On