Hiking, Kayaking and Visiting the Aircraft Carrier Gerald R. Ford, May 2017

We left the Raleigh area on May 1st and began our journey back to Michigan through New England.  When we began our life as full-time RVers we never planned to visited every one of the 50 states.  However, last year we realized that we only had thirteen left and it became a goal (at least to me!).  When we ended 2016 in Tampa, FL we only had six states left and they were all in New England.  As we made out plans for 2017, we decided to check off these last six states.

From North Carolina we planned to drive through Norfolk to go to Delaware (#1), then to New Jersey (#2), through Connecticut (#3), then Rhode Island (#4), spend Memorial Day in Massachusetts before driving to New Hampshire (#5), and camp near Grand Isle in Vermont (#6).  We wanted to be back in Michigan by mid-June so some of the stops would be only 1-2 days, with longer stays in other areas.

The Hampton Roads area of Virginia is full of military installations from all services and offers a variety of military campgrounds to choose from.  We decided to try the Sea Mist RV Park at Oceana Naval Air Station near Virginia Beach.  We really had no plans of what we would do in Virginia Beach, other than going to the beach.  We stopped at the Virginia Welcome Center on our way to Sea Mist and picked up some brochures.  At the base Information Tickets and Travel (ITT) office we got more information, purchased passes for a cruise of the Norfolk harbor, and spent the rest of the day planning.

The campground was nice, with full hook ups and only a short walk to the beach.  The next morning we enjoyed our morning walk by walking along the beach and then back through the base to our trailer.  We saw all kinds of sea gulls, a couple of sting rays that had washed up on the beach and a couple of dolphins playing offshore – a very entertaining walk.

After cleaning up we visited the Cape Henry Lighthouse at Fort Story.  The Cape Henry Light was the first federally funded, public works project of the new United States, commissioned in 1789.  President George Washington personally reviewed the requirements and contracts for the construction.  It is one of nine octagonal lighthouses that exist today.  As a lighthouse fanatic, this was a “must see” for me.

After the lighthouse we enjoyed a rather breezy lunch on the patio of CP Shuckers (the food and service were great!), and walked down to the Virginia Beach Boardwalk and former Coast Guard Lifesaving Station.

Wednesday, May 3rd we drove to the Norfolk Naval Station.  Pat had found that tours were offered of the base, which is the largest Navy Base in the country.  We figured we could just drive around and do the tour on our own.  We stopped in the tour office and I was pleased to see it was run by the Navy.  After checking my ID card they showed me the tour route, pointed out some specific things we may want to see, and sent us on our way.  They mentioned that the aircraft carrier, the Gerald R. Ford was in port.  “How great is that?” I thought. President Ford was a native of Grand Rapids, MI. The Ford is the first of its class and will replace the current Nimitz class carriers.  The Ford was launched in 2013, is undergoing sea trials, and scheduled to be commissioned this year.  We drove along the piers and were able to find a parking spot near the carrier and walked along to pier to see not only the Gerald R. Ford, but the George Washington and the Abraham Lincoln, both Theodore Roosevelt class carriers.

I found it fascinating to wander along the pier and watch the work going on each vessel.  As we walked we would see a ship I didn’t recognize and Pat would Google the ship’s number to find out more information – what a great way to tour a Navy Base! After the piers we stopped at memorials for the USS Iowa, the battle of the Monitor and the Merrimack (CSS Virginia) that took place right off shore from the Norfolk Naval Station, and the USS Cole, that was attacked and severely damaged in Yemen on October 12, 2000.

After a quick lunch, we drove to Norfolk to tour the harbor on the three-masted schooner, American Rover. We arrived well before our departure time and wandered along the riverfront.  We walked past the new Waterside District, a restaurant and entertainment venue, that would make its “soft” opening in a couple of days.  It was too bad we were scheduled to leave before then, it looked like a great place for dinner.

A short distance away was Nauticus, a maritime-themed science museum.  Its https://www.history.navy.mil/content/history/museums/hrnm.htmllargest artifact is the battleship, the USS Wisconsin.  The Hampton Roads Naval Museum is on the second floor of Nauticus and is free to the public.

