Offshore Heaven

The USS Oriskany still proudly flies Old Glory and the POW/MIA flags, even though it rests 212 feet underwater off the coast of Pensacola, Fla. The 900-foot long World War II aircraft carrier was decommissioned in 1976 but started a second life in 2006, when it was sunk 24 miles out into the Gulf of Mexico to create the country's largest artificial reef.

South Carolina has its share of sunken ships as well, providing valuable bottom habitat for reef fish like grouper and prime hunting grounds for nearshore predators like king mackerel and amberjack. At least two ships off our coast exceed 400 feet in length, permanently sunk in about 100 feet of water.

What we don't have is anything near the scale of the Oriskany, or any artificial reefs far enough out to concentrate blue-water game fish like billfish and tuna. For nearly five years, a dedicated group of Charleston anglers has been working to change that.

Francis Johnson, owner of a 60-foot Paul Mann dubbed Sea Fix, dreams of a day when he can give his brother a proper tribute in the blue water he loved.

“Robbie was a sportsman and a conservationist,” Johnson said. “He loved the ocean. The Gulf Stream was his second home.”

Johnson's death from cancer at age 48 followed that of Tony Smoak, another prominent member of the Lowcountry's offshore fishing community. With these men and other loved ones in mind, a group of fishermen and friends began batting around the idea of creating a monument off the coast of Charleston similar to the one off the coast of Pensacola, Fla. Under the banner of the S.C. Memorial Reef, they started gauging interest and raising money to make the project a reality.

“We lost several people in a short time span, so that's where the idea for a Memorial Reef came about,” said Stevie Leasure, captain of the 29-foot sportfishing boat Summer Girl and a primary force behind the initiative.

Unbeknownst to Leasure and his partners at the time, the state had already taken a huge leap toward building a blue-water sanctuary by establishing the Charleston Deep Artificial Reef Marine Protected Area, or MPA. The 3.5-by-6 square mile area 50 miles southeast of Charleston Harbor ranges in depth from 328 to 493 feet, which would make any ship scuttled there the first major deepwater reef off the state's coast.

State officials originally had hoped they could sink pieces of the old Cooper River bridges at that site. Unfortunately for the grouper and snapper that might have multiplied on such a reef — as well as for the pelagic species that congregate over such structures and the sportsmen who hunt them — the state ultimately decided to take advantage of increased steel prices and sold the bridges for scrap in Asia.

Leasure learned of the permit during his initial call to Martore, and quickly investigated what sorts of structures and boats could be sunk in the MPA. The group began raising money in earnest, hoping to land an aircraft carrier or other major ship as a donation from the Navy.

Tugboats and barges are perfect for inshore reefs in shallower water but because of the water depth and sandy bottom, a vessel with significant vertical relief — meaning one with multiple decks with at least a 150-foot height — would be necessary to accomplish the reef's purpose beyond memorializing friends and family: attracting and holding good numbers of billfish, dolphin, wahoo and, perhaps, tuna.

Alabama's coastline stretches only 53 miles — just 5 percent of the Gulf of Mexico's expansive reach between the Florida Keys and south Texas. But thanks to a 50-year-old artificial reef building program, resulting in what may be the largest saltwater artificial reef system in the world, Alabama claims about a third of the Gulf's recreational red snapper catch (although their commercial production pales in comparison to Florida, Texas and Louisiana).

The continental shelf off of South Carolina is mostly covered in a few feet of sand, with only 5 to 10 percent of the ocean bottom having hard enough geology to allow for reef building.

“Structure attracts bottom-dwelling reef fish species, with smaller fish finding shelter inside,” explains Kim Iverson, public information officer with the South Atlantic Marine Fisheries Council, the organization that manages fishery seasons and closures due to overfishing. “It works up the food chain, with the smaller fish attracting larger pelagic species like dolphin, wahoo and tuna there to feed.”

Bottom currents hitting a major obstruction cause upwellings, and these upward movements of water send nutrients to the surface. This attracts schools of even more baitfish.

Memorial Reef backers know sinking a major structure in deep water would do more than simply provide lifelong fishermen a place to peacefully spend eternity — it would create an offshore trolling hotspot for Charleston's recreational and charter fishing fleet.

Furthermore, because of its MPA designation, the reef would be off-limits to bottom fishing, providing a major untouched area for grouper and snapper to spawn and increase their population. In essence, the project creates an underwater paradise for deep-water reef fish and a surface-level paradise for sport fishermen.

“It's amazing the numbers of fish that you'll find on a reef that no one's been fishing,” said DNR's Martore. “The population just really explodes.”

Four years into fundraising, the S.C. Memorial Reef group has about $150,000 in the bank, most of it donated by anglers throughout the Lowcountry.

