Crews cut holes in the Tamaroa’s hull Wednesday in preparation for its sinking 26 nautical miles southeast of Cape May.
In a nearby viewing boat, Howard Cohen pointed out the room where he spent a lot of time in the early 1970s.
Cohen, 66, of Galloway Township, worked the radio. He sent and decoded top-secret messages in Morse code aboard the 205-foot U.S. Coast Guard vessel, which later gained fame for rescues, including a 1991 incident that inspired the book and film “The Perfect Storm.”
The Tamaroa, which also served the Navy under the name Zuni during World War II, was sunk Wednesday afternoon to become part of an artificial reef.
About 15 veterans who served on the Tamaroa boarded a Cape May-based party boat along with members of the media to view the sinking. For some, it was an emotional event.
“I told my kids and wife, (it’s) the end of a chapter in my life,” Cohen said. “It’s not just the Tamaroa. It’s everything of that time period.”
“We had a lot of good times on the boat,” said Bob Klaman, 63, of Cape May, who served on the Tamaroa in 1977 and 1978. “To see her go down, there was a lot of history.”
Near the planned deployment site, crews cut holes into the side of the 74-year-old vessel, which had been stripped of interior paneling and insulation. A hose was used to pump water into the ship.
At first, the Tamaroa dipped slowly, but once the water crashed onto the deck, the cutter began to sink quickly. It went lopsided and plunged into the 135-foot deep ocean, with the tip of the bow going in last.
“It went down perfectly,” said Peter Clarke, artificial reef coordinator for the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection.
The decommissioned Coast Guard ship joined other military vessels, including a 563-foot retired Navy destroyer, on the Del-Jersey-Land Inshore Reef. Clarke said fish will begin to explore the structure within days, while mussels and soft coral start to inhabit the ship in the coming months.
Artificial reefs attract concentrations of wildlife, which, in turn, draw fishermen and divers to the area.
“New Jersey’s coast really doesn’t have any natural habitats or structures, unlike New England north of us,” Clarke said.
Funding for the state’s artificial reef program was restored last year following a five-year hiatus due to concern commercial fishermen were impeding recreational anglers on the reefs. Clarke said about eight vessels have been deployed since the funding was restored.
The Delaware Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control, the lead agency in the deployment, contributed about 75 percent of the funding for the Tamaroa project, while the New Jersey DEP pitched in 25 percent.
Larry Eckerton, who said he was coming on the party boat to “say goodbye to an old friend,” would have rather seen the Tamaroa turned into a museum. But making it into a habitat for sea life isn’t a bad option, he said.
“Putting her to good use as a reef,” said Eckerton, 62, of Slatington, Pennsylvania, who served on the vessel from 1975 to 1978. “I think she’ll be around for a generation.”
“I want to fish her,” Klaman added.
The Tamaroa’s most famous rescue came in 1991, when the ship rescued three boaters and four out of five crew members from a downed New York Air National Guard Helicopter during a powerful storm.
The events inspired the book “The Perfect Storm” by Sebastian Junger, which was later made into a movie of the same name starring George Clooney and Mark Wahlberg.
Decades earlier, the ship served as a Navy tug during World War II, participating in the Battle of Iwo Jima. It then served the Coast Guard for nearly five decades before being decommissioned in 1994.
“Didn’t go too fast but it was a powerhouse,” Cohen said.
A round of applause filtered around the party boat in the moments after the Tamaroa sunk beneath the surface.
“It was an honor to serve on something historic like that,” said Klaman, who remembered battling 40-foot waves on the ship off the coast of Cape Hatteras, North Carolina.
“We had a lot of fun memories,” Cohen said. “But we worked hard.”