The American Rover cruise was a great experience.  We motored past several commercial shipyards with their dry docks, filled with assorted ships being repaired, as our captain described them.  He delivered an ongoing commentary of the activities and facilities along the shore, such as the ships of the Navy’s Reserve Fleet (transport ships in storage that can be brought to an operational status in a matter of days) and the Portsmouth Naval Hospital, the largest in the country.  At the mouth of the Elizabeth River the crew hoisted the sails and we sailed back to our dock near the Waterside District.

On our last day we traveled south to the Back Bay National Wildlife Refuge.  We hiked along the beach for a distance before turning inland to hike through the wetlands between the Atlantic Ocean and Redhead Bay.  This barrier island is a habitat to many native wildlife as well as migrating birds.  We saw turtles, egrets, heard Clappers (a bird whose cry sounds like two rocks being clapped together), and saw our first Redwing Blackbirds.  After circling back to the Visitor Center, we launched our kayaks into Redhead Bay.  We had hoped to paddle along the barrier island and explore some of the small coves we had seen on our hike, but the winds had grown in strength and, rather than wear ourselves out fighting them, we made it a short loop and headed back to the launch.

In hind sight, we probably should have planned to spend more time in the area.  As we packed up we talked about returning to explore the area in more detail on another trip.

On Friday, May 5th we headed north to Bethany Beach, DE.

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Rain, Rain, and More Rain – Raleigh, NC – April 2017

We returned to Falls Lake as Camp Hosts in April.  For most of our time there the weather was beautiful and we enjoyed ourselves by visiting with our daughter, Elisabeth.

While we were serving as Camp Hosts at the Falls Lake State Recreation Area in October of 2016, we rode out Hurricane Matthew.  It rained for days and days.  When it finally stopped, we watched the levels of Falls Lake rise as the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers held the water back in our lake to reduce the amount of flooding in downstream communities.  I estimated that the lake levels were approximately six feet above the normal level.  As the days went by we watched the tragic consequences of all of that rain on many communities as the rivers flooded and people had to flee from their homes into shelters.

Near the end of our stay a major weather front swept through area, bringing storms and heavy rainfall.  The rain fell over a shorter period of time and in a more concentrated area than in October, and the impact on our lake was severe.  We had several tent campers in our loop of the campground, and I walked around reminding everyone to make sure their ground cloths were not funneling the rain water under their tent.  As I was doing this I came across a woman who was camping by herself who had a small river flowing right under her tent.  I got a couple other men to help me out and we moved her tent to higher ground within her site.  The next day when I checked on her the lake level was rising, and looked like it could flood the lower portions of her site.  One of the Rangers helped her move to a higher site in the loop.

The next day we discovered that the lake was expected to rise several more feet and would soon flood all of the lower campsites.  The Ranger staff was notifying all of the incoming campers that their reservations were being changed to other campsites.  Later in the day the Corps of Engineers advised the staff that the level would soon rise high enough to flood the electrical boxes of some of the campsites.  That caused the Rangers to move all of the campers in our loop to other sites in the campground. The woman we had helped earlier was told she would have to move to the Rolling View Campground and she broke into tears. She was just tired of moving. Fortunately her daughter got some of her friends to help her with that move and she should be done moving after that.  Here is what her first site looked like the day she left for Rolling View.

As the lake continued to rise, it flooded the sewer lift station for our loop so the bathroom couldn’t be used.  County health regulations forced the Rangers to close this entire loop, compounding the problem they were dealing with.  Our own site was now without power, but we moved to a site in our loop high enough that its electrical service had not been compromised.  Because we were considered staff, we could stay in the closed loop and not use a site needed for other campers.  We continued our duties, but just cleaned different bathrooms. Camping in a closed loop has its advantages.  It was so quiet, especially in the evening.  It was like boondocking in the middle of a forest, but with electrical and water hookups.

It was interesting monitoring the lake levels, and I estimated that the lake rose about ten feet in less than a week.  I can only imagine what the impact of what those millions of gallons of water flowing downstream would have done to communities that already had rivers cresting their banks.  One morning we paddled our kayaks around the shore of the campground.  We paddled into some of the campsites and the playground.  We even paddled over one of the campground roads.  We picked up  some trash and were able to put it into trash cans without leaving our kayaks.  As we posted on Facebook that afternoon, “If you have a reservation for Site #62, your site is NOT available.”

