How (and Why) Engineers Are Sinking Ships in South Florida

One might ask why people would take a perfectly good ship, fill it up with water, and put it at the bottom of the ocean. Irrational hatred of boats? Need to show off their sick marine-engineering skills? Slow day on Snapchat?

Well, the answer is simple: wreck diving. Anyone who's ever swum through a submerged vessel knows shipwrecks are possibly the coolest thing about diving. Entire ships -- SHIPS! -- that once roamed the ocean, now consigned to the deep. You get to explore a once-functional relic, now the property of eels and sea cucumbers. Some of these vessels arrive by accident, but a good number are also deliberately sunk to become artificial reefs that divers and marine life can enjoy alike.

But how exactly does someone sink a gargantuan boat with precision? And what goes into making an artificial reef?

We walked through the process with Greg Harrison, part of the team that recently scuttled the Lady Luck off the coast of Pompano Beach, Florida. He gave us a look at how that ship got to the bottom, and all the steps he and Broward County took to make a state-of-the-art wreck. Acquiring the boat, cleaning, carving, and sinking -- the process is as fascinating as it is complex. 

Step 1: Where to put it?

Two major considerations go into determining where to sink a ship. Can the public reach it? And what will happen to the environment?

Regulations prohibit placing any artificial reef where it could damage an existing reef or the ocean floor. So before even applying for permits, organizers had to survey the area.

"We wanted to put a major artificial reef in the shallowest amount of water possible," Harrison said. "But you can't just lay your wreck in the middle of the reef, so we had to place ours next to a drop-off -- kinda like a cliff -- next to a natural reef."

Harrison's team picked a spot near the Hillsboro Inlet, about a quarter-mile offshore. Then the real fun began: paperwork. To get a permit for an artificial reef, you have to go through the county, the state, and the US Army Corps of Engineers. It's time-consuming and arduous. In some cases, it can literally take years, though in this case, Broward County helped streamline Lady Luck's approval.

Lady Luck wreck Pompano Beach
Courtesy of Elaine Fitzgerald

Step 2: Finding a ship

As painful a process as permitting is, finding the right ship can be just as tricky. Typically the ships are decommissioned government ships or private tankers obtained either through boat brokers, public auctions, or online listings.

Even non-running vessels typically cost into the millions of dollars. With a budget of only about $625,000, the City of Pompano Beach hit some snags. Initially, the city looked at a ship in Miami that sold while the city deliberated the purchase. Eventually a freelance sea captain in Seattle hipped Harrison and his team to a tanker called the Newtown Creek that was being sold on a surplus auction by the City of New York for a minimum bid of $250,000.

Pompano Beach let it go to auction. When the boat received no bids, the city offered New York $100,000 for it. A deal was done.

Step 3: Moving and cleaning the ship

Sometimes the ships set to wreck still work, and can be floated from one port to another for about $75,000. That covers the cost of the captain, crew, fuel, and port charges. That is, if it runs. If it doesn't run, the vessel needs to be towed, which costs about twice as much.  

The Newtown Creek was towed to a shipyard on the Miami River, where a cleaning and salvage company cleared the boat of everything that could possibly be a pollutant. Because artificial reefs essentially become part of the underwater ecosystem, the ships must be extensively cleaned and gutted before they're sent to the ocean floor.

This includes removing anything that could deteriorate, such as electrical components, rubber, wire with a rubber wiring, furniture, cloth, and other degradable materials. Anything that contains petroleum, gasoline, or oil has to be cleaned and removed. Any PCBs or asbestos have to be removed or encapsulated. Generators, heads of engines, and anything that touched gas or oil has to be removed and chemically cleaned so no fuel gets into the water. The salvage company sells most of the removed material for scrap.

In the case of the Newtown Creek, the process took about three months of a crew working 12 to 16 hours a day. It cost about $275,000.

Step 4: Prep it for sinking -- and for divers

Swimming through a ship is nothing like walking through it, and there are specific safety concerns that must be addressed in order to make the ship safe and fun for divers. Passageways and hatches must be widened to allow for divers with full tanks. Holes must be cut to allow for water to flow through the vessel so as not to create air pockets. Typically, access holes are cut in the hull to allow divers easier entry.

A professional marine-engineering team using modeling software handles the design and how the ship is to be carved up. Once the model is approved by the owners of the ship -- Pompano Beach, in this case -- the engineers get to work prepping the ship.

Lady Luck wreck Pompano Beach
Courtesy of Elaine Fitzgerald

Step 5: Sink it, carefully

Sinking a ship is not as simple as waterlogging it and letting it crash to the bottom. Many an artificial reef has been listing as it sank, and while that might not ruin the project, it throws much of the engineering off-kilter. So planning the actual sinking is intensive.

First, engineers look at the weight of the ship and the direction they want it to drop, factoring in current. Using that info, they calculate how many gallons of water it will take to sink the ship, and at what speed that water will need to be pumped in. Then they begin pumping it with water some distance from the final wreck site.

In the case of the Lady Luck (renamed after a sponsorship from the Isle Casino in Pompano Beach), the ship was half-filled with water below deck in port on the Miami River. It then traveled to Port Everglades in Ft. Lauderdale, where the tanker was pumped with more water -- as much as it could hold and still be towed to the final site.

The day before the sinking, Broward County placed four buoys around the dive site, with a large orange buoy in the middle to mark where the ship was to go. At 3am, the ship was towed from Port Everglades to the dive site for a scheduled 2pm sinking. Engineers surveyed the wind, waves, and current, and adjusted their sinking plan accordingly. They then began to pump water into the ship from bow to stern, slowly, balancing so the boat didn't get overloaded.

It takes about six to eight hours to get a ship the size of the Lady Luck (324ft) to sink. Once it actually begins to fall, it only takes a minute for it to hit its final resting place 130ft below the surface. Once scuttled, the wreck is open for certified divers to come and explore, as marine life takes over and begins to transform the ship into a functional part of the ocean's ecosystem.

Pompano Beach plans to sink several more wrecks as a part of its planned Shipwreck Park, and will be repeating this process again in the coming years. Most divers won't give much thought to how the boat got there as they swim among the little flourishes that went down with it: card-playing sharks and mermaids. But shipwrecks are more complicated than simply dropping a whole boat like an anchor.

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Matt Meltzer is a staff writer with Thrillist who strongly suggests you dive the Lady Luck. Follow him on Instagram: @meltrez1.