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Anatomy of a Shipwreck

It all started by chance at Sharkey's bar in Key Largo in 1994. Several of us who had been involved in the 1987 sinking the U.S. Coast Guard cutters Bibb and Duane as artificial reefs started playing "what if." What if we wanted to sink another ship as a dive attraction? What kind of ship should it be? Where would we get it? How would we fund it? 

Bill Harrigan, an underwater photographer and NOAA's first manager for the Key Largo National Marine Sanctuary, sat in on the meeting. We knew there was a whole fleet of moth-balled U.S. Navy ships up on the James River in Virginia. Since Bill knew his way around Virginia and the Navy, he was the logical volunteer to go scout the fleet. He came home with photos of the 512-foot Spiegel Grove. The quest had officially begun. 

We knew the whole project would revolve around funding, and since it only cost us about $350,000 to clean, tow and sink the two USCG cutters, we assumed we could sink this one for about $300,000. After all, this was only one ship. How expensive could that be? Little did we know…

At the time, I was doing a lot of commercial photography for Mercury Marine; it offered us a sweetheart price on a 21-foot boat with outboard and trailer, which we raffled to help raise funds. Between that, local donations and some money left in the kitty after the last project, we increased the bank account to about $90,000. The Monroe County (Florida Keys) Tourist Development Council (TDC) then stepped in with the promise of significant funding to complete the project. After all, a new wreck on the bottom would put heads in beds, so it was a good investment. Without the support of the TDC the project would have stalled right there. 

Fast forward past all the red tape of getting the Maritime Administration to transfer title of the Spiegel Grove and then getting the Environmental Protection Agency to accept our plan for ridding the vessel of potential contaminants. Well, not all that fast, I guess, for if you look at the project's chronology, those steps took five years. Then, the hard work really began. 

Once the county had title to the ship, the expense clock started ticking. The Spiegel Grove went to a shipyard, presumably to be cleaned and made ready for sinking. The contractors were really quite good at finding scrap metal from the ship to sell for their profit, but not nearly so good at finishing the contracted cleaning work. Incredibly, over the course of a summer they had used up all our money and left the project far from finished. (Piracy is alive and well in the shipwreck business.) With dockage fees alone costing $1,500 per day, it soon seemed likely that the Spiegel Grove would have to be sold for scrap. 

So let's examine the situation we found ourselves in at that moment: 

We had raised $90,000 and were promised another $268,000 by the county, but their funds would be paid only when the vessel was sitting on the bottom. More than $350,000 had already been spent on preparing the Spiegel Grove, yet the ship was not adequately cleaned. And the ship was still in Virginia costing $1,500 per day in dockage fees. We were upside down on this wreck by more than a quarter-million dollars, and costs continued to accumulate. Things looked very dire indeed. Worse, this was all taking place in the fall of 2001. America had just experienced the terrorist attacks of 9/11, and tourism had dropped to almost zero in the Florida Keys. 

We organized an emergency meeting of Key Largo dive shops, banks and other business interests to decide what to do. Lots of possible solutions were thrown about that night, but the only one that resonated was my suggestion to get all dive operators to agree to charge a $10 medallion fee to dive the artificial reefs of the Upper Keys. After all, it takes real money to put these wrecks on the bottom, and it was only fair that the users would pay an access fee, at least until we retired the debt. Based on this as a business plan, and the generous willingness of several dive shops to cosign a note, local banks provided the funding to finish the cleaning of the Spiegel Grove and tow it to Key Largo. By January 2002, the cost of our $300,000 shipwreck project reached $1 million. 

It should have been easy from then on. We had bank loans and further finance commitments from Monroe County. All we had to do was get the ship cleaned and ready to sink. Rob Bleser, the newly appointed project manager, has lots of stories about what he went through to make all that happen — to keep the yard-pirates from stealing the propellers for scrap and to satisfy the EPA requirements. Thanks to his efforts, on May 8, 2002, the EPA declared the Spiegel Grove free of contamination. It was soon towed from Virginia to Key Largo.

Armchair quarterbacks will look at how quickly and efficiently the Vandenberg sank and wonder why there was so much trouble sinking the Spiegel Grove. The difference comes down to cutting charges, which blow out huge sections of the hull in a timed sequence, thereby controlling and accelerating the sinking. Our permit to sink the Spiegel Grove denied us the use of cutting charges for fear of harming marine life. Instead, we were required to pump water into interior compartments of the ship, forcing the vessel low enough in the water so that openings cut into the hull would ultimately be overcome. 

Why did the vessel began to sink stern-first? We speculated an interior bulkhead broke, prematurely flooding the engine compartment, but no one knows for sure what happened. When the stern hit the bottom at 130 feet, the bow of our 520-foot ship was still above water and the air trapped in the hull completely upside down. 

The first time I saw the Spiegel Grove on May 17, 2002, it was still upside down, the bow still poking out of the water; our Coast Guard advisers were telling us we had 48 hours to come up with a plan to get rid of this massive hazard to navigation before they brought in the demolition team. 

We contacted Resolve Towing and Marine to finish sinking the Spiegel Grove, and the Coast Guard accepted its plan to deploy 70 massive liftbags (500 tons of lift) along the port side so that a pair of tugs could then roll the ship onto its keel, or at the very least, onto its side. By June 10, after another $350,000 in fees and countless man-hours of volunteer time by local divers, the Spiegel Grove was finally resting on its starboard side at a depth of 130 feet. Key Largo finally had another world-class shipwreck, and, despite all the fits and false starts, the $1.35-million project cost now looks like the deal of the century when compared to the money spent to sink the Oriskany and the Vandenberg

The saga of the Spiegel Grove seemed to be finally complete, but Hurricane Dennis provided a final gift, this one for free. On July 11, 2005, massive waves generated by the passing hurricane actually turned the Spiegel Grove perfectly upright, exactly as we all intended that fateful night at Sharkey's bar, 11 years before. 

DAN Member Profile: Clive Cussler
Traveling Light
 

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