We did do other things while in the Raleigh area like kayaking on the Neuse River with Elisabeth, helping her with some work on her house, celebrating my birthday and Elisabeth’s birthday, and geocaching with a friend of mine from our stay in Key West.  However, our most significant memory will always be the flooding on Falls Lake.

Posted in Fulltime RV, Michigan Traveler, North Carolina, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Working on the Road | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Cherry Blossoms in Washington DC – March 2017

We have visited our nation’s capital many times but never to see the cherry blossoms in the spring.  As we planned our trip to Raleigh, NC we realized that we would be arriving in North Carolina, just a five hour drive to D.C., in time for the Cherry Festival. We left the trailer at the Falls Lake State Recreation Area and, in Elisabeth’s car, the three of us drove to Washington , D.C.

We arrived on Monday afternoon, checked into the hotel, and took the Metro (subway) to the National Mall.  We wandered around the Tidal Basin and enjoyed looking at the cherry trees in bloom.  We visited the World War II Memorial, and the Vietnam Memorial.  We strolled along following the cherry trees, we took in the Korean War Memorial, the Martin Luther King Memorial, the Franklin D. Roosevelt Memorial, and the Jefferson Memorial.  I am always impressed by the way the creators of these memorials are able to capture and display the essence of the subject of each memorial – the stark silence of the Vietnam Memorial as you descend to the wall, the weariness of the troops in the Korean War Memorial, the way MLK is anchored in rock, and the quotes of FDR and the wheels of his chair hidden in his statue.

The next morning we had planned to go to the Smithsonian National Zoo, but it was raining and we opted to make the Smithsonian Museum of American History our first stop.  I love American history and could have spent a week there, the exhibits are so well done.  We spent a lot of our time at the exhibit on the history of food, yes they have an exhibit on food.  I never knew there were so many different lids for coffee cups!

It was both intriguing and disturbing to see things you remembered like TV trays and TV dinners displayed as history. What does it say about you when the things you remember like they were yesterday are on display in a museum, sort of makes you feel old.  We even saw an early version of today’s RV, although I’m sure the family portrayed in this exhibit would have preferred the one we have.

I love Washington’s Metro system, it makes traveling around the District so easy.  In the afternoon, as the rain moved on, we took the Metro to within a short walk to the Smithsonian National Zoo.  As much fun as it is to see the animals, the history of the Zoo was interesting to me. William Hornaday, the chief taxidermist for the Smithsonian began the collection with fifteen North American species. The deer, foxes, prairie dogs, badgers, lynx and bison would eventually become the National Zoological Park. In 1889 President Grover Cleveland officially signed an act of congress into law creating the National Zoological Park for “the advancement of science and the instruction and recreation of the people.” Two years later, the animals, who had been living on the National Mall, had a new home within Rock Creek Park in northwest Washington, D.C., which officially opened in 1891.

They have “trails” for each variety of species and have done a great job in building environments for the animals to live.  It was fun to watch the tigers roam in their area, the elephants eat and wash themselves, the prairie dogs hiding in their burrows, and the pandas munching on their bamboo stalks.

On our last morning we took a guided tour of the Capital by the staff of our daughter’s Senator, Tom Tillis. There are tours available through the Capital Visitor Center, but I felt we got special attention by going through the Senator’s office.

We arrived well before the tour and decided to take a look in the Library of Congress before the tour.  If you are into libraries, this is the spot for you.  The nation’s first collection of books was held in the Capital Building but was destroyed when the British burned the Capital during the War of 1812.  After that Congress authorized the building of the Library of Congress .  To make up for some of the lost documents, former President Thomas Jefferson, who had the largest and most comprehensive collection of published works in the U.S. at the time, sold his entire collection to the Library for whatever price Congress thought was appropriate.  This collection is now on display at the Library of Congress.

After meeting our guide, an intern, in Senator Tillis’ office, we walked through the tunnel that leads from the Senate Office Building to the Capital.  This is a definite benefit that allows members of Congress and their staff to go directly from building to building without the need to go through countless security checkpoints, not to mention the benefit of avoiding rain and snow.

