Thursday, May 28, 2009

Sinking The Vandenberg

It was a gruesome thing for me, to work four hours in dispatch, get home at three am, get up at 5:30 and after a cup of tea and a bowl of gruel to pedal down to the Looe Key Dive center at the end of my street where I paid $125 for the privilege of a ringside seat at the event of the week. Gruesome it was and I was nodding off as the Kokomo Cat II pulled away from the dock at 7:11 am sharp:We breezed merrily past my house slumbering on the edge of the canal, my bed still warm and ready to welcome me back... ...but I was on my way, inexorably to see the Vandenberg get sunk, with twenty one alcohol starved passengers and four crew:
The bloody marys were handed out minutes after we left the dock before the sun was properly in the sky: Had I started in with the alcohol at that ungodly hour I'd have been asleep before we arrived at the Vandenberg's anchorage at 8:45 am.The sixty-five year old ship sat facing into the southeast breeze, alone and rather forlorn like a leper in quarantine surrounded by a growing armada of spectator boats......kept at bay by anxious law enforcement, lest we get infected by the explosives on board the old ship, or get sucked in by the undertow of her death throes.She was fussed over before the final fatal explosive injection by a couple of tugs shuffling back and forth and puffing self important black clouds eerily prescient of the final snorts of deadly smoke that accompanied the explosions that would sink her:
We, the witnesses to the sinking, watched from the limits of the prescribed mile wide "safety zone:"And ate a hearty lunch:Captain Robert put us in the ideal spot,...upwind and on the side away from the Key West shore where most of the spectator boats gathered. We watched and waited for the ten o'clock deadline:
One old guy, already liberally greased at nine in the morning, asked me if I was excited, a question that put me unaccountably in mind of Jack riepe, but I was a) more curious than excited about the sinking, and b) I do not have riepe's ability to carry off a social gaffe with aplomb and I would probably just have ended up offending the drunk old geezer had i mentioned the thoughts his question put in mind. I looked around for things to photograph and came across a flock of spectator boats that had grown around us while we ate, waiting for the execution of the death sentence:Then there were the notables and state lawmakers riding around on the Ft Myers Ferry, the Express Cat, which was allowed to pass exceptionally close to the dying ship in the waiting period:And there was the Coastguard running around keeping people organized:While the state Fish and Wildlife commission had a helicopter keeping journalists, aloft in their own helicopters, at a safe distance: The last humans stepped off the Vandenberg at 9:50am and the ship stood to anchor like the condemned prisoner alone on the gurney awaiting the moment. Then farce intervened as a sea turtle or two plodded across the stage interrupting the drama, but finally all was squared away.A horn sounded and a red flare went up five minutes before the end, followed by a final red warning flare at one minute, then there was a loud dull thud and smoke billowed from the bow of the ship:Followed closely by a puff of smoke from the smokestack at the stern.It was like one final death struggle from the now engine-less ship, that last defiant puff from the engine room, and the hull, drilled out with holes all along its length, described with a certain lack of dignity as resembling a Swiss cheese, started to take on water.The first explosion came at 10:24, the last bubble burst on the surface by 10:27 and then there was nothing left to look at but a placid sea, all returned to normal, after the completion of a text book sinking. It was my Memorial Day, watching the ship that transported troops in 1944 (then named General Taylor) disappear out of sight. On the Kokomo Cat II the party got underway with renewed ferocity, the open bar sloshing margaritas right and left, along with wine and beer for the aging libertines kept safe by the cheerful crew: And then home. I didn't know what to expect when we went out to watch the ship sink, and surrounded by noise and levity it was hard to put together two thoughts, which may have been the point. I dropped off a twenty dollar tip in the jar; the crew deserved it. For my part I was, in the final analysis glad to have been there. I have no idea if this sinking was worth the conservative estimate of nine million dollars it cost to carry out, but I'd like to think that long after I'm dead and people are still diving on the wreck, if they wonder what it was like the day it sank, I would be able to tell them.It was 82 degrees (33C) and hazy with a light south breeze with a very slight swell ruffling the surface. The Vandenberg, all rusty and sieve-like went down exactly as intended, a slight list forward, but upright and steady all the way.