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.”
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’
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.
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
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
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.
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