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Doubling Down on “Lady Luck”

Feeling lucky? Pompano Beach, Fla. officials sure are. They’re betting a recently sunken former New York City tanker will become a scuba diving hot spot as well as providing a much needed boost to south Florida’s fragile coral reefs.

Formerly known as Newtown Creek, the 324-foot vessel was scuttled on July 23 about a mile and a half east of the Pompano Beach Fishing Pier. Holes were strategically cut into the wreck and prefilled with water so the ship would only need a minimal amount of water to sink.

The rechristened Lady Luck is the centerpiece of Shipwreck Park, a series of 16 other ships-turned-reefs, brimming with an array of marine life. With whimsical pieces of art on its deck, Lady Luck is expected to be one of the most popular and accessible major dive sites in the country. Free to divers with their own boats, Lady Luck is projected to attract 35,000 participants each year.

The 2,557-ton Newtown Creek’s propellers - at seven feet in diameter - were powered by twin 1,500 horsepower diesel engines. It has fine lines and a sharp bow with a beam of 49.6 feet. The lovely grey hulled coastal tanker traversed New York Harbor’s waters for close to a half century hauling sludge.

Last year the vessel was decommissioned by the city of New York and sold to Shipwreck, Inc., a partnership between the city of Pompano Beach and Isle Casino Racing Pompano Beach. Both entities paid $312,500 to purchase, transport and “refurbish” the tanker. The new dive spot will be curated year-round with art exhibits and events.

Charlie Healy worked as the assistant engineer on Newtown Creek for most of his 20-year stint on the tanker. He traveled to Pompano and got to go out on the former tanker one last times. That evening Healy attended a special party that saluted all those folks who helped make the Lady Luck project happen. He dove down to Lady Luck the day after she was sunk.

“I followed the main line down to the front of the main deck then into the wheelhouse, the gutted engine room and up to the bridge,” recalled Healy, who lives in Breezy Point, N. Y. “It was strange, weird. I was down there for45 minutes from stem to stern, top to bottom.

“It was a surreal experience. Swimming up the ladders, not walking like I did hundreds of times. I would flash back to my time in the engine room and up at the main console where the ship was steered. That Sunday I’m looking at barracuda and angel fish gliding past me. I’m so glad the ship is now a reef. I’ll be going back to dive once or twice a year and bringing friends. I’m anxious to see how the reef evolves.”

The project was spearheaded by the Pompano Beach Tourism Committee. Located midway between Palm Beach and Miami, Pompano Beach is known as “the Heart of the Gold Coast.” Originally a farming and fishing community, Pompano Beach is now celebrated for its excellent boating and fishing. Scores of anglers flock to the 1,000 foot municipal fishing pier, while charters off the coast yield sailfish, mahi, kingfish, wahoo, swordfish, marlin as well as bottom fish.

Lady Luck will be the largest addition to Florida’s artificial reef system along the Atlantic coast and will contribute greatly to the ecosystem of Florida’s reefs. It is modeled after other projects that have all realized far greater than expected returns on investment helping to further create a year-round tourist destination.

“The movers and shakers here have been searching for the right ship for the past eight years,” said Greg Harrison, Chairman of Shipwreck Park and assistant City Manager.

“I contacted a captain in Seattle who told me he and his crew would bring the ship from anywhere to Pompano. He and I went to a surplus auction in New York City on April 15 to look at the ship. It was perfect. We put in our bid of $235,000 and gambled that no one else would bit on it. We did need additional money for the renovation so we had a fundraiser where we pulled in sponsorships of more than $200,000.”

The reef structures in South Florida run parallel to the coastline with the Gulf Stream. Lady Luck’s location is quite attractive because it is in a flat, deep area, and just 1 1/2 miles offshore. The unique geography allows for the perfect depth of water with quick, easy access. Longer than a football field, its deck sits on the ocean floor 100 feet below the surface. The highest point is only 50 to 70 feet underwater – a depth that allows daylight to illuminate the exhibited art and makes it perfect for open water divers.

There is plenty to explore so visitors can spend a whole dive on the vessel unlike many wrecks that are good for only one pass. Lady Luck consists of 16 staterooms, a captain’s deck and a rotating gallery of display of locally produced underwater artwork.

The creative force behind Lady Luck is prominent Pompano Beach artist Dennis MacDonald who created a mock underwater casino that boasts an open main deck decorated with intriguing sculptures. Divers discover a whimsical mermaid bartender, giant dice and interactive pieces such as a card-slinging octopus and table shark hustlers for divers to play with at poker tables. There are also roulette tables and slot machines on the main deck.

“To my knowledge nothing on a ship of this magnitude with this kind of interactive art exists anywhere else,” said Harrison. “The early response is better than what we projected. Dive shops have booked plenty of dive trips. It’s less than a five minute boat ride from the Hillsborough Inlet. We’re all very excited.”

Beyond the entertainment factor, Lady Luck will establish an expansive new coral growth site. Over the past couple of decades south Florida has seen its precious artificial reefs depleted due to dredging and expansion projects in local ports. So in addition to providing significant benefits to the local economy from the divers that frequent the site, the wreck will aid countless marine species.

Lady Luck is sitting in 120 feet of water next to a natural reef cliff,” Harrison explained. “Over time the natural algae growth from the sea floor will consume it, preserving the reef ecosystem. Already it’s become a fish magnet as schools and schools of different species of fish go there to check it out.

“We’ve had inquiries from all over the world. Divers worldwide will love this new artificial reef, and we expect the popularity of Shipwreck Park to take pressure off of natural coral reefs nearby.”

Studies by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) National Marine Sanctuary Program show there has been a huge economic impact of earlier ship’s sunk in other artificial reef projects around Florida. This includes the money spent on hotels, restaurants and attractions in addition to diving, as well as what locals spend on diving, dive equipment, certification, etc.

For eight years Jon Bailey worked as a deck hand on the Newtown Creek as it travelled up and down the East River each day hauling New Yorkers’ sewage.

“I was hoping that she would be picked up and  be made a reef out of it,” said Bailey of Long Beach, N. Y. “Better than ending up in China and scrapped. She has a new life so I’m very happy. She’s going to a new home.”

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