With more than 400,000 pounds of concrete blocks donated by OUC – The Reliable One in her cargo hold, the 180-foot cargo ship Voici Bernadette began to list as seawater flowed through portals cut into her port side. In seconds the beautiful blue Atlantic had her in a death grip, dragging the stern down first while rushing to swallow the rest of the rusting vessel still above the surface. Then her bow went under with a whoosh of air and water gushing from openings on deck, a climactic moment that elicited cheers and hoots from thousands of spectators afloat on more than 250 boats encircling the Bernadette’s gravesite.
Perhaps in her new life as an artificial reef the Voici (French for “Here is”) Bernadette will make up for her unsavory past. The U.S. Customs and Border Patrol twice seized the formerly Bolivian-flagged ship in cocaine smuggling busts, meaning she got a second chance to go straight but instead returned to a life of crime.
Donated to the St. Lucie County’s artificial reef program, the Bernadette now lives in peace 100 feet under water about 11 miles southeast of Fort Pierce Inlet. OUC’s 78 concrete blocks on board not only helped hasten the steel freighter’s sinking on June 23 but ensure its stability in what is considered a shallow depth. But more importantly, the blocks are now a sustainable life force as part of an aquatic colony.
OUC joined the Coastal Conservation Association Curtis Bostick Reef project in the weeks leading up to the Bernadette’s deployment. Seeking to find an environmentally responsible solution to repurposing 200 tons of concrete bin blocks left on a 20-acre site OUC purchased in St. Cloud, Terry Torrens, Senior Legislative Representative, a saltwater fishing enthusiast, avid boater and diver, called a friend with contacts in Florida’s artificial reef community.
“We needed to find a sustainable purpose for the concrete rather than putting it in a landfill,” said Torrens, whose phone call led OUC to partner with the CCA, St. Lucie County and others on the preparation and sinking of the Bernadette. “Artificial reefs like this one provide diverse and vibrant ecosystems. It will attract all kinds of fish, which will draw fishermen and divers. So, there are economic and environmental benefits to creating this reef.”
James Oppenborn, Coastal Resource Coordinator for St. Lucie County, said OUC’s contribution to this artificial reef project “makes for a good reef in and of itself. Concrete modules make excellent habitat for smaller fish. They use the crevices and cracks as hiding places from predators.” He added that concrete also stimulates growth of soft corals by proving surface area for benthic organisms to attach.
Oppenborn said that the CCA Curtis Bostick Reef is the largest artificial reef project of the more than 50 he’s been involved in since joining St. Lucie County in 2005.
Resembling Legos, albeit substantially larger at 6,000 pounds apiece, the concrete bin blocks were loaded by OUC workers on flatbed trucks and hauled to Fort Pierce Inlet where the Bernadette was docked. Craned into the cargo hold on June 19-20, the 200 tons of concrete were the only materials remaining on the ship when it went down. The vessel had been stripped of all potentially environmentally hazardous contents long before two McCulley Marine Services tug boats delivered it to open water and assisted in its sinking at approximately 27°23.485’N, 80° 02.124’W.
The tugs pumped seawater into the ship’s hull until the old freighter listed to port and began to take on water from a portal cut into the stern. Two minutes and nine seconds later, the Voici Bernadette disappeared from sight, leaving only a cloud of air bubbles percolating on the blue surface.
Click here to watch an aerial drone video of the sinking, here to view video shot with on-board cameras recording the vessel’s rapid plummet to the sandy ocean floor, and check out pictures from the sinking here.