Getting wrecked has always been a key economic driver for Florida’s Key West. Thanks to the proximity of trade routes and treacherous reefs, salvaging lost goods was good business indeed during the island’s early days under the U.S. flag. In fact, tourism operators like to brag that America’s southernmost city was the wealthiest per capita in the country during the early 1800s.
Times change. Modern navigation techniques mean Key West no longer feeds off foundering ships. Today, drowning tourists keep the local economy afloat. “A Cat-5 hurricane could be approaching,” says Ginny, a Duval Street guide, “and you’d still see a good drinking crowd at Sloppy Joe’s.” The Hemingway watering hole — which Papa’s boat pilot, Joe Russell, officially opened (nudge nudge, wink wink) the day Prohibition was repealed in 1933 — actually once ran video clips for a while of the world-famous Key West sunset, so customers could pretend they left the bar.
Not all tourists, of course, get wrecked in local dives. Some still come to dive wrecks. But tropical storms have taken their toll on the few sunken vessels that were in decent enough shape to convince recreational divers to get up at the crack of dawn for a good swim. The 187-foot Cayman Salvage Master still thrills divers advanced enough to drop below 80 feet. But repeated hurricane beatings have turned Joe’s Tug — a former harbor workhorse that was pretty much one of the only games in town for less experienced divers — into an underwhelming dive.
There is good news, though. Advanced and novice divers alike will soon be able to explore the massive 524-foot USAFS Gen. Hoyt S. Vandenberg, if all goes to plan. Initially commissioned as the USS Gen. Harry Taylor, this Second World War transport was converted to a ballistic missile tracker in 1961. In the late ’90s, it was brought out of dry dock to portray the secret Russian communications ship in Virus, a forgettable movie staring Donald Sutherland, Jamie Lee Curtis and William Baldwin (who play sea-dog characters battling alien pirates — seriously).
Pending completion of an environmental cleanup, local dive shops anticipate the Vandenberg to be sunk next spring and serve as an artificial reef. It will sit at a depth of about 140 feet, but the top of the superstructure, with all its radar disks, will be just 40 feet deep, accessible to all certified divers.
The, er, bottom line is that the Vandenberg — with its warren of wells, holds and shafts — promises to be a wreck dive far more entertaining than any movie it might have starred in.