I contacted my friends, the Kirwans, to help me remember this story. They’ve been going out on the boat with me for years. Their daughter, Delanie, wrote a report about one of our adventures, so I turned to her research to bring you this story about the wreck off Boca Grande that Henry Ford sold to the military back in the late 1940s. I was born just 5 years after it was placed there as a bombing target. So, over my 70 years I have watched as it went through it’s phases of decay.
The USS Coral PY15 a Historical Timeline with Notations and Hypothesis is a document compiled by Delanie Kirwan when she was in the 6th grade. Can you believe your eyes at what I am saying to you here? Yes, she is an obviously gifted young lady who will soon graduate from Florida Atlantic University with honors in Marine Biology. Am I proud, yes to say the least, as proud as a surrogate parent can be.
This little bit of history has two stories, one about the vessel and one about the little girl who was the twinkle in her parents’ eyes. I can still remember her first time in my boat. Her curiosity, and everyone else who ever passed the wreck, wanted to be satisfied. Over the years we would snorkel around it and she would wonder about it. At 12 years of age, Delanie got a permit from NOAA to examine and film this submerged cultural resource within the boundaries of the National Marine Sanctuary. We all wanted to know the history of the mysterious wreck, which was used as a bombing target back in the day.
My dad, a Navy man, was stationed here in Key West at the Sonar School in 1945 when WWII ended. He used to take us fishing aboard the Ping Fisher, a converted PT boat the Sonar school used for R & R. Can you imagine joining the Navy and having your duty be to take families fishing? I think things have changed significantly in the military since then. At any rate, Dad would always stop here to drop a line or two, so I knew that wreck of an island well. Having spent my 44 years of chartering since 1976 taking folks to fish and now snorkeling on it, watching her age has been an odyssey.
When I returned to Key West in the late 1970’s, I went out to the wreck and found the seagrass had filled it enough to create a substrate of sorts for things to grow in. The mangrove propagating nodules from a red and a black mangrove had floated in and sprouted up to become good sized trees. The black mangrove propagule had found a nice surface to spread its air roots out in a large circle on the stern that was in and out of the water with the tides and was doing quite well. The larger Red mangrove anchored itself mid-ship had sent down substantial roots and made it through many storms.
I was off traveling out of the country for the hurricane season of 2004. When I returned, the USS Coral with her proud beautiful mangrove trees had been pulled over on her side. Evidently she had been the last resort for some captain to tie their vessel to in one of the storms, probably Ivan, which became deadly after passing Key West. This was the death knell for the mangrove trees in the wreck. Their roots were pulled loose and the substrate washed away with every tide and storm that followed. The 4 hurricanes that passed by in 2005 pushed the vessel over even more and all the coral that had been on her sides was dead and either fell off or were taken. The trees were still there, but their life had been sucked out of them.
You see, this island was once the private yacht of Henry Ford, named the Sialia, (SAH-LYE-AH) before she was sold to the navy for in-shore patrol duty, and eventually was scrapped. The hypothesis Delanie made after her intense and rigorous research stated: “I think the USS Coral PY15 was intentionally grounded in the area near Boca Grande Key by the US Navy after it was decommissioned in 1943 for use as a target ship in training bomber crews in ASW [ anti-submarine warfare ] tactics. As only cement filled bombs were used for target practice, most likely to save on explosives during the war, and this target is littered with the empty bomb casings on the sea floor all around the wreck, which have now become homes for sea-life.”
Twenty-six years later, when I started chartering in 1976, this wreck island had mangrove trees growing in her and they were very healthy. Storm after storm, she began listing over and the trees eventually died and were washed away after Hurricanes Wilma and Irma finished them off. The rusting away of her super structure above the water was fast and the hull continues to waste away into the warm salty sea that gently pulls her into her embrace.
We can always find the positive in everything if we look hard and long enough. Life goes on, everything changes, and I watch the building up and the restructuring of our precious islands with each passing year. The USS Coral still sits quietly, wasting away in Margaritaville, and continues to be a lovely fish aquarium in the shallow protected waters of “my office.” I’ll continue the story of the Sialia and Delanie Kirwan in the next edition. For now, keep salty friends.