Lee County officials will be in Key West within the next couple of weeks to inspect the Coast Guard cutter Mohawk to make sure it's shipshape and ready to set sail for bluer and deeper waters off the west coast.
The Lee County Commission last week approved taking the Mohawk and sinking it as an artificial reef off Sanibel Island. Lee County Marine Services Program workers plan to come to Key West and inspect the vessel, conduct a stability analysis and determine what wires and other hazardous materials need to be removed.
"We need to determine the scope of work that is needed to take it from what it is now to an artificial reef," Mike Campbell, an environmental specialist with Lee County, said Tuesday.
The Mohawk may leave Key West as soon as early next month. Lee County officials hope to have the vessel sunk before the height of hurricane season in August and September, Campbell said.
The ship will be scuttled by the Florida Keys-based Reefmakers, which sank the USNS Gen. Hoyt S. Vandenberg off Key West in May 2009.
"I really think this is going to benefit that area," said Capt. Joe Weatherby, who organized the Vandenberg sinking. "They are going to see quite a return on their investment. This is going to be their first marquee artificial reef project for that area."
Weatherby, citing a Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission study, said the wrecks off Florida's west coast generate $100 million a year in tourist dollars.
The project is estimated to cost Lee County about $1 million to complete, Campbell said.
The Mohawk is currently a floating museum docked along the East Quay Wall at the Truman Waterfront and operated by the nonprofit Miami-Dade Historic Maritime Museum Inc. The nonprofit's other ship, the Ingham, will remain in the same location, said Bill Verge, who oversees the nonprofit.
The nonprofit is giving Lee County the Mohawk for free. Verge wants the Mohawk to stay in Key West, but the nonprofit can't afford the $400,000 needed to overhaul it. The ship has not been dry-docked since 1984 and needs a lot of work, he said. The nonprofit also has to pay $60,000 a year in power bills, administrative fees to the city and other costs, Verge said.
The plan is to sink the Mohawk in 60 to 90 feet of water 13 miles off Sanibel Island. The site is near an old radio tower that has become a popular diving and fishing spot, which would allow dive shops to hit both spots on one charter. Organizers hope the wreck will draw more divers and fishermen to the area, according to Lee County officials.
The Mohawk was built in 1935 in Wilmington, Del., and is the last surviving vessel of the Greenland Patrol fleet, which served in World War II, Verge said. The ship broke ice in the Arctic Circle, launched 14 attacks against Nazi U-boats and rescued more than 300 sailors from the sea in two different operations.
Verge prefers wrecking the Mohawk to scrapping it, so its legacy can live on.
"It is a ship of serious historical significance," Verge said.