Yesterday I was invited to watch the sinking of a piece of history. This was probably the best birthday present I have ever received, thank you to the state of Delaware for the invite. I was also covering this for Delaware State News. I arrived at the Delaware Bay Launch service in slaughter beach at five in the morning, the boat was leaving at five thirty. The Tamaroa was already underway the day before to the designated area, the Del-Jersey-Land Reef site. There were press people, locals and national, the weather channel had a drone pilot. Local photographer John Lloyd Jr. met me there he saw my post on Facebook and I got him on the launch at the last-minute. He also brought his drone. This was probably the most documented boat sinking ever for this area. We had five drones, phones, cameras, and a lot of company.
When I boarded the launch I hear a voice say “Hey man, don’t tie any towels on my rail” I nearly fell over laughing. Captain Pete Hesson is standing there with an ear to ear grin. Now I knew this trip was going to be even more fun. Pete is good people and I spent the whole day talking fishing and of course the trash us anglers talk. I met Captain Stewart Sadler our other pilot for the day and we helped everyone load up their gear. Pete said we had forty-three inches of fuel, apparently an inch equals fifteen gallons. I never get on a boat unless I know it has fuel, it is a rule of mine thanks to past experiences. Don’t ask, but I will say never run out of fuel inside the Indian River Inlet on a hard outgoing tide, just saying. Off we went out of the Misipillion inlet at Slaughter beach. I realized that is the first time I have been out of that inlet, I usually come out of Lewes.
We had a forty mile trip to get to the Del-Jersey-Land Reef location. Everyone got settled in and many were taking cat naps or chatting up the crew from Coleen Marine Inc who would be sinking the Tamaroa. They have sunk every boat at the Del Jersey reef site, so this would be a cake walk for them. We were told we would be done by one in the afternoon, my editor at Delaware State News was hoping to get the story a half hour after that, didn’t happen, cell phones stop working after about ten miles. Which in many cases is a blessing if you spend all day using a phone for work, or a nightmare if you spend all day using a phone for work. I took it as a blessing, it was my birthday and I was having too much fun talking to the launch captains, and some of the Coleenn Marine Inc. crew. We all fish, so you can imagine the lies in that wheelhouse. Except for the pictures of the barracuda that was caught in the Delaware Bay last year, yup, that happened.
When we finally arrived at the Del Jersey reef area, the Tamaroa was undertow by the Tug boat Justin out of Norfolk, Virginia. Those boys were just cruising in circles until we arrived. Jeff Tinsmen, head of the artificial reef program for Delaware had to drop a buoy on the exact coordinates he wanted the ship sunk. “We have been trying to hit this mark every time we drop a boat, hopefully today we manage that. It isn’t easy to sink a large ship in an exact spot.” The buoy was set with two large cinder blocks and about two hundred feet of rope. Once the mark was set the crew from Coleen Marine Inc. was loaded aboard the Tamaroa. They had to finish preparing the boat to be sunk, by removing large sections that were already cut through. This was a rather long tedious process, once in a while you would see sparks from acetylene torches along the cut edges. Then hear a huge bang from a sledge-hammer and a section would drop into the ocean. Just making holes was the job of the day.
Since we were all media on the launch all we could really do is take pictures and launch drones. Discovery channel had a crew on the Tamaroa documenting the sinking of this historic vessel. The Weather Channel had Skygear Solutions there with the coolest drone I have ever seen in action. This thing would launch and then the camera would lower and the blades would rise. It looked like something out of a terminator movie. The jokes at that point were, let’s have a drone war in the air while we wait. I’m pretty sure that big drone could waste our little phantoms. I spent some time talking with Jay Little about fishing of course and some fishery issues. One thing I like about Jay is he gets it when it comes to our troubled fishery in Delaware, especially the bay.
Eventually the crew was ready to be brought back on board the launch. Just before we were about to do that, the marker buoy was hung up in the Tamaro’s rudder and was dragged a couple hundred yards it turns out. Captain Stewart and I pulled the line up and we tried to hold the blocks about mid-water while Captain Pete readjusted our position. If you haven’t tried to hold a small nylon rope attached to two twenty plus pound cinder blocks while rolling about six knots you aren’t missing anything. It is an experience I do not recommend. We had to let go and pull the blocks out of the water and reset our position, that was another experience I don’t recommend. Big thanks to Mike Duncan at Helly Hansen for the killer gloves, or my hands would have been stripped of a lot of skin. We eventually got the buoy reset and then brought the crew aboard. Now all we had to do was wait for the water to do its job. A five dollar per guess pool was started to see who could come the closest to the time the Tamaroa would sink. It was twelve thirty, tick tock, tick tock. Now if you thought waiting for the crews to get done took a while, which was like watching paint dry. The anticipation for the Tamaroa to take on more water and sink was an experience.