During our tour we visited the old Supreme Court, the center of the U.S. government (the geographic center of the District of Columbia), Statuary Hall (where we saw the statue of Gerald R. Ford, Michigan’s only President), the Office of the Speaker of the House of Representatives, and the old House and Senate Chambers.  One of the new additions to the Capital is a plaque honoring the passengers and crew of United Airline Flight 93.  On 911 they fought and took back their hijacked plane and saved the U.S. Capital, its intended target.  After the tour we ate lunch in the Visitor Center and viewed an exhibit that traced Congress, and its buildings, from its conception to the present.  This exhibit is an excellent and inspirational.

The Capital is a historic, and imposing structure with an impressive view of the National Mall and the Washington Monument.  I consider it to be a “must see” place to visit when touring Washington DC.

After a short ride on the Metro, we loaded back into the car to return to Raleigh to begin our time as Camp Hosts for the Falls lake State Recreation Area.

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Mansions and Wild Horses, Cumberland Island, GA – March 2017

The Cumberland Island National Seashore is the largest, southernmost barrier island on the Georgia coast, and has been inhabited for thousands of years.  There is evidence of the early Timucuan tribes and early Spanish settlers, but their locations on the island remain a mystery.  Even the defensive positions of the British, built prior to the Revolution have been lost to time.  Much of this is due to the nature of barrier islands, they are not static, but shift with the wind, tide, and current.  Today, under the 1964 Wilderness Act, the National Park Service shelters 36,000 acres of maritime forests, wild beach, freshwater lakes, salt marshes, and 9,800 acres of designated wilderness on Cumberland Island.

We had visited the area in 2015 to stay at the Kings Bay Navy Submarine Base.  During that visit we had learned about Cumberland Island and visited the National Park Service museum, but hadn’t set aside time to actually travel to the island.  This trip was to take care of that.

The only way to visit Cumberland Island is by boat.  The National Park Service operates a daily ferry from nearby St. Marys, GA, and the ferry takes only 300 people each day.  You can make reservations up to six months in advance and almost every ferry is full.  We were able to make a reservation a couple days before our visit.

You can camp on the island for a maximum of seven days in primitive, hike-in campgrounds, but you must bring all of your supplies, as only drinking water is available there.  In some of the campgrounds the water is drawn from wells and must be filtered.

We planned to bring our bikes with us.  There are a limited number of bikes allowed on the ferry and it is first-come, so show up early.  Unfortunately, while we were unloading, we discovered that my bike had a flat tire, so we could only take Pat’s bike with us.  I rented one on the island.  We had mixed feelings about the bikes.  We tried to ride to Plum Orchard, one of the old mansions, but the road was a sandy two-track and the sand was soft and loose in many areas, making biking a struggle. Even on my rental bike with beach tires, I was struggling.  We decided that we weren’t going to make it and headed back to the southern end of the island.

We took a side road that led to the eastern shore and came out north of Sea Camp Beach.  Here the bike riding on the beach was fun.  The sand was damp and hard, like riding on a sidewalk.  We walked in the waves of the Atlantic Ocean and picked up seas shells off the beach.  South of Sea Camp Beach we had lunch while watching the sea gulls, terns, and some of Cumberland Island’s wild horses.

The horses of Cumberland Island are not truly wild, but feral horses, descended from modern domestic horses that were brought to the island by the early settlers.  By the end of the 1700s, island landowners reported an estimate of 200 domestic horses and mules were kept as free ranging livestock.  During the 1800s several plantations used horses for transportation, work, and recreation.  When the Park was established in 1972, the horses became feral on the island.  They are not managed but survive on their own and the size of the herd is affected by the natural stressors faced by native wildlife.

The largest mansion on the island is Dungeness.  Revolutionary War General Nathaniel Greene was granted land on Cumberland Island in 1783.  His wife built a four story home on the island and named it Dungeness, but Greene died before he could move in.  The building was destroyed by a fire in 1866. In 1884 Thomas Carnegie (brother of Andrew Carnegie) and his wife, Lucy, began building on the Dungeness ruins.  This 56-room Queen Anne style mansion is now in ruins and is a key landmark.

The Thomas Carnegie family owned 90% of the island and built three other mansions, Greyfield, Stafford, and Plum Orchard, for their children.  Plum Orchard was built for Carnegie’s son, George and his wife Margaret Thaw in 1898 and donated to the National Park Service in 1971.  The Park Service now maintains it and makes it available for tours. We wondered why the family let Dungeness fall intro ruin, but never found any answers.

