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The sinking of the historic Zuni/Tamaroa

May 13, 2017

On Wednesday, I was invited by DNREC to go out on one of Delaware Launch Service’s boats to observe the sinking of the Zuni/Tamaroa on the Del-Jersey-Land reef. This reef also holds the Navy support ship Shearwater, the destroyer U.S.S. Arthur W. Radford and the minesweeper Gregory Poole. Other material, including rail cars, is scattered on the site.

My instructions were to be at the Delaware Launch Service’s dock at 0500. I was on time along with most of the other crew; however, the stragglers from Coleen Marine, the company that prepared the ship for sinking, were a bit tardy. Then the video crews wanted to shoot B-roll of the launch leaving the dock. That meant pulling away and then returning to pick up that camera crew. Ah yes, the joy of working with TV people.

Once underway, we were met with the calmest water I have seen since sometime last August.  A perfect day to sink a ship.

The Zuni/Tamaroa started life as a Navy tug, the Zuni, built in 1943. The ship saw service during World War II at Iwo Jima in the Pacific Theater.  

Once the war was over, the ship was acquired by the Coast Guard in 1946, renamed the Tamaroa, and used as a cutter until 1994, when it was taken out of service.

While in service by the Coast Guard, the Tamaroa was able to rescue the crew from a National Guard helicopter search and rescue unit in New England during the Perfect Storm, and it was featured in a book by the same name.

For those unfamiliar with the story, during the Perfect Storm, the Tamaroa was sent out to rescue the crew of a sailboat. Unable to effect a water rescue, the ship put two crew members in an inflatable and sent them to help the sailors. During this operation, the inflatable was damaged, so the sailors and the two Coast Guard crew had to be rescued by helicopter.

Capt. Kristopher Furtney then received a distress message that a helicopter crew from the National Guard had ditched. The Tamaroa was able to rescue all but one of this crew by putting the ship side to the 40-foot seas and letting the helicopter crew members be washed up on cargo nets placed along the side of the ship. The search continued for 48 hours with winds to 80 knots and the ship experiencing 52-degree rolls, but Rick Smith was never found. 

I was so impressed by the courage and the skill of the captain and crew of the Tamaroa, and even more so when I saw how small she was. All of this was accomplished with a single-engine ship.

There was a movement to restore the Zuni/Tamaroa as a museum, but that fell through due to the expense of completing the project. Once Coleen Marine began preparing her for sinking, they came across many parts and pieces that other historical groups could use in their restoration projects.

We arrived at the Del-Jersey-Land Reef around 0830 and put the crew from Coleen Marine on the ship. They got to work right away, cutting holes in the side and pumping water into the ship. You could see sparks from the cutting torches as men worked to finish the job they began in Norfolk.

Finally, around 1300 the launch we were on backed up to a large hole in the side of the ship and the crew left the Zuni/Tamaroa. At this point, water was lapping at the larger holes and it wasn’t long before she began to list to starboard. Once all the holes were taking in water, the Tamaroa slowly slipped beneath the sea.

This ship had a special place in Coast Guard history and there were at least six Coast Guard boats on site as she sank. A Coast Guard helicopter made a flyover. While the Zuni/Tamaroa was not restored as a museum, at least it was not cut up and sold as scrap metal. It now continues life as a fish habitat on the floor of the ocean that tried so hard to sink it back in 1991.

The cost to acquire and prepare the Zuni/Tamaroa was split between New Jersey and Delaware, with New Jersey using money from the Sportfishing Fund once controlled by the Fisherman Magazine and now a separate 501(c)3 nonprofit organization. Delaware put up 75 percent, while the Sportfishing Fund supplied the remaining 25 percent.

Jeff Tinsman has been running the Delaware Reef Program since it began in 1995. He has managed to build 12 reef sites from the Upper Delaware Bay out more than 20 miles in the ocean to the Del-Jersey-Land reef where we were Wednesday. And he has done it all with a very small amount of Delaware taxpayers’ money.

  • Eric Burnley is a Delaware native who has fished and hunted the state from an early age.  Since 1978 he has written countless articles about hunting and fishing in Delaware and elsewhere along the Atlantic Coast.  He has been the regional editor for Salt Water Sportsman, Field and Stream, Outdoor Life and the Fisherman Magazine.  He was the founding editor of the Mid-Atlantic Fisherman magazine.  Eric is the author of three books; Surf Fishing the Atlantic Coast, The Ultimate Guide to Striped Bass Fishing and Fishing Saltwater Baits.  He and his wife Barbara live near Milton, Delaware. Eric can be reached at Eburnle@aol.com.

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