When we first arrived in the early morning, the Tamaroa was sitting really high in the water. Well above her normal water line. I kept thinking it is going to take a long time to sink this boat. One of the Coleen Marine crew mentioned that they would pump a lot of water into her to sink her while they worked on these holes. “You can spend all day cutting holes and miss your projected time by hours, but you punch a garden hose size hole in her at the dock, go drink a beer, come back, and she is on the bottom, such is the way of life sinking boats for a living.” Once the crew was finished and came aboard the launch, the water line was two feet from one of the larger holes cut in the side which at this point was a door to off load gear and crew members. She was slowly sinking all morning, but you didn’t get that perspective watching it the whole time.
While all of this was going on we were getting more and more company. The Coast Guard’s forty-four out of Indian River was the first audience member to show. Then DNREC popped up with their new boat and a marine police boat. Two coast guard cutters out of Cape May dropped in and one of their skiffs. I don’t think I have seen that many Coast Guard ships in one spot when there wasn’t an emergency. The Coast Guard did a fly by with the bird out of Cape May, that was cool! She ripped by in the sky, engines screaming, and circled a few times with everyone waving and cheering. We did see a fishing boat in the distance headed our way, most likely to fish. Until they saw all those official boats in the vicinity. We had a lot of jokes about what was going through their heads. “Hey what’s going on? I dunno, but just drive casual and get us the heck out of here!” was the funniest, and you had to be there. The best visitor was the Porgy IV out of New Jersey she was loaded with veterans that all served on the Tamaroa at some point when she was in service and when she was the tug Zini. That was moving to see the deck loaded with all of those folks, thank you all for your service.
We are now at twelve fifty and the water line is six inches from the large opening cut by the Coleen Marine crew. You can hear the water pouring into her holds below, above the diesel engines in our launch. It was about to happen, tick tock, tick tock. Four people have missed the mark in the pool. Since we were the launch for the Coleen Marine Inc. crew we got the up close and personal look. Seriously, at one point we were all but up against her so the crew could document everything, drones were deployed, five in the sky. The tug Justin had a rope on the Tamaroa holding position. Tick Tock, tick tock, water line is at the bottom of the hole. The roar of water rushing in is loud, and she is starting to list more and more. Each rocking of the boat brings in more water. Now she starts to fill up and sink, it is one o’clock, our marked time for her to be on the bottom. Pool is now down two more people. She has been sinking all day, but this is the final leg. Tick Tock, tick tock. The Tamaroa is full of water, and almost on her side, the call comes in from the tug Justin. “Do we keep the rope on? The answer is no, she is fully committed now, let her loose”. Tick Tock, tick tock she is about to sink.
The process of preparing the Tamaroa was started at the docks, and completed out at sea at the Del-Jersey-Land Reef site. That took hours. Now the Tamaroa, fully committed is about to go to her final resting place. She sank in less than two minutes. It was surreal to watch. The ship rolled slowly on its side, the stern went under first and the sound of the air being forced out was tremendously loud and scary. Then she literally straightened up under water and the stern full of water pulled her down. She dropped under in less than a minute once the whole process kicked into full swing. That was amazing to watch and frightening. You could see that on the faces of some folks who knew boats and just how dangerous that situation would be if you were on a sinking ship. A shudder of sorts went through all of us who understood that, especially my captains.
Captain Pete pulled the launch around and we all ran to the wheelhouse to watch the scopes. We could see the bubbles on the scope but they were blurring out any images. The launch was surrounded by bubbles, the water was white. Once that cleared up you could see the Tamaroa, sitting up right on the bottom. There was a plume of bubbles coming out of the stern still and you could see that on the scope. We marked the coordinates. Boom! Right on the money! Jeff Tinsman was very pleased X marks the spot. “It was an awesome day. The Tamaroa landed upright and that is more than we could have hoped. The fact she landed right where I wanted it was a bonus. Divers will be able to explore her, they prefer up right boats.” The Tamaroa hit bottom at four minutes past one in the afternoon. That was very close to the projected time for the day. I have no idea who won the pool. I was out when she sunk earlier than my guess … who knew, this was my first ship sinking.
The Coleen Marine crew were tired, wet, and covered in orange rust. Hands stained from a day of working in a flooded ship. I have a lot of respect for that job, one which I don’t think I would like to do, seriously. You are thirty miles off the coast trying to sink a ship you are aboard. Its kind of like skydiving, which I have also done once on my birthday, once. Who jumps out of a perfectly good airplane? It is the best comparison I have for the job the Coleen Marine Inc. people perform. I spoke with Tim Mullane, Henry Houck, Steve Divers, and Reggie Stubbs about the job at hand afterwards. “It always takes a lot of preparation time before the boat can actually sink”. Back at the docks Tim Mullane told me ... “Great Day! We have her all cleaned out, no insulation is left. It will make a great habitat for sea life. With the other ships in the vicinity, the Tamaroa should populate with life quickly and make a great reef structure. We will be diving her in about two weeks just to check things out”
The Del-Jersey-Land Reef is now heavy one ship, the Tamaroa. She now lies with the Gregory Poole, Atlantic Mist, the Sheerwater, the Radford, and three hundred subway cars. The Tamaroa’s coordinates are 38 degrees 31.144 N by 74 degrees 30.747 W, smack dab in the middle of the Del-Jersey-Land Reef , in about a hundred and twenty-five feet of water. We are going to go out in two weeks and fish her for sea bass. Within forty-eight hours she will be covered with fish.
