By DAVID RAINER
Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources
Weather permitting, The Wet Willie Band will be rocking when David Walter and his crew from Walter Marine open the valves on a 271-foot coastal freighter and send it to the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico about 20 miles south of Orange Beach.
The freighter, which officially will be rechristened “The LuLu” Friday afternoon at a ceremony at LuLu’s Homeport restaurant on the Intracoastal Canal in Gulf Shores, will be a new tack in reef deployment off the Alabama Gulf Coast with the focus on the recreational diving community.
“We’ve built reefs primarily for fishing,” said Chris Blankenship, Director of the Alabama Marine Resources Division (MRD). “Diving has just been a secondary use for the reefs we’ve put out.”
Blankenship said Walter (aka Reefmaker) saw the cargo ship for sale at auction and asked MRD to help him with the cost of hauling the ship from Miami, preparing the ship for deployment and sinking the vessel in the Gulf. The total price tag was $500,000.
“We told David we didn’t have $500,000 to do it,” Blankenship said. “We thought it was a great idea, but we didn’t have all the money. David went ahead and purchased it anyway and towed it to his place on the Intracoastal Canal. The engine and a lot of stuff had been removed in Miami.”
The ship turned out to be the impetus to put together the Alabama Gulf Coast Reef and Restoration Foundation, a non-profit formed to assist in artificial reef deployment.
Blankenship said the Gulf Coast Convention and Visitors Bureau, Gulf Coast Chamber of Commerce, MRD, dive shops along the Alabama coast, Orange Beach Fishing Association and Walter Marine partnered with the foundation to raise the funds necessary to deploy “The LuLu.”
“Marine Resources Division offered the first $100,000,” Blankenship said. “We had that available. They said if they had some money it would be easier to raise the rest of the money.
Vince Lucido, president of the reef foundation, said the Baldwin County Commission kicked in $200,000, while the cities of Orange Beach and Gulf Shores added $50,000 each.
Then up stepped Mac McAleer, former executive with Krispy Kreme who owns Homeport Marina. McAleer made a large donation to surpass the fundraising goal. McAleer’s donation earned him naming rights. He chose The LuLu, the nickname for Lucy Buffet, McAleer’s business partner and name of Buffet’s restaurant adjacent to McAleer’s marina.
“They raised the money in six months,” Blankenship said. “The number of entities that came together to work on this was very impressive. It’s to benefit the whole Alabama coastal community. We hope to bring in some dive groups and additional tourism.”
The ship is a 271-foot coastal freighter, formerly used to carry cargo for relatively short trips to coastal areas and the Caribbean. The ship was mothballed and sold at auction. The main engines, generators, drive shafts, piping and electrical components were removed to make it eligible for a reef permit.
“They had a need to place the vessel within 20 miles of the shore for it to be effective for dive groups,” Blankenship said. “We are required to have 50 feet of clearance above the reef. The vessel is about 55 feet high, so we were going to put it in 110 feet of water. The only problem was that you have to go farther than 20 miles out to get to 110 feet of water.
“So we got them to cut five feet off the top of the vessel. There was a rail and a smokestack that could be removed. We were able to work with the community to get what it needed. That way, we were able to find a place in 105 feet of water that was within that 20 miles. We also worked with the charter boat captains to find a suitable area. They knew of a trench that we could put it in to ensure we had that 50 feet of clearance.”
Blankenship said because of the clearance, the reef will not be buoyed. Coordinates will be published in the MRD’s reef guide.
The ship will be towed down the Intracoastal Canal on Friday, May 24, to LuLu’s restaurant on the canal where the rechristening party will be held. The vessel will start its journey to the Gulf of Mexico on Saturday. McAleer plans to have a barge with Wet Willie aboard for an hour-long concert as the vessel slips below the surface.
“They’ll have to go out past Fort Morgan and then tow it south of Orange Beach,” Blankenship said. “The ship will be on site Sunday morning. There will be a couple of charter boats out there, and private boats can come and watch. Then David Walter and his crew will open several valves he’s installed and the ship will start to sink. A couple of hours later, hopefully it will be on the bottom. This will be the first intact ship that we’ve sunk in our reef zones.”
Blankenship and Lucido said the Oriskany, the aircraft carrier that was deployed off Pensacola, was the example followed for this project.
“The Oriskany has brought in a lot of dive dollars into northwest Florida,” Blankenship said. “We’re hoping this ship and others we add will do the same and diversify our economy from just catching red snapper to other non-consumptive recreation.”
Lucido said the current project brought about the formation of the foundation, but there’s a great deal more in store, especially with seed money of $150,000 remaining from their fundraising efforts.
“We felt like there would be other projects we would like to do in the future to complement what DCNR (Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources) is doing,” said Lucido of Krebs Engineering in Orange Beach. “We want to sink two more ships to increase the balance in the area as far as tourist attractions. We want to do some snorkel reefs like the ones in the Florida Panhandle.
“I used to be a dive operator many years ago. I still do a lot of diving. When I was teaching, we’d have to go to Pensacola or Panama City. We have the same water they have. Several of us felt that diving is under-promoted in Alabama. That was one of the purposes of this reef is to increase the awareness of the great diving opportunities we have here.
Blankenship said he expects the new reef will be available for diving very soon after deployment. Safety divers will check the wreck and diving will be allowed when given the “all clear.” Anglers will also be able to fish the reef when divers are not submerged, adding to the already bountiful reef program off Alabama.
“There’s no doubt we have the best reef-building program in the country,” Blankenship said. “We have 1,200 square miles of reef zones. About 17,000 reefs are deployed in the zones. It started back in the 1950s. The Liberty ships went down in the 70s. Bridge rubble from Dauphin Island Bridge went down in the 80s, and the tanks (Tanks to Reefs) went down in the 90s. Tensaw Bridge rubble and pipes and culverts (Roads to Reefs) have been deployed. Then there are 1,000 pyramids that were put down by the Red Snapper World Championship. So all that material has been put out there logically and spread around the whole area. That gives us the best reef fishing in the world.
“Now we’re moving into sinking ships that will offer great diving opportunities off Alabama.”
PHOTOS: The 271-foot coastal cargo ship rechristened The LuLu will be towed about 20 miles into the Gulf of Mexico over the weekend and will be sunk as the first reef in Alabama’s extensive artificial reef zones with recreational divers in mind. Weather permitting, a barge with The Wet Willie Band will be on site for entertainment as the vessel sinks.