The Carnegie’s weren’t the only inhabitants.  A settlement of freed slaves established a community in the north end of the island.  The First African Baptist Church, built in 1893 and rebuilt in 1937 is one of the few remaining structures.

After the last few days of being tourists, we spent Thursday taking it easy around the campsite, doing some routine maintenance, and on Friday, March 25th we were back on the road.  Next stop, Falls Lake State Recreation Area near Raleigh, NC.

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America’s Oldest City, St. Augustine, FL – March 2016

St. Augustine was on our route north from Key West and was a place we had never visited. We decided to visit St. Augustine “on the fly.”  We stayed in the parking lot of the local Camping World on Monday, March 20th, picked up some RV supplies there, went shopping at the outlet mall next door, and walked to dinner. We left the trailer at Camping World and drove into St. Augustine.

Our first stop was the St. Augustine Lighthouse.  I am a true lighthouse fanatic and this light was supposed to be among the best, so I considered it to be on the “must see” list.  The non-profit St. Augustine Lighthouse & Maritime Museum has done a marvelous job of restoring the lighthouse and the lighthouse keepers quarters, as well as the surrounding buildings.  In addition to the lighthouse they have demonstrations of boat building.

After stopping to see the lighthouse we drove to the Fountain of Youth Archaeological Park.  When I first saw this as an option I thought it would be a bunch of hype over the “Fountain of Youth.” However, it was much better.  There were a variety of exhibits that included the history of the site and astronomy that highlighted the area.

I knew that St. Augustine was the oldest city in the US, but didn’t know this was the site of the first settlement by European explorers.  (My Viking ancestors may have discovered the western continent first, but they didn’t settle here.) As we walked through the complex I was reminded of our visit to the Jamestown Colony a couple of years ago.  The efforts of archaeologists were similar in both places.  I know that the 17th Century was a time of exploration and conquest, but looking back with our 21st Century eyes one has to wonder, “Who gave these explorers the right to claim the land they discovered (that was already inhabited by others) for their king or queen?

We wanted to see several sites and our time was limited.  Consequently we used our bikes for much of our sightseeing.  We left the truck at the Fountain of Youth and rode our bikes to see the rest.  The distances were not far and saved us the hassle of traffic and parking.

Our next stop was Castillo de San Marcos. This is the oldest masonry fort in the continental United States. Possession of the fort has changed six times, all peaceful, amongst four different governments: the Spanish Empire, Great Britain, the Confederate States of America and the United States (Spain and the United States having possession two times each). It was under siege twice, but never conquered. When the Spanish ceded the fort to the United States in 1821 the fort was designated a United States Army base and renamed Fort Marion, in honor of American Revolutionary War hero Francis Marion.

The fort was declared a National Monument in 1924, and after 251 years of continuous military possession, was deactivated in 1933. The site was then turned over to the United States National Park Service. In 1942 the original name Castillo de San Marcos, was restored by an Act of Congress.

We stopped for lunch at the Spanish Bakery and Cafe.  It is a delightful place to eat, with outdoor seating in an enclosed courtyard off St. George street.  St. George Street is a pedestrian street, away from the heavy traffic.  We didn’t have the time then, but I thought it would be fun to return sometime and explore the shops along the street.

You can’t spend any time in coastal Florida and the Keys without hearing the name of Henry Flagler.  Henry Flagler was an American industrialist and a founder of Standard Oil. He was also a key figure in the development of the Atlantic coast of Florida. He is known as the father of both Miami and Palm Beach, Florida. Realizing the need for a sound transportation system to support his hotel ventures, Flagler purchased short line railroads in what would later become known as the Florida East Coast Railway. He modernized the existing railroads so they could accommodate heavier loads and more traffic.

His next project was the Ponce de León Hotel in St. Augustine, now part of Flagler College. After many years of work, it opened on January 10, 1888.  It is almost impossible to imagine such a beautiful building as a college.  You only realized it was a residence hall when you ran into signs that announced that you were not allowed in the hallways and dining hall.  It was much easier to imagine staying here as a guest in the late 1800’s.

Our last stop was the San Sebastian Winery, established in 1996.  It’s hard to pass up a winery visit when it’s so convenient.  The winery specializes in blended and sparkling wines from native Muscatine grapes, as well as port and cream sherry dessert wines. The winery tour was self-guided and we moved from one tasting station to another as we walked through the winery.  I was very familiar with most of the wine making equipment and process, but it was interesting to talk with the employees about wine making and the history of the winery.

