Brian’s Reef: Family, friends watch sinking of old Coast Guard ship in honor of UNCW spearfisherman

WATCH: An old U.S. Coast Guard cutter, rechristened The Brian Davis, is sunk 21 miles east of Wrightsville Beach to create an artificial reef in honor of a UNCW graduate and avid spearfisherman who died during a 2017 diving accident.

WILMINGTON — “That was something not many people get a chance to see.”

Mark Winneberger was one of the first people to dive down to North Carolina’s newest artificial reef — a retired Coast Guard cutter, rechristened The Brian Davis, sunk 21 miles off the coast of Wrightsville Beach on Friday.


Three years earlier, the vessel’s namesake, 21-year-old Brian Davis, died while commercial spearfishing nearly 36 miles from Frying Pan Shoals. The Davis family and his close friends sat in a long row along the side of a fishing charter, Queen Jean, watching the bow of the old vessel dip below the water. A man said, “God bless you, Brian Davis,” and the boat disappeared.

From the wheelhouse, Captain Buddy Mizelle sounded a foghorn for several seconds while his parents, Kathy and Charles Davis, his brother Kevin, and his friends tossed sunflowers into the ocean. Kathy had picked the flowers to represent the “light and smile Brian brought to this world.”

RELATED: Local community comes together to sink a ship in memory of Brian Davis (July 2017)

A crewmember brought out a jug of rum punch, one of Brian’s favorites, and the group of 20 or so raised small plastic glasses for their son, brother, and friend.

Before the boat’s hull filled with water and began to sink, Kathy took the microphone in the wheelhouse and read a prayer for her son. She remembered a day when he called her, telling her about a planned spearfishing trip that changed when they saw a pod of dolphins swimming nearby, so they joined them. Brian was a true waterman, she said, and that day he told her the dolphins were mimicking the friends as they swam; he had called it a deeply spiritual experience.

“Brian found his joy in, on, and under the water,” she said into the intercom, steadying herself as the boat tilted with the waves. “With the formation of this reef in Brian’s name, let all who visit The Brian Davis artificial reef find their joy. Dance with dolphins, sparkle with light, be guided by love, and always return home safely.”

It had been a somber celebration. Kevin sat near the stern, silently gazing out where the boat had just disappeared with his brother’s name in large black letters at the top, a rebar cross welded above it. As the charter turned to go back to Topsail Beach, Winneberger waved as he and Brian’s old diving buddies got ready to freedive 70 feet to the sunken ship.

‘We could do this’

Magdalena Dimopoulos places a sunflower on the rail of a fishing boat as they watch The Brian Davis sink into the ocean. Kathy Davis, second from left, said she picked sunflowers to symbolize the light her son brought to the world. (Port City Daily photo/Mark Darrough)
Magdalena Dimopoulos places a sunflower on the rail of a fishing boat as they watch The Brian Davis sink into the ocean. Kathy Davis, second from left, said she picked sunflowers to symbolize the light her son brought to the world. Click to enlarge and scroll through all images. (Port City Daily photo/Mark Darrough)

The sinking was the result of three years of fundraising and planning with the N.C. Division of Marine Fisheries (DMF), which found the retired ship at a salvage yard in Norfolk, Virginia to add to its fleet of 68 artificial reefs sitting at the bottom of estuaries and coastal waters of North Carolina. Built in 1943, Salvia was first deployed to the Great Lakes as an icebreaker. It then served in Portsmouth, Virginia during the last year of World War II before spending the next 46 years in Alabama, where it was decommissioned in 1991.

The project cost more than a quarter-million dollars — $65,000 raised by friends and family and $203,000 by a Coastal Recreational Fishing License grant. Jordan Byrum, the agency’s Artificial Reef Coordinator and the point man on the project, met Kathy at a dock in downtown Norfolk on Monday to make final inspections. On Wednesday, the tugboat departed on a slow, 283-mile journey down the coast.

