Sinking the Tamaroa: ‘It was an awesome day’

Last week, I was invited to watch the sinking of a piece of history.

This was probably the best birthday present I have ever received. Thank you to the state of Delaware for the invite.

I arrived at the Delaware Bay Launch service in Slaughter Beach at 5 in the morning; the boat was leaving at 5:30.

The Tamaroa was already underway the day before to the designated area, the Del-Jersey-Land Reef site.

There were press people, local and national, and the Weather Channel had a drone pilot.

This was probably the most documented boat sinking ever for this area. We had five drones, phones, cameras, and a lot of company.

When I boarded the launch I heard a voice say, “Hey man, don’t tie any towels on my rail.”

The Tamaroa — made famous by the novel and film “The Perfect Storm” — was laid to rest in the Del-Jersey-Land Reef last week. (Special to the Delaware State News/Rich King)

I nearly fell over laughing. Captain Pete Hesson is standing there with an ear-to-ear grin. Now I knew this trip was going to be even more fun.

Pete is good people and I spent the whole day talking fishing and of course the trash us anglers talk.

I met Captain Stewart Sadler, our other pilot for the day, and we helped everyone load up their gear. Pete said we had 43 inches of fuel — apparently an inch equals 15 gallons. I never get on a boat unless I know it has fuel, it is a rule of mine thanks to past experiences. Don’t ask, but I will say never run out of fuel inside the Indian River Inlet on a hard outgoing tide, just saying.

The ship rolled slowly on its side but straightened up as the stern filled with water and pulled her down.

Off we went out of the Mispillion inlet at Slaughter Beach.

We had a 40-mile trip to get to the Del-Jersey-Land Reef location. Everyone got settled in and many were taking cat naps or chatting up the crew from Coleen Marine Inc., who would be sinking the Tamaroa.

They have sunk every boat at the Del-Jersey reef site, so this would be a cake walk for them.

When we finally arrived at the Del-Jersey reef area, the Tamaroa was undertow by the Tug boat Justin out of Norfolk, Virginia. Those boys were just cruising in circles until we arrived.

Jeff Tinsmen, head of the artificial reef program for Delaware, had to drop a buoy on the exact coordinates he wanted the ship sunk.

“We have been trying to hit this mark every time we drop a boat — hopefully today we manage that,” Tinsmen said. “It isn’t easy to sink a large ship in an exact spot.”

The buoy was set with two large cinder blocks and about 200 feet of rope. Once the mark was set, the crew from Coleen Marine Inc. was loaded aboard the Tamaroa.

They had to finish preparing the boat to be sunk by removing large sections that were already cut through. This was a rather long, tedious process. Once in a while you would see sparks from acetylene torches along the cut edges, then hear a huge bang from a sledgehammer and a section would drop into the water.
Since we were all media on the launch, all we could really do was take pictures and launch drones.

Discovery Channel had a crew on the Tamaroa documenting the sinking of this historic vessel.

The Tamaroa, first commissioned by the U.S. Navy in 1934, was made famous in the book and subsequent film “The Perfect Storm.”

During World War II, it was called the Zuni and helped tow damaged vessels across the war-torn Pacific Ocean.

In October 1991 three strong storm systems came together off the New England coast, generating 40-foot waves and wind gusts of more than 70 mph. The Tamaroa’s crew helped save three people aboard a sailboat that was caught in the storm.

Its most storied mission came in October 1991 when three strong storm systems came together off the New England coast, generating 40-foot waves and wind gusts of more than 70 mph. The Tamaroa’s crew helped save three people aboard a sailboat that was caught in the storm. They also rescued four of five crewmen of an Air National Guard helicopter that ran out of fuel during a similar rescue mission and had to be ditched in the ocean.

The Weather Channel had Skygear Solutions there with the coolest drone I have ever seen in action. This thing would launch and then the camera would lower and the blades would rise. It looked like something out of a Terminator movie.

Eventually the crew was ready to be brought back on board the launch. Just before we were about to do that, the marker buoy was hung up in the Tamaroa’s rudder and was dragged a couple hundred yards, it turns out.

Captain Stewart and I pulled the line up and we tried to hold the blocks about mid water while Captain Pete readjusted our position.

If you haven’t tried to hold a small nylon rope attached to two 20-plus pound cinder blocks while rolling about six knots you aren’t missing anything. It is an experience I do not recommend.

Formerly called the Zuni, the ship was used to tow damaged vessels across the war-torn Pacific Ocean.

We had to let go and pull the blocks out of the water and reset our position. That was another experience I don’t recommend.

Big thanks to Mike Duncan at Helly Hansen for the killer gloves, or my hands would have been stripped of a lot of skin.

We eventually got the buoy reset and then brought the crew aboard. Now all we had to do was wait for the water to do its job. A five dollar per guess pool was started to see who could come the closest to the time the Tamaroa would sink.

It was 12:30, tick tock, tick tock. Now if you thought waiting for the crews to get done took a while, which was like watching paint dry, the anticipation for the Tamaroa to take on more water and sink was an experience.