After a short ride back to the Fountain of Youth, we loaded our bikes back on the truck, picked up the trailer at Camping World and began our drive up I-95 to Country Oaks RV Park, that would be our base for exploring Cumberland Island.

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Cocoa Beach, FL – Repairs, Kayaks, and Friends – March 2017

As we were driving from Key Largo to Cocoa Beach, we stopped at a rest area.  As I was walking back to our trailer I noticed that it was leaning, that the driver side was definitely lower than the passenger side. This was not new, I had noticed this in the past but had attributed it to a slope in the ground, rather than a problem with the trailer.  This time there was no doubt that it was the trailer, not the ground. After we set up, I crawled under the trailer, expecting to see a weakened or broken spring.  What I found was a broken spring shackle and one that appeared to have been broken for a while. After some research I determined that Glenn’s Tire and Auto was the best place to do the repair.  After talking with Todd, their Service Manager, he suggested that I go to Ferguson’s Auto Supply to get the parts they would make the repairs this next afternoon.  At Ferguson’s I discovered that they had the shackles, but not the broken piece to which they were attached.  I spent the morning being directed from repair shop to another trying to find out how to get the missing part.  Finally I stopped at Giant Recreation World in Palm Bay and a salesman in their parts department recognized that I had a MORryde suspension and found a kit with all the replacement parts that I could order online.  I drove to Glenn’s to show Todd what I had ordered and made arrangements to bring our trailer in to have the work done. The lesson here is to crawl under your rig every so often and do a visual inspection.With the trailer repairs taken care of we could relax and enjoy our time in Cocoa Beach.  We had stayed in the area before and had already visited the Kennedy Space Center and other typical sights. One of the attractions that most visitors don’t check out are the Thousand Islands. They are a group of natural, modified, and spoil islands in the Banana River Lagoon. During the early 1970s ditching by dragline was used in an effort to eliminate salt marsh in order to control mosquitoes. Most of the productive salt marshes that once rimmed the Indian River Lagoon were degraded in a similar manner. One side effect of this dredging was the creation of a maze of narrow trails through mangrove islands and hidden hammocks that are spectacular for kayaking. The canals provide shelter for manatees, dolphins and a wide variety of coastal birds. Many groups lead kayak tours from the Ramp Road boat launch and we saw several groups as we paddled around the islands and into the mangroves. The day was perfect – clear and sunny, with light winds. We paddled into a small lagoon, looking for a place to land our kayaks and eat lunch.  Were we surprised when we found two picnic tables half submerged in the water!  Not your normal lunch stop, but certainly the most unique lunch spot we’ve had on a kayaking trip.

A special treat was to watch the launch of a Saturn V rocket by SpaceX from the Kennedy Space Center.  Even though we were miles away, we could hear the rocket engines and see the flare of the rocket. Another couple of fulltime RVers, also from Michigan, Jim and Diana Belisle, were spending the winter just south of us in Melbourne Beach.  We were able to meet with them and some friends of theirs, Fred and Bonnie, for dinner.  We all had a great time and hope to do it again, somewhere down the road.

The next morning we got to Glenn’s Auto as early as we could.  They got right to work and we hung out, hoping it would be a quick job.  It took longer than we expected but they did a great job and we were on the road by early afternoon.  Next stop, St. Augustine.

Posted in Florida, Fulltime RV, Michigan Traveler | 4 Comments

Diving the USS Spiegel Grove, Key Largo, FL – March 2017

Getting into Florida State Parks on short notice is not easy.  John Pennekamp State Park is one of the most popular and you can reserve a spot eleven months ahead of time.  However many of those who make a reservation that early have a change in plans and these reservations get cancelled.  If you consistently check for cancellations, you may get lucky.  After much diligence (on my wife’s part), we were one of the lucky ones and were able to get a two night opening and adjusted our departure from Key West accordingly.