Early Friday morning, Kathy was on the stern of the charter boat shortly after it departed Banks Channel at Topsail Beach. She explained the complexity of sinking such a large vessel.

“You can’t just sink a 180-foot decommissioned Coast Guard cutter,” she said.

The idea came shortly after her son’s death, as she and Brian’s friends thought, “in lieu of flowers,” why not do something to carry on his legacy? Brian’s group used to dive at the Captain Greg MicKey artificial reef, 47 miles south of where the Brian Davis reef — or, as Kathy calls it, “Brian’s Reef” — would one day sit. MicKey, an experienced diver like Brian, was lost at sea while diving in 2005.

WATCH: Mark Winneberger makes his first dive to the sunken ship. (Video courtesy Justin Parr)

After his death, Kathy and Sam Blount, one of the group of five that formed Brian’s tight-knit group of spearfishing buddies, took charge. Blount published a GoFundMe page which quickly gained momentum. (Blount set sail for South Africa last year, and though he tried to return for the sinking, he is currently several hundred miles off the coast of Brazil.)

“We were shocked. Within 48 hours, we had 15- to 20-thousand dollars,” she said, explaining that it came from family friends, their neighbors in northern Raleigh, work colleagues, and the diving community in Wilmington. “The flood of support was just incredible. That’s when we realized: Wow, we could do this.”

Her husband and Blount began to attend DMF information meetings to learn more about its artificial reef program. They were soon connected to Byrum, the program’s director, and their proposal was accepted by the state in October 2018 — more than a year after the accident.

Byrum set out on the long, bureaucratic process of obtaining permits at the local, state, and federal levels. The group was originally offered a tugboat in Florida, but because no one knew when the sinking would occur, port fees would be far too expensive.

When the permits were stuck in the state’s system, Charles worked with his own network of friends who believed in enhancing the state’s reef system, and they successfully advocated for the Brian Davis Reef, according to Kathy.

Byrum found the stripped-down Salvia in 2019, where the salvager finished a thorough cleaning of the boat to pass environmental standards. By July, it was ready.

Brian’s death somewhat of a mystery

Brian Davis spearfishes off the coast of southeastern North Carolina. (Port City Daily photo/Courtesy Kathy Davis)
Brian Davis spearfishes off the coast of southeastern North Carolina. (Port City Daily photo/Courtesy Kathy Davis)

As The Brian Davis and its tugboat appeared as specks on the horizon Friday morning, Kathy discussed the fateful day when she lost her son to the ocean.

It was June 22, 2017. Brian and his friend, John Workman, were on a two-day commercial spearfishing trip. They would alternate dives, donning scuba gear, while the other manned the boat.

On the second day, Brian dove and didn’t come up. Workman called the Coast Guard, who arrived roughly 15 minutes later. After the responders searched the area around the boat, hoping Brian had resurfaced somewhere else, Workman convinced them to man his boat so he could dive down in search of his friend.

He found his body resting on a ledge, a grouper he had just caught still attached to him.

Kathy recalled the conversation with the state’s medical examiner shortly after her son’s death; he had explained that the most likely cause of death was a seizure due to oxygen toxicity. He ruled out other common causes of dive accidents, such as panic.

She was told that such a seizure can occur when a diver reaches a certain depth where an oxygen mix called Nitrox becomes poisonous. He dove 101 feet, according to Kathy, and the limit for his mix of Nitrox was 100 feet.

“So the medical examiner told me, ‘It’s highly unlikely that this happened because he was barely at the threshold,'” Kathy recalled.

But ‘highly unlikely’ or not, this is what likely occurred, she was told — a freakish accident that contributed to the small percentage of deaths of divers blacking out near the depth threshold. She said the likelihood that he passed out quickly has brought her healing in a way.

“It’s hard enough losing a child, but from a mom’s perspective, it’s good to know there was no suffering,” she said, her voice choking. “In this world that we live in, there’s a lot of people who suffer.”

