Old ship could bring life to coast

The Baltimore Sun

PHILADELPHIA-- --There are people in Maryland who could write a $200,000 check for a boat without batting an eye.

The owner of the Orioles comes to mind. The owner of the Ravens is another. A number of corporations and foundations could do it, too.

It becomes a harder sell, however, when the boat in question is a retired 563-foot Navy destroyer that has a date later this year with Davy Jones' locker.

Maryland Artificial Reef Initiative volunteers have their eyes on the ex-Radford, a vessel mothballed at Aker Philadelphia Shipyard. Their colleagues in New Jersey and Delaware do, too.

They envision the ex-Radford as a new ocean attraction with a new name -- DelJerseyLand -- on the hard sand bottom of the Atlantic, just 26 miles off Ocean City. Sitting in 130 feet of water, it would be the largest warship-to-reef project on the East Coast, a massive condominium for marine life, and a playground for anglers and divers.

Scuttling old warships to create habitat isn't new. Two years ago, the 910-foot aircraft carrier ex-Oriskany was sunk in the Gulf of Mexico off the Florida coast to the delight of fishing charter businesses and local tourism boards. On May 15, the ex-Vandenberg, a satellite- and missile-tracking ship, is to be sunk seven miles off the Florida Keys.

The Navy has agreed to make the ex-Radford environmentally safe before its scuttling. Two salvage companies are expected to bid on the project. If all goes well, the value of the internal scrap metal and superstructure will help offset the cost of moving the big warship, leaving about $600,000 to be split among the three states.

"Parternering with Delaware and New Jersey is a huge, huge opportunity for us because [they] have established, well-funded reef programs," said Marty Gary, the point man for the Maryland Department of Natural Resources. "They know the ins and outs and are doing a lot of the heavy lifting."

The Army Corp of Engineers has given its blessing. The next step requires the governors of Maryland, Delaware and New Jersey to send nonbinding letters of interest to the Navy by March 28. That should be a snap as long as the folks in the O'Malley administration aren't asleep at the switch.

But if the three states can't pull the financial trigger, it's likely DelJerseyLand will float down the coast and become Carolinaville or Georgiaburg.

That, says Gary, would be a shame.

"An opportunity of this size doesn't come along every day," he said Monday during a tour of the ex-Radford. "This would be a prime site for black sea bass, tautog, summer flounder and lobsters. Something this big is going to draw in some bigger fish, too -- amberjack, dolphin, wahoo and tuna."

Chris Dollar, a member of the reef initiative steering committee on the tour, also was impressed: "In the Chesapeake and along the Atlantic coast, fishermen know that the thing that's limiting their success oftentimes is [a lack of] habitat. This is an awesome opportunity for habitat in the ocean, particularly for those folks coming out of Ocean City. ...We've got to jump on it and take advantage of it."

The USS Arthur W. Radford was launched in 1975 and commissioned in 1977. Among its many assignments, the destroyer was deployed to the Persian Gulf to do picket duty and surveillance work and also to the Mediterranean Sea to support NATO peace-keeping operations.

In 1997, it collided with a Saudi cargo ship 25 miles off the coast of Virginia. Although it took on water through a gash in its bow, the Radford limped to port for repairs.

Twenty-eight years after its launch, the destroyer was decommissioned and lent to Northrup Grumman Ship Systems for design experiments.

Now, the well-worn ship sits on the outside of a three-ship stack tied to the shipyard dock. The number on the bow -- 968 -- is faded. The paint around the battle ribbons on its bridge is peeling, and the deck is rusted and pitted.

A project this size is fairly ambitious for Maryland, which has been in the reef building business for not quite two years. All of its projects so far have involved moving almost 60,000 tons of construction material from the Woodrow Wilson Bridge down the Potomac River to selected Chesapeake Bay sites.

"It sounded daunting," Gary said. "It wound up [costing] almost $1.4 million, which we raised from the private sector, and the great news is some of those donors ... have pledged to stay engaged in an ongoing basis and help us network with other corporations."

That's not to say it's all smooth sailing for DelJerseyLand. Besides the gubernatorial letters and the salvage bids, there's the matter of finding someone with deep pockets.

Someone who won't mind spending $200,000 for the ultimate leaky boat.

candy.thomson@baltsun.com

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