With their annual fundraiser during the Carolina Classic S.C. Governor's Cup Billfishing Series Tournament, the group hopes to move closer to its goal of $500,000. The S.C. Memorial Reef Silent and Live Auction, on June 29, coincides with Friday evening's weigh-in at the tournament.

The event features donated auction items ranging in value from $25 to $20,000; the marquee item in previous years has been a week-long fishing trip in Costa Rica aboard Johnson's Sea Fix. Donating the trip is his way of contributing to his brother's memory. “I still miss the hell out of him,” he said. “Robbie did so much in the sportfishing world. He had a big impact on a lot of young people, through his manner and nature.”

The Johnsons come from a family of fishermen, including Francis' uncle Harry, whom he credits with teaching four generations how to fish. For their family, a blue-water reef would be both a place to remember Robbie and a spot to create new memories — a result well worth the years already invested in the project.

“The highs are when we have events, coming together to talk about our memories together,” said Johnson of his time with the Memorial Reef project. “The low is that we started off pretty strong, but some of the big-time support we hoped to get just hasn't come to fruition.”

The necessity of a large ship means that the Memorial Reef organizers must be content to patiently raise money, preparing themselves financially for the costly process of preparing the right ship whenever it comes along.

DNR's Martore said he's hopeful that a shipyard or salvage company will turn up an appropriate ship, pointing out that dismantling and scrapping has its costs as well. In the right situation, selling a ship at a deal for a reef project could be more cost-effective for the owner.

Conversations have drifted to the USS Yorktown or its smaller sister, the USS Laffey, as possibilities, but the local ships were never truly viable options. The Yorktown is effectively stuck in the mud, making salvage or dismantling extremely expensive and hazardous, and the Laffey recently underwent restoration to remain a museum at Patriots Point.

However, even another smaller ship like the Laffey might work, Martore said, because of its upper decks and high antennas providing the needed structure.

South Carolina's deepest artificial reefs are in about 120 feet of water.

In addition to the Vermilion, several dozen manmade reefs exist, including the 430-foot Betsy Ross off Hilton Head. The Greenville Reef, off Winyah Bay, is made up of a 175-foot ship, a 140-foot barge, and several drydock units and sonar domes. Likewise, donations of concrete and small barges have consistently been added to the Jim Cottle Reef in north Myrtle Beach.

More familiar to Charleston boaters are the Y-73, Comanche, Capers and Charleston 60 reefs, ranging in construction from retired Army tanks to missile sleeves to concrete reef balls made specifically for the purpose.

“The potential for damage is much greater when you're allowing people to just go put whatever they want out there,” Martore said. “The Memorial Reef would in all likelihood be one of the most expensive artificial reefs ever, and certainly one of the biggest.”

Even while the blue-water project waits for a ship, smaller reefs are still being built. This June, DNR will sink around 50 surplus Army tanks off Murrells Inlet.

“Our reef building program has remained very active,” Martore said. “We're always looking for materials.”

Still, our state is at a disadvantage in attracting the few ships the Navy does make available. Delaware, New Jersey and Maryland recently pooled their efforts to obtain the 563-foot Arthur W. Radford, sinking it off their mutual coast to create the eastern seaboard's largest artificial reef. In Florida, individual county governments recognize the tourism value of reefs for diving and fishing, contributing tax dollars to the state's efforts.

Here in the Palmetto State, Leasure acknowledges that landing a major Navy ship will take not just money but also political clout. Former Gov. Mark Sanford supported the project, even writing letters to that effect, but his efforts coincided almost precisely with his fall from power.

The group does list S.C. State Representative Peter McCoy (R – District 115) as a supporter and financial contributor.

“I am extremely proud to be a part of this project, as we work to honor our passed members of the local sportfishing community and protect our most precious offshore resources,” McCoy said. “As a father of a young daughter, I look forward to the day when I can teach her about the beauty of our area's natural resources, including that of the S.C. Memorial Reef.”

It's already estimated that the state's artificial reefs generate nearly $20 million each year through fishing, diving and tourism.

If and when the project is completed, Francis Johnson still has his brother Robbie's ashes ready to deliver to their final resting place.

Leasure said he hopes his cremated remains will be scattered at the site as well.

In the meantime, he's just hoping to build a place where he and his friends can go catch some fish.

Editor's Note: Wildlife artist Michael Savlen's original acrylic painting “Sunset Bite” (above) lends a beautiful, otherwordly quality to this edition's cover story about a local group's effort to raise money for an offshore reef honoring lost anglers. After all, what could be more heavenly than a pair of big sails turning into your spread? To check out Savlen's work, go here.