BEAUFORT -- It was a good day to dump 165 tons of armored personnel carriers.

The sun shone in a blaze across the water. The breeze kicked up sporadic whitecaps, and a troop of fishing boats with names like My Time Out rolled in the seas at the Beaufort 45 Reef.

At the rear of a barge, a huge forklift pivoted on its heels like an honor guard and tipped up the rear end of 16,500 pounds of hardened steel.

The nose of the tank-treaded vehicle teetered over the edge and slipped away in a splash. Some 45 feet below, black sea bass waited, along with amberjack, Spanish mackerel and king mackerel, sheepshead and spadefish.

"Swarms of fish," said Mel Bell, S.C. Department of Natural Resources fisheries management director, who has dived the reef.

The DNR and the S.C. Army National Guard deployed 20 obsolete armored personnel carriers on Thursday, part of an ongoing joint effort to build the fish-attracting artificial reef some eight miles off Port Royal Sound, far enough out that the high rise hotels along the Hilton Head beach looked like white dots on the horizon.

It was the 40th deployment among 45 reefs since the ReefEx program began in 1997. It gives the National Guard a training exercise and a way to dispose of junked equipment whose steel is too hardened to be recycled.

If not for the reef program, "you're stuck with these fields and fields and fields of obsolete vehicles," said Col. Pete Brooks of the National Guard.

It gives sports anglers and divers a series of underwater rises in the waters off the coast's big estuaries, on what otherwise would be deserted sand bottom, an investment in what has become a $83 million tourism draw for the state.

The state National Guard competes annually for federal funding for training and community environment projects. South Carolina last year was the only state on the East Coast to win the project funding, Bell said.

The stripped-down vehicles, little more than shells, were the latest of 60 set out so far this year.

At the 45 Reef, they joined a collection of concrete balls and structures, old M-60 tanks, an emptied fuel barge, culvert pipes and debris from the old Broad River Bridge.

"We try to put them in a cluster," Bell said.

One by one, the carriers dropped like they were falling out of formation, until the last one fell.

First, the barnacles and algae coat the steel. Then sponges grow in rainbows of yellows and reds, until the window holes of the carriers become grotto-like. The fish, though, don't wait.

As the carriers tipped one by one into the rolling swells, Jim Kindwall watched from the Sea Wolf VI, one of the fishing boats that gathered to spot it out.

"We'll be fishing tomorrow," he said back at the dock.