Sea legs aren’t apparatuses Joe Weatherby, co-owner of Reef Makers, had to develop. The native New Jersey man is the son of a marina owner and businessman with the first East coast jet ski rental company.
“I grew up on the water. I started working for money on the water when I was 13. Fishing, sailing, boating, and I’ve been a charter boat captain for 25 years.”
Weatherby’s first trip to the Keys was Spring Break in 1982.
“My memories are few and fuzzy. I did spring break properly. I was 19, maybe.”
Today, Weatherby is responsible for perhaps the most spectacular edition to the Key’s seascape. For the past 13 years, he’s been lobbying, proposing and researching to bring the Vandenberg to Key West. Weatherby examined roughly 400 obsolete ships in the United States Military’s fleet, and set eyes on the Vandenberg at the ship’s last home in the James River.
“She caught my eye because she’s big and unique,” Weatherby said. “The radar dishes are iconic I think. I like all ships, but I prefer something like this for a reef because she has so much structure. We picked one that looked cool and would hold a lot of fish.”
The journey to bring the beauty to Key West is as long as the ship herself. Joe first had to sink himself into fundraising work and lengthy, tedious speech writing. During a time when people, cities and the country are all looking around for economic development, Weatherby is confident this project will pay.
“I’m pretty obsessed with tying diving with the ‘Heads in Beds’ theory. I am set on keeping people diving and to allure new people to the world of nitrous. Diving, no doubt, is on people’s bucket lists, and whizz-bang, eye-popping stuff like this drives the desire.”
He’s a diver who isn’t just about satisfying his own insatiable appetite for the underwater world. Weatherby is concerned about the dynamics of the local economy.
“We have a different pure economic development plan. The fish and that stuff is very, very important, but also locally, the Vandenberg will provide jobs and revenue.”
Right now, Weatherby is working with a team of 40 specialists, cleaning up the ship to make sure she is environmentally sound. One million feet of wire and a half-million gallons of fuel had to be removed, as well as, all of the switches and machinery. When the environmental clean-up is over, the Vandenberg will be sunk seven miles off shore towards Cuba, in 140 feet of water. Spanning almost two football fields in length, she stands ten stories high.
“On the right days, weather permitting you will be able to see it snorkeling or from a glass bottom boat. Everyone who comes to our community will be able to participate in viewing the sea life it will attract. There will be deep water and shallow water fish and everything in between.”
Weatherby wants his fellow residents and tourists to know the ‘reef’ will be treated like a public park, and divers will need to remember not to exceed their training capabilities or equipment specifications.
The Vandenberg has a rich and glorious history. She transported troops in WWII and served in both theatres. In the 1940s and 1950s she brought refugees from Europe to the U.S. and Australia.
“The ship has a storied past,” he relayed. “I think there’s nothing more fitting than being an underwater classroom, research laboratory and world-class recreational destination. She will be in our waters for the next 100 years plus.”
You can usually walk up to Weatherby while he’s feasting on his favorite fish sandwich at the Hogfish, or hanging at one of his watering holes, the Green Parrot or ½ Shell Raw Bar. He claims his favorite drinks are grape Kool-Aid and chocolate milk, but those who know him, know better.
“It has been known I’ll go for something stronger at nighttime.”
When this project hits bottom, Weatherby plans to do some globetrotting in search of his next treasure.
“I’ll look around for some more of this, just not for Key West. I’ll travel around the world. Maybe I’ll write a book.”
And with a twinkle in his eye, he’s off to go back on board his baby.