

The ship now rests along the James River abutting Fort Eustis in Newport News, Va., where it has stayed since 1984. It made only one brief return to the sea, serving as the backdrop of the 1996 movie Virus.

If the organizers succeed, the ship will begin its final journey by being towed downstream to a nearby shipyard where workers begin cleaning and clearing the ship.

Years of hazardous materials, oil, hydraulic fluids and other petroleum projects must be removed. The engine room and other compartments must be pumped clean and triple rinsed. Any loose piling and paint must be stripped from the ship. Navigation devices and electronic equipment containing mercury must be removed.

Then it's on to the PCBs. Oil from transformers to voltage regulators and electronic magnets must be carted off and disposed of properly. Solid PCBs such as gaskets, cable, lanterns and batteries will be removed.

Workers will then cut holes that will allow for even sinking and later serve as access holes for scuba divers and marine life. Most of the openings to sink it will be cut at a marina closer to Key West or at anchor.

Cleaning and prep work should take at least six months, said Jeff Dey, an environmental scientist working on the project.

The ship will be towed to a marina in the Keys or elsewhere in South Florida for the final preparations, a process that should take three weeks, Dey said.

The goal is also to make it easy for fish, divers and light to pass through. The holes also make for a quicker and more stable landing on the sea floor. Proper flooding of water and air is a must.

"You never want air on top of water," Dey said.

Enormous anchors are attached to secure it to the ocean floor. Shaped cutting charges will be put on board that burn holes through the steel instantly, Weatherby said.

The charges will be set both below the water line and just above the waterline.

If the weather holds up, kaboom.

[Last modified April 4, 2005, 15:22:26]

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