Joe Weatherby aboard the Hoyt S. Vandenberg as it is cleaned in a shipyard in preparation for sinking. CONTRIBUTED

Anyone who spent time in Key West in the early 2000s recalls the ubiquitous “Shipwrecker” bumper stickers that plastered the island, its scooters, boats, bikes, dive tanks and cars. The corresponding “Sink the Vandenberg” T-shirts were on the sunburned backs of every diver, snorkeler and ocean enthusiast who ever came in contact with a local captain named Joe Weatherby. (He’s also the namesake of the popular wreck dive, Joe’s Tug, but that’s a story best told by Joe — historically over cocktails.)

A resident of Key West for more than 30 years, Weatherby’s name has been synonymous with Key West’s saltwater surroundings — as a diver, captain, instructor and later, a shipwrecker intent on taking pressure off the natural coral reefs by sinking ships to serve as artificial reefs, marine habitats, dive sites and fishing spots. He also served for nine years on the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary’s advisory council.

On May 29, 2009, an emotional Weatherby was wiping a different type of saltwater from his eyes, as he watched the 510-foot former Navy ship Hoyt S. Vandenberg sink into the sea and embark on its final mission as an artificial reef. 

He had worked tirelessly for 10 years with a dedicated group of volunteers and business supporters to “Sink the Vandenberg” as the world’s second-largest artificial reef. The project faced countless setbacks, red tape, environmental approvals and increasing costs. But Weatherby was relentless, constantly pacing while talking on his old, yellow Nokia cellphone to anyone who would listen about the importance and potential benefits of artificial reefs and habitat creation in the Florida Keys.

Days after landing upright on the ocean floor in 2009, about seven miles south of the Key West International Airport,  the Vandenberg wreck became an instantly popular dive site and fishing spot, attracting all manner of marine life. 

Weatherby continued to advocate for artificial reefs and habitat creation all over the U.S. and Caribbean.

Joe Weatherby between dives aboard the Sea Eagle, a familiar dive boat to many in Key West. CONTRIBUTED

Keeping a shipwrecker afloat

After decades of sinking ships, Weatherby now needs help staying afloat.

He suffered a stroke earlier this year and has embarked on the frustrating journey to a full recovery. 

In response to Weatherby’s struggle — and stubborn refusal to seek help — the Key West community is doing what it does best, rallying around one of its own.

Unable to work during his recovery, medical bills and daily living expenses are piling up. Friends and relatives are visiting daily, bringing healthy meals, walking with him as he complains about having to use a walker and ensuring he checks his blood sugar levels and otherwise follows medical advice.

In addition, several fundraising events are scheduled, with more in the works.

The Half Shell Raw Bar, where Weatherby worked decades ago, created a special drink in his name and donated 100% of all proceeds from the sale of those drinks to the Weatherby Recovery Fund being administered by Dan Blagriff at Centennial Bank.

See the information box on this page for additional upcoming fundraising events and stay tuned to and the Friends of Joe Weatherby Facebook page as more events are added.

Benefits for Joe Weatherby:

Monday, April 3: BINGO for Joe,  7 to 9 p.m. at the Green Parrot. Includes Bingo prizes, a silent auction and a raffle. Free to attend. $1 per Bingo card. 

Thursday, April 6: Vibrator Races Help Joe, 6 to 9pm at Mary Ellen’s, 420 Appelrouth Lane. Tickets are $20 in advance and bring cash to place your race bets. (See Facebook events for details and the Friends of Joe Weatherby Facebook page.)

Through February & March: Shots and Giggles, 201 Ann St., is offering two specialty, Joe-inspired drinks —  Joe’s Ocean Water (vodka) and Joe’s Pilar Sunset Cocktail. All proceeds from drink sales benefit Weatherby. 

(The Sunset Social Drinking Club is planning an event at Shots and Giggles with time and date to be determined.)

Mandy Miles drops stuff, breaks things and falls down more than any adult should. An award-winning writer, reporter and columnist, she's been stringing words together in Key West since 1998. "Local news is crucial," she says. "It informs and connects a community. It prompts conversation. It gets people involved, holds people accountable. The Keys Weekly takes its responsibility seriously. Our owners are raising families in Key West & Marathon. Our writers live in the communities we cover - Key West, Marathon & the Upper Keys. We respect our readers. We question our leaders. We believe in the Florida Keys community. And we like to have a good time." Mandy's married to a saintly — and handy — fishing captain, and can't imagine living anywhere else.