ABOARD THE YNOT MABEL - A massive front-end loader wrestled more than 40 stainless steel New York City subway cars off a barge yesterday, swinging them one by one over the gray, choppy water before releasing them with a splash.
Some of the cars lingered briefly on the surface before heading for the ocean bottom 85 feet below. Others rolled on their side, emitting hisses as water rushed in and air escaped, creating tiny geysers like whales exhaling.
One by one, they became Maryland's most-ambitious offshore artificial reef project to create homes for fish and an underwater playground for divers.
Jack Power, a retired Baltimore businessman and passionate fisherman, is the project's No. 1 patron. He spent $25,000 to send the cars beneath the seas 19 miles off Ocean City, and he is ready to drop another $25,000.
"Look at our children," Power said to his wife, Sue, as he snapped photos and she clapped. "This is so exciting."
For the Ocean City Reef Foundation and local officials, the deployment of the retired subway cars at a once-popular fishing spot known as the "Jackspot" has been nearly a decade in the making. False starts and modest financial contributions limited efforts to a series of much smaller projects.
But when the New York Metropolitan Transportation Authority offered a barge-load of cars and Power wrote a check, things clicked into place.
"We did this to sort of kick this thing off and get it into high gear," said Power as he gripped the railing of the cabin cruiser idling near the subway barge. "How many times can you invest in something and be absolutely sure it's going to pay off?"
The return, say charter captains and state fisheries biologists, is a stainless steel foundation that will attract sea bass, tautog and smaller fish, and sea creatures that serve as a food source for larger fish. Over time, as the metal disintegrates, coral will build up, re-creating what made the Jackspot a hot spot decades ago.
"In a year, there will be so many mussels, it will be insane. They'll be 1 foot thick," said Capt. Monty Hawkins.
Divers want to visit the site next week to take baseline photos and videos and then return every month to show the progress.
Maryland expects to receive 630 New York subway cars over the next three years, which will be dropped in three locations in addition to the Jackspot.
Ocean City Mayor Richard W. Meehan said offshore fishing opportunities bring vacationers who are "a very important part of our economic base. I think we're going to see an almost immediate benefit from this."
Transporting each barge-load of 40-plus cars costs $25,000, which puts the Ocean City Reef Foundation in constant fundraising mode.
Power, 63, who retired to a waterfront home in southern Anne Arundel County, bought the first barge-load in honor of his wife. He is picking up the bill on the next one to honor his daughter, Lindsey, who lives in New York and commutes by subway.
The Maryland Artificial Reef Initiative, a nonprofit group of anglers, conservationists and corporations that has built several reefs in the Chesapeake Bay over the past two years, has agreed to pay for another barge-load.
"See," Power said, "if everybody kicks in, all of the sudden - bang! - you've got something big."
Michael Zacchea, assistant chief operations officer for New York's MTA, said that he has more requests from Eastern Seaboard states than he has subway cars.
"It's a good problem to have," he said.
Delaware, New Jersey and Maryland are part of a rotation that will include states farther south and New York, once it clears regulatory hurdles.
The cars, built in the mid- to late 1960s, weigh 18 tons each and are 60 feet long. It takes MTA workers 135 hours on each car to remove materials that could break free or contaminate the water.
As the subway cars settled in their new home, boat captains were already marking on their sonar screens the arrival of fish, perhaps in search of new digs.
Power smiled. "The day we catch a white marlin and a tuna on it, that'll be the day we'll know this work was worth it."
Watch a video at