This story should have been written months ago, when its subject was still alive to read it, and to celebrate the impact he had, the memories he spawned and the boats he sank (intentionally, for the most part). But Capt. Joe Weatherby died Feb. 13 in a Miami care facility, several months after suffering a stroke and struggling to recover. He was 62.

“Pack a lunch, cupcake.” | “Not for nothin’, but…” | “We’ve never been closer; we’re gonna sink this thing.”

The list of “Joe-isms” could fill an entire newspaper and everyone has their own favorites. His quips will remain forever lodged in the memories of all who knew the boat captain, diver, bartender, scooter driver and shipwrecker.

His legacy lies on the ocean floor about seven miles off Key West, where Weatherby worked for more than a decade to “sink the Vandenberg,” as an artificial reef for divers, fishermen and marine habitat. After years of government red tape, permitting, funding struggles, environmental cleanup of the 510-foot former military ship and thousands of setbacks, the Gen. Hoyt S. Vandenberg sank at 10:24 a.m. on May 27, 2009. 

Capt. Joe Weatherby watches the flawless sinking of the Vandenberg as an artificial reef off Key West on May 27, 2009. CAROL TEDESCO/Contributed

A knot closed Weatherby’s throat and he denied the tears of pride that threatened to spill down his cheek that day as he watched the sinking from a nearby boat. (Full disclosure: I dated Joe Weatherby for two years around 2002, while he was still working to sink the ship, and remained friends with him for years after.)

Joe Weatherby, left, who 13 years ago identified the former U.S. Air Force missile-tracking ship Gen. Hoyt S. Vandenberg as a candidate for sinking as an artificial reef in the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary, is congratulated by Monroe County Commissioner Mario Di Gennaro, right, after tying a Conch Republic flag to a stanchion on the Vandenberg May 29, 2009, sunk about seven miles off Key West, Fla., in the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary. Following a dramatic May 27, 2009, scuttling, the Vandenberg officially opened to sport divers and anglers May 30. Stephen Frink/Florida Keys News Bureau

The ocean floor is precisely where Weatherby’s legacy should remain, because it’s where his heart and mind resided for so many years. (I would like to think his ashes will end up entombed in the artificial reef.)

A native of the South Jersey Shore — Avalon, New Jersey — Weatherby had lived in Key West for about 40 years. He worked as a bartender at Half Shell Raw Bar and the former Rumrunners and Hideaway bars on Duval Street. He also worked as a dive and snorkel boat captain and was an avid diver.

He also would be the first to tell you, he wasn’t exactly a Boy Scout and the Vandenberg isn’t the only shipwreck he had a hand in sinking, although the details surrounding the mysterious overnight sinking of a tugboat have remained obscured by rum, history and statutes of limitations. 

Suffice to say, the popular dive spot “Joe’s Tug” also bears Weatherby’s fingerprints and his first name, although he rarely took credit for it, as the former tugboat sank unceremoniously (and less than legally) in the thick of night decades ago.

Weatherby leaves behind legions of friends and relatives all over the world – in Florida, New Jersey, New York and Japan, where his brother Marty lives, and where Weatherby once spent time teaching English.

All who knew him, including friends who remained close since high school in Jersey and college at the University of Delaware, have their own memories of adventures, misadventures, late nights, early mornings and more than a few clandestine operations at sea and on land. (There were also more than a few references to the fact that he was once asked to leave Delaware and not return, although it wasn’t clear whether the prohibition applied to the university or to the entire state. “At least it’s a small state; easy to avoid,” Joe would say decades later.)

He was a uniquely poor driver of anything except scooters and boats.

Martinis were “brain darts” (but were to be consumed enthusiastically until a girlfriend shook her head subtly at the bartender, who would then switch him to vodka/cranberry without Joe noticing. 

Gummi bears were gold.

Reruns of “Law & Order” and “NYPD Blue” never got old.

Phone conversations required constant pacing.

Chinese takeout was king.

Rules were meant to be broken.

Joe Weatherby didn’t go down with the ship that helped define him, but his spirit will forever guide the divers who explore it and the creatures that inhibit it for centuries to come.

Godspeed, captain. You had a hell of a wild ride.

The following was taken from a Facebook tribute from Corey Stein, one of Joe Weatherby’s closest friends since college, where they met at the University of Delaware:

“I have had the tremendous privilege of being a friend and a brother (to Joe Weatherby) since September 1980. I can never thank him for so many many things that changed my life.  I always told Joe I lived vicariously through him. He knew it and in his picturesque way would spin me a yarn or two. I may have been his punching bag for a slew of his schemes and adventures and perhaps my biggest regret is that I should have gotten him to write and publish his memoir. He was our Hemingway, a poet laureate, a swashbuckling charismatic pirate, a hero and a lifesaver. Key West needs to honor him with a statue. … He thought big, acted bigger and made (expletive) history. Captain, my Captain. Vaya con dios, my brother, my best friend. We will meet up again in Valhalla. I will never forget you.”

(Stay tuned to the Keys Weekly next week as Capt. Joe Weatherby’s friends and family share memories and madcap adventures. Press deadlines did not permit us time to include them here. Information about upcoming memorial plans will be also be included as they are finalized. — Mandy Miles)

Mandy Miles
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.