PHILADELPHIA - Glenn Arthur looked at the massive ship next to him and figured it just might put Cape May on the scuba diving map.
In about one month, the 563-foot U.S. Navy destroyer USS Arthur W. Radford will be the largest ship ever turned into an artificial reef off the East Coast.
Arthur, chairman of the New Jersey Council of Diving Clubs, said Cape May will be the nearest launching site from New Jersey for scuba divers to reach it.
"Unfortunately, there really isn't much infrastructure for diving out of Cape May. We're hoping that will be the impetus to bring more business down there and we get more dive operators out of Cape May," Arthur said.
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For all the shipwrecks off Cape May, Arthur said the dive industry is not that significant. It is much larger in Atlantic and Ocean counties, he said.
That could change some time in mid-October when the Radford is towed to a site 30 miles from Cold Spring Inlet and scuttled. The ship's final resting place will be the Deljerseyland Reef, an underwater site for fishermen and scuba divers created by the states of New Jersey, Delaware and Maryland. The site is about equidistant from Cold Spring Inlet, Ocean City, Md., and Indian River Inlet, Del.
A private contractor, the Virginia-based American Marine Group, is busy here at the Philadelphia Naval Shipyard getting the Radford ready by removing anything toxic and eliminating objects that could become dangerous underwater snags for divers. The ship was opened to tours Friday for the first time since it was decommissioned in 2003.
Fishermen and scuba divers came to check the vessel out before it takes on a decidedly different look underwater.
"If you're a scuba diver, this is where you can see the whole boat stem to stern. I can just see fish swimming through here in my mind for when I go spear fishing," said Hugh Carberry, a Mays Landing resident and artificial reef coordinator for the state Division of Fish and Wildlife.
Carberry predicts the Radford will become a premier dive attraction in the Northeast. Though some reef shipwrecks have larger displacements, he noted the Radford will be the longest ship ever reefed on the East Coast.
Divers toured the ship Thursday and were able to see where Tomahawk missiles were launched and torpedoes were stored.
The purpose of the sinking the destroyer is to create and artificial reef to be used by divers and recreational fishermen.
Black sea bass and tautog will take over such places in a few weeks. Barnacles and blue mussels will colonize next spring while crabs and lobsters arrive to find places to hide.
Carberry said the ship is also expected to attract large oceanic fish such as bluefin tuna because it is so massive it will create something called upwelling. This will direct nutrient-rich waters from the sea floor up toward the surface, creating a food chain of plankton and baitfish that attracts larger fish.
Anglers were also among the visitors on Thursday as the Radford is expected to become a prime fishing ground.
"Our fishing club relies heavily on the artificial-reef program. The reefs have been the saving grace of the fishermen in New Jersey," said Bill Kleimenhagen, a Stafford Township resident and representative for the Beach Haven Marlin & Tuna Club.
Ron Nachmann, an angler from Stafford Township, and president of the South Jersey Saltwater Anglers Club, said the recreational fishing industry is in trouble as evidenced by the numerous boat slips available and boat manufacturers that have gone out of business. Nachmann said the reef could be a savior.
"If something isn't done the recreational fishing industry will slide underwater. This will be a boon to the recreational fishing industry," Nachmann said.
What's good for anglers, he said, is good for the local economy. As anglers buy bait, tackle, ice, gas, food and hotel rooms they spend money locally. Nachmann said the reefs may also help fisheries.
"The bays are in trouble with a lack of oxygen and dying eel grass. The reefs are becoming nursery grounds for baby fish," Nachmann said.
Turning the destroyer into an artificial reef will cost the three states $800,000.
Bill Figley, who started the project before retiring as New Jersey's reef coordinator, and who visited Thursday to see the ship, said the state's $200,000 share is coming entirely from the Anne Clark Foundation. Figley said the Navy is contributing $200,000 and similar shares from Delaware and Maryland are coming from Wallop-Breaux Act funds, which are from excise taxes on fishing equipment and motor boat fuel taxes.
American Marine Group submitted the low bid at $800,000 partly because the Radford had so much salvageable metal on it, such as copper and aluminum, which can be sold. The high bid was $4.5 million.
Brian Gehret of American Marine Group said so much material has been removed the Radford sits 10 feet higher in the water from when they started. The top 30 feet of the ship have been removed.
"We took off the superstructure and one piece weighed 12,000 pounds," Gehret said. "We were sending out 25,000 tons of copper pipe a week."
Gehret said they were told to leave the toilets, a fact Carberry confirmed. For some reason, the toilets, once sunk, make for some quirky and coveted photographs by scuba divers.
"That's like the classic scuba diving shot," Carberry said.
The size of the ship makes it perfect for all levels of diving. Carberry said beginners can reach the wheelhouse, novices the mid-section and the top of the sport, called "technical divers," can explore the bottom. Sunk in 140 feet of water, the top of the wheelhouse will be 75 feet from the ocean surface.
"It's the perfect dive," Carberry said.
The clean-up crew also found some Radford history, including some love letters penned by sailors, but never mailed.
"We found a couple letters that were very racy," said Cody Spadaccino of American Marine Group.
Jeff Tinsman, administrator of Delaware's Reef Program, said the Coast Guard will determine when the weather is right to sink the ship. Tugboats will take it to the site.
"We'll anchor it and cut holes 18 inches to 2 feet from the water line. We'll open the sea cocks and within one hour it will sink," Tinsman said.
He said the public will be invited to watch, and negotiations are going on with the Cape May-Lewes Ferry to provide an excursion to the event.
Navy veterans who served aboard the Radford are expected here Saturday and will be invited to the sinking. Kleimenhagen, a Stafford Township resident, is a Navy veteran who served in the Vietnam War from 1967-71. Though he did not serve on the Radford, Kleimenhagen said he served on similar ships and understands the emotions they will go through.
"As an old Navy man, I look at the sinking with a little sorrow but it will serve a glorious end as a reef. It will teach young anglers to fish for 100 years," Kleimenhagen said.
About the USS Arthur W. Radford
- Original homeport: Norfolk, Va.
- Present location: Philadelphia
- Keel: Laid in 1974
- Launched: March 1, 1975
- Commissioned: April 16, 1977
- Decommissioned: March 18, 2003
- Highlights: Deployed In Operation Enduring Freedom. Has visited Venezuela, Panama, Argentina, Brazil, Senegal, Oman, Bahrain, Nova Scotia, Italy, Turkey and the Azores.
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