Our reason for wanting to stay at Pennekamp was so I could dive on a couple of ships that had been sunk as artificial reefs off Key Largo.  My favorite dive shop in the area is Ocean Divers and they do a double wreck dive on Saturday and Sunday each week.  The plan was that we would dive on two Coast Guard cutters, the Duane and the Bibb.  I thought this would be great because the Duane and the Bibb are the sister ships of the Cutter Ingham in Key West where I served as a volunteer docent.  The weather forecast was for good weather but I woke up to heavy rain and winds.  The bad weather abated but as our boat headed for the dive site, the rain rolled back in again.  When we got to the dive site, the current was running so strong that the mooring balls were pulled underwater.  The good news was that our alternate plan was to do a double dive on the USS Spiegel Grove.

The Spiegel Grove is a destination dive.  On June 10, 2002, the date she was sunk, the Spiegel Grove was the largest artificial reef in the world.  With the sinking of the USS Oriskany off Pensacola on May 17, 2006, she became the second largest, and with the sinking of the USAFS Vandenberg off Key West on May 27, 2009, she slipped to third.  However, size has little to do with the quality of the dive and she still remains one of the world’s premier dive sites.

The vessel had an interesting ride to get to her current place among Florida’s big shipwrecks, starting with the ship’s premature sinking. Originally scheduled for sinking on Friday afternoon  May 17, 2002, the vessel apparently decided not to wait for the salvage crews and, six hours early, began to go down on its own, rolling over and coming to rest upside down with her bow protruding from the water. Three weeks later, salvage crews managed to complete the sinking of the Spiegel Grove, but were unable to roll the vessel upright and she came to rest on her starboard side. Further efforts were made to right the ship, without success, and the dive community eventually came to accept the fact that the vessel would remain on its side. However, nature had other ideas and in July of 2005, Hurricane Dennis ripped across the Florida Keys, leaving the Spiegel Grove sitting upright on the ocean’s bottom, just as originally planned.

As an LSD (Landing Ship, Dock), the Siegel Grove offers a unique dive profile.  Divers can penetrate the upper superstructure of the wreck through prepared “swim throughs,” and swim into the well deck. Numerous mooring balls provide the means of tying off of chartered dive boats and secure descent lines for the divers. Three of these lines end at depths between 60 and 70 feet, those attached to the port side of the upper superstructure and the tops of the large cranes. Several other descent lines on the bow and stern terminate in deeper depths of 90 to 100 feet. The vessel itself sits in 134 feet of water with the top of the wheelhouse around 60 feet, the peak of the bow at 90 feet, and the top of the stern deck near the well door at 100 feet.Unlike her younger cousin, the Vandenberg, the Spiegel Grove is a fully developed reef ecosystem. Thick coral covers the huge cranes and the gun mounts and carpets the decks. Numerous reef creatures, from queen angelfish to barracuda, inhabit the nooks and crannies of the vessel.As a solo diver I take my chances on who I may be paired with for the dive.  This time I was extremely lucky to find an experienced diver.  Jim and I discussed and developed a dive plan.  We descended down a line that led to one of the 50-ton cranes above the well deck.  From the mooring ball we were able to see the ghostly shape of the ship.  As we descended the top of the crane came into focus, swarms of fish came into view, and my excitement grew.Because of the weather, the visibility was not as good as the last time I dove on the Spiegel Grove, but the overall visibility was still good.  Unfortunately the particles in the water made underwater photography a challenge. As we swam around and through the Spiegel Grove, we saw multiple barracuda, angelfish, grouper, grunts, and jacks. On our first dive we explored the  exterior of the ship, including the bridge, and swam into the well deck.  I was almost overwhelmed with the sheer size of the vessel.The highlight was the second dive where Jim led me on a penetration of the upper deck of the superstructure and the bridge.  It was so dark that, at times, the only objects I could see were what I lit with my underwater light.  This dive sounds easier than it was.  Even though we were in prepared swim throughs, it was essential to maintain good buoyancy control so as not to stir up the silt that settles in the wreck.  Fortunately Jim and I were able to float through the wreck with minimal contact and left clear water for the pairs of dive buddies that followed us.

The professionalism of the crew of our Ocean Divers dive boat was the icing on the cake as they helped us prepare for each dive and assisted us with our entry and exits.While I was disappointed that I was not able to dive on the Duane and the Bibb, I was not disappointed to dive the Spiegel Grove again.  In spite of starting in bad weather, it moderated and we had great conditions for diving.  I had an excellent crew to support the dive and a good dive buddy who made the dive a unique experience.  Life is good!

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