When we first arrived in the early morning, the Tamaroa was sitting really high in the water. Well above her normal water line.

I kept thinking it is going to take a long time to sink this boat. One of the Coleen Marine crew mentioned that they would pump a lot of water into her to sink her while they worked on these holes.

“You can spend all day cutting holes and miss your projected time by hours, but you punch a garden hose size hole in her at the dock, go drink a beer, come back, and she is on the bottom,” he said.

Once the crew was finished and came aboard the launch, the water line was 2 feet from one of the larger holes cut in the side, which at this point was a door to offload gear and crew members. She was slowly sinking all morning, but you didn’t get that perspective watching it the whole time.

While all of this was going on we were getting more and more company. The Coast Guard’s 44 out of Indian River was the first audience member to show.

Then DNREC popped up with their new boat and a marine police boat. Two Coast Guard cutters out of Cape May dropped in, along with one of their skiffs. I don’t think I have seen that many Coast Guard ships in one spot when there wasn’t an emergency.

The Coast Guard did a fly-by with the bird out of Cape May, that was cool! She ripped by in the sky, engines screaming, and circled a few times with everyone waving and cheering. We did see a fishing boat in the distance headed our way, most likely to fish. Until they saw all those official boats in the vicinity.

The best visitor was the Porgy IV out of New Jersey. She was loaded with veterans that all served on the Tamaroa at some point when she was in service and when she was the tug Zini.

We are now at 12:50 and the water line is six inches from the large opening cut by the Coleen Marine crew. You can hear the water pouring into her holds below, above the diesel engines in our launch. It was about to happen, tick tock, tick tock.

Four people have missed the mark in the pool. Since we were the launch for the Coleen Marine Inc. crew we got the up close and personal look. Seriously, at one point we were all but up against her so the crew could document everything; drones were deployed.

The tug Justin had a rope on the Tamaroa holding position. Tick Tock, tick tock, water line is at the bottom of the hole.

The roar of water rushing in is loud, and she is starting to list more and more. Each rocking of the boat brings in more water. Now she starts to fill up and sink. It is 1 o’clock, our marked time for her to be on the bottom.

Pool is now down two more people. She has been sinking all day, but this is the final leg. Tick Tock, tick tock.

The Tamaroa is full of water, and almost on her side. The call comes in from the tug Justin. “Do we keep the rope on?” The answer is, “No, she is fully committed now, let her loose.”

The process of preparing the Tamaroa was started at the docks, and completed out at sea at the Del-Jersey-Land Reef site.

That took hours. Now the Tamaroa, fully committed is about to go to her final resting place.

She sank in less than two minutes.

The ship rolled slowly on its side. The stern went under first and the sound of the air being forced out was tremendously loud and scary.

Then she literally straightened up under water and the stern full of water pulled her down. She dropped under in less than a minute once the whole process kicked into full swing. That was amazing to watch and frightening. You could see that on the faces of some folks who knew boats and just how dangerous that situation would be if you were on a sinking ship.

A shudder of sorts went through all of us who understood that, especially my captains.

Captain Pete pulled the launch around and we all ran to the wheelhouse to watch the scopes. We could see the bubbles on the scope but they were blurring out any images. The launch was surrounded by bubbles, the water was white.

Once that cleared up you could see the Tamaroa, sitting upright on the bottom.

There was a plume of bubbles coming out of the stern still and you could see that on the scope.

We marked the coordinates. Boom! Right on the money!

“It was an awesome day,” said Tinsmen. “The Tamaroa landed upright and that is more than we could have hoped. The fact she landed right where I wanted it was a bonus.

“Divers will be able to explore her — they prefer upright boats.”

The Tamaroa hit bottom at four minutes past one in the afternoon. That was very close to the projected time for the day.

I have no idea who won the pool. I was out when she sunk earlier than my guess.

The Coleen Marine crew were tired, wet, and covered in orange rust. Hands stained from a day of working in a flooded ship.

I have a lot of respect for that job, one which I don’t think I would like to do, seriously. You are 30 miles off the coast trying to sink a ship you are aboard.

I spoke with Jim Mulane, Henry Houck, Steve Divers, and Reggie Stubbs about the job at hand afterwards.

“It always takes a lot of preparation time before the boat can actually sink,” said Mulane. “Great Day! We have her all cleaned out, no insulation is left. It will make a great habitat for sea life.

“With the other ships in the vicinity, the Tamaroa should populate with life quickly and make a great reef structure. We will be diving her in about two weeks just to check things out.”

The Del-Jersey-Land Reef is now heavy one ship, the Tamaroa.

She now lies with the Gregory Poole, Atlantic Mist, the Sheerwater, the Radford, and 300 subway cars.

The Tamaroa’s coordinates are 38 degrees 31.144 N by 74 degrees 30.747 W, smack dab in the middle of the Del-Jersey-Land Reef, in about 125 feet of water.

We are going to go out in two weeks and fish her for sea bass. Within 48 hours, she would be covered with fish. In a year or less she will cover with sea life and become a full living reef.

Rich King writes the outdoors column for the Delaware State News.

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