Ninety minutes into the boat ride, the shape of the old Coast Guard boat could be seen on the horizon, pulled by the small tugboat. For Kathy it was a surreal moment — the old ship was much larger than she expected, forming a beautiful silhouette against the slanted morning sunlight and a clear blue sky.

The state’s newest artificial reef

Kathy Davis reads a prayer for her son as the old Coast Guard cutter begins to fill with water. (Port City Daily photo/Mark Darrough)
Kathy Davis reads a prayer for her son as the old Coast Guard cutter begins to fill with water. (Port City Daily photo/Mark Darrough)

As the charter approached the old ship, Brian’s friends were in a small Onslow Bay fishing boat. Winneberger held out a grouper they had caught that morning and Kathy smiled — that was Brian’s last fish he ever caught. She felt comfort knowing the boat would come to rest at a location known for grouper fishing.

“I can’t wait to see it underwater!” Winneberger yelled out. “It’s gonna be something else, man.”

Winneberger was one of Brian’s friends who joined the UNCW Spearfishing Club Brian had chartered when he was a freshman. Brady Harvey, who lived on the same dorm hall with Brian when they were freshmen, remembered the time Brian first got into spearfishing.

“I think we were just sittin’ around in the dorms bored one day, and he was like, ‘I’m about to order this spear pole; you should get one too. It’s only like $35.’ So we ordered these crappy little spear poles together and we went out a couple weeks later. From then we were hooked,” Harvey recalled.

He said Brian taught him everything he knows about fishing. When fellow students encouraged them to join some of the university’s large mix of student clubs, Harvey said it was Brian who said, “Let’s just make our own club, something cool.”

“So many people were intrigued by [spearfishing] and asked us all about it. I remember the first day we brought home this small fish we shot, everyone wanted to see what it was and how we got it. We cooked it in the shared kitchen of the dorm, and the whole place smelled like fish,” Harvey said.

On the big charter boat, anticipation built up among the group while Byrum and his DMF crew transported the contracted salvage team to the stripped-out boat.

A large Coast Guard ship was watching the operation in the distance, and soon a small high-speed inflatable craft cruised by as service members onboard took pictures of the decommissioned ship. Charles, Brian’s dad, said it was good to see them paying their respects to their retired ship — perhaps current crewmembers had relatives working the Salvia in its early days, he said smiling.

After two hours of preparing the boat, the salvage crew finally dropped two large hunks of concrete to anchor it at a flag marker the DMF crew had set earlier in the day. Sparks from a welder could be seen on the hull at the waterline.

Another two-and-a-half hours later, the water finally began to fill through the hull. At 1:53 p.m. the bow disappeared into the water.

“It’s been a long journey,” Kevin, Brian’s brother, said. “It’s pretty cool to see everyone’s hard work come to fruition. It’s kinda surreal, to actually be out here and see the ship go down with my brother’s name on it.”

After several members of the DMF crew dove to inspect the sunken ship, ensuring it had settled safely and all air bubbles had escaped, Winneberger and his friends began freediving down to the new artificial reef. On his first dive, he went to the ship’s tower and touched the metal cross above his friend’s name.

“It was pretty heavy to finally see that thing down there. It was a project that took a lot longer than we expected, and it was extremely special to see the ship laying down there on the bottom of the ocean, with Brian Davis welded on the front,” Winneberger said.

For Kathy, the memorial will now honor her son on the ocean floor for at least two centuries, she was told.

“You’re creating this living reef that’s great for sea life; life will start sprouting up around it. It becomes a living memorial too. When people go diving on it, they get to experience the reef and what it has to offer. They get to experience the same beautiful things Brian got to experience so much. That is why it’s meaningful.”

The Brian Davis reef is officially called AR-368, located at the following coordinates: 34°09.514’ N, 77° 25.782’ W.