In a year or less she will cover with sea life and become a full living reef. We finished cleaning up, stowed the gear, and headed back to Slaughter beach, heavy one small bird that was flying back and forth from the Tamaroa all day to our launch. Delaware just gained a new bird and more structure to fish.
This was the best birthday experience ever! Thanks to everyone involved.
Skygear Solutions Drone footage of the Tamaroa
DNREC Press Release …
ATLANTIC OCEAN 38° 31.200’N 074° 30.700’W (May 10, 2017) – The 205-foot US Coast Guard Cutter Tamaroa – believed to be the last surviving ship that took direct part in the amphibious landings during the Battle of Iwo Jima as the tug Zuni and later famed for daring rescues during 1991’s “Perfect Storm” of the book and film by that name – was sunk today approximately 26 nautical miles from both Lewes, Del., and Cape May, N.J., onto an artificial reef that enhances recreational opportunities off the coast of the states that partnered in sending her down.
The sinking onto the Del-Jersey-Land Inshore Reef was carried out by Norfolk, Va.-based marine contractor Coleen Marine for the Delaware Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control in partnership with New Jersey’s Department of Environmental Protection. Built and commissioned as harbor tug in 1943 in the Pacific Northwest,Zuni/Tamaroa was scuttled in Atlantic waters she plied as a USCG cutter for almost 50 years.
“The Zuni/Tamaroa has a renowned history at sea that now extends to Delaware’s artificial reef system – which has earned its own renown by contributing to both the state’s environment and economy, creating habitat that attracts fish, which in turn draw boaters, anglers and divers,” Delaware Governor John Carney said. “Projects such as the Del-Jersey-Land Reef are a direct link to our environmental health and to what Delaware’s doing economically in creating new habitat where there was none, and the Zuni/Tamaroastrengthens that link.”
“The Zuni/Tamaroa is a boon to Delaware’s artificial reef system that’s supported our recreational fishing industry for more than 20 years by expanding habitat,” said DNREC Secretary Shawn M. Garvin. “Our reef system has grown steadily through DNREC’s dedicated efforts and strong partnerships with federal agencies and our neighboring states. Reefing the Zuni/Tamaroa is another good investment in Delaware’s conservation economy, both enhancing outdoor recreational opportunities and benefiting marine life by as outstanding habitat.”
Zuni/Tamaroa was sunk on the Del-Jersey-Land Reef at a depth of about 125 feet, joining the former Army freighter turned Navy support ship Shearwater, the minesweeper Gregory Poole, and the 563-foot destroyer U.S.S. Arthur W. Radford – the largest vessel ever deployed off the East Coast as an artificial reef, and also sunk in a partnership with New Jersey. The Del-Jersey-Land Reef, jointly managed by Delaware, New Jersey and Maryland, was established 10 years ago specifically for reefing former military vessels.
Plans to restore the Tamaroa as a living history museum fell through over the ship’s advanced age and costly repairs that made such a plan unfeasible. Instead, Tamaroa was prepared for reef deployment by undergoing extensive environmental preparation that included removal of interior paneling and insulation and draining of fuel and hydraulic fluids. All tests were approved by the US Environmental Protection Agency and the ship also met Coast Guard standards for sinking as an artificial reef.
Older vessels such as the Tamaroa are ideally suited for artificial reefs “because of all the voids and cavities in them below deck – the perfect sanctuary for fish,” said Delaware reef coordinator Jeff Tinsman. “Not long after the sinking, the fish will start to come inside her hull and decks to seek protection from predators and bottom currents. Within a few weeks, blue mussels, sponges, barnacles and soft corals will attach themselves to the structure, and in about a year the reef will be fully productive – for fish and anglers alike.”
Delaware paid for the bulk of the Zuni/Tamaroa’s acquisition, preparation and sinking, using federal aid in Sport Fish Restoration Funds, with matching funds provided by New Jersey DEP, which received support from The Sportfishing Fund.
To learn more on Delaware’s artificial reef program, please visit:http://www.dnrec.delaware.gov/fw/Fisheries/Pages/ArtificialReefProgram.aspx. For more on New Jersey’s artificial reef program: http://www.state.nj.us/dep/fgw/artreef.htm.