View more pictures of the day below:

Mike Veise walks onto the pier leading to the Queen Jean  charter boat. (Port City Daily photo/Mark Darrough)
Mike Veise walks onto the pier leading to the Queen Jean charter boat. (Port City Daily photo/Mark Darrough)
Brian's brother Kevin Davis, left, and his friend Ben Browndorf take pictures of the sunrise as the boat departs Topsail Beach through Banks Channel. (Port City Daily photo/Mark Darrough)
Brian’s brother Kevin Davis, left, and Brian’s old childhood friend Ben Browndorf take pictures of the sunrise as the charter boat departs Topsail Beach through Banks Channel. (Port City Daily photo/Mark Darrough)
Kathy Davis shakes hands with Captain Dave Gardner as she boards the boat. The sunflowers will later be thrown into the ocean in honor of her son. (Port City Daily photo/Mark Darrough)
Kathy Davis shakes hands with Captain Buddy Mizelle as she boards the boat. The sunflowers will later be thrown into the ocean in honor of her son. (Port City Daily photo/Mark Darrough)
At left, Kevin Davis and his mom, Kathy Davis, near the bow as the Queen Jean heads out Banks Channel at the southern end of Topsail Island. (Port City Daily photo/Mark Darrough)
At left, Kevin Davis and his mom, Kathy Davis, near the bow as the Queen Jean heads out Banks Channel at the southern end of Topsail Island. (Port City Daily photo/Mark Darrough)
Captain Dave Gardner points ahead as he steers the boat out of Banks Channel early Friday morning. (Port City Daily photo/Mark Darrough)
Captain Buddy Mizelle points ahead as he steers the boat out of Banks Channel early Friday morning. (Port City Daily photo/Mark Darrough)
Kathy Davis shows off t-shirts she had made for the day while her brother, Mark Darwin, looks on. (Port City Daily photo/Mark Darrough)
Kathy Davis shows off t-shirts she had made for the day while her brother, Mark Darwin, looks on. (Port City Daily photo/Mark Darrough)
Crewmember Michael "Ski" Kowalski shovels ice for the cooler. (Port City Daily photo/Mark Darrough)
Crewmember Michael “Ski” Kowalski shovels ice for the cooler. (Port City Daily photo/Mark Darrough)
Flowers sit inside boat; they will later be thrown into the sea in honor of Brian Davis. (Port City Daily photo/Mark Darrough)
Flowers sit inside the boat; they would later be thrown into the sea in honor of Brian Davis. (Port City Daily photo/Mark Darrough)
Captain Dave Gardner’s dog lays down inside the wheelhouse. (Port City Daily photo/Mark Darrough)
Sue Walters, Brian's aunt, sits at the front of the boat as it motors toward the sinking site. (Port City Daily photo/Mark Darrough)
Sue Walters, Brian’s aunt, sits at the front of the boat as it motors toward the sink site. (Port City Daily photo/Mark Darrough)
Friends and family of Brian Davis sit at the bow of the Queen Jean on its way out to the sink site. (Port City Dialy photo/Mark Darrough)
Friends and family of Brian Davis sit at the bow of the Queen Jean on its way out to the sink site. (Port City Dialy photo/Mark Darrough)
The Coast Guard cutter, rechristened The Brian Davis, is seen in the distance. "The boat looks so much bigger in person -- when you see a beautiful silhouette against the sky, it’s really incredible," Kathy Davis said. (Port City Daily photo/Mark Darrough)
The Coast Guard cutter, rechristened The Brian Davis, is seen in the distance. “The boat looks so much bigger in person — when you see a beautiful silhouette against the sky, it’s really incredible,” Kathy Davis said. (Port City Daily photo/Mark Darrough)
Friends and family of Brian Davis take pictures of the old Coast Guard cutter that will soon come to rest on the ocean floor. (Port City Daily photo/Mark Darrough)
Friends and family of Brian Davis take pictures of the old Coast Guard cutter that will soon come to rest on the ocean floor. (Port City Daily photo/Mark Darrough)
The Brian Davis sits 21 miles off the Wilmington coast. (Port City Daily photo/Mark Darrough)
The Brian Davis sits 21 miles off the Wilmington coast. (Port City Daily photo/Mark Darrough)
Members of the DMF’s Artificial Reefs Program prepare to set the marker for where the boat will anchor before sinking. (Port City Daily photo/Mark Darrough)
A U.S. Coast Guard ship watches the sinking operation of one of the branch's decommissioned boats from a distance. (Port City Daily photo/Mark Darrough)
A U.S. Coast Guard ship watches the sinking operation of one of the branch’s decommissioned boats from a distance. (Port City Daily photo/Mark Darrough)
The ship, rechristened The Brian Davis, has a rebar cross above its name on the tower. (Port City Daily photo/Mark Darrough)
The ship, rechristened The Brian Davis, has a rebar cross above its name on the tower. (Port City Daily photo/Mark Darrough)
A DMF official drops off members of the salvage team. (Port City Daily photo/Mark Darrough)
A DMF official drops off members of the salvage team. (Port City Daily photo/Mark Darrough)
Members of the salvage team stretch out a hose that will fill the boat’s hull with sea water. (Port City Daily photo/Mark Darrough)
Members of the U.S. Coast Guard pass by one of its decommissioned ships before it sinks. (Port City Daily photo/Mark Darrough)
Jordan Byrum, the DMF’s Artificial Reef Coordinator and the point man on the project. (Port City Daily photo/Mark Darrough)
Mark Winneberger leans off a boat before he and his friends — all close spearfishing buddies with Brian — watch the boat sink. They later dove down to the sunken ship. (Port City Daily photo/Mark Darrough)
The salvage team drops anchor: two giant concrete blocks. (Port City Daily photo/Mark Darrough)
Crewmember Tim Clark drops anchor so family and friends can watch the boat sink. (Port City Daily photo/Mark Darrough)
Kevin Davis, left, wears his brother’s old UNCW Spearfishing Club shirt. Brian started the club as a freshman. (Port City Daily photo/Mark Darrough)
The sparks of a welder can be seen at the ship’s hulk. (Port City Daily photo/Mark Darrough)
Maggie Blythe hands out sunflowers as the boat sinks. (Port City Daily photo/Mark Darrough)
The Brian Davis, moments before it disappears beneath the surface. (Port City Daily photo/Mark Darrough)
Mike and Shelley Ray watch as family and friends throw flowers into the sea. (Port City Daily photo/Mark Darrough)
Ben Browndorf gets ready to throw roses into the sea in honor of his old friend. Browndorf grew up with Brian and was roommates with him throughout college and after they graduated, when he died. (Port City Daily photo/Mark Darrough)
Flowers float in the ocean after the ship sank. (Port City Daily photo/Mark Darrough)
Ben Browndorf prepares to take a shot of rum punch in honor of his old friend, who loved rum. (Port City Daily photo/Mark Darrough)
Family and friends toast the memory of Brian Davis. (Port City Daily photo/Mark Darrough)
Kathy Davis takes a sip of rum punch in honor of her son. (Port City Daily photo/Mark Darrough)
Drew Ray stares out where the ship sank minutes earlier after taking a shot of rum punch in honor of his old friend, Brian Davis. (Port City Daily photo/Mark Darrough)
Friends hug it out after the boat sank. At far left, Kevin Davis, Brian’s brother, stares out at the spot where it sank. (Port City Daily photo/Mark Darrough)
Officials with the N.C. Division of Fisheries prepare to dive down to the shipwreck to ensure it is safely secured to the ocean floor and all air bubbles have escaped. (Port City Daily photo/Mark Darrough)
Mark Winneberger lays next to the name of his old friend on the sunken tower of the old Coast Guard vessel, now sitting 70 feet below the surface, 21 miles east of Wrightsville Beach. (Courtesy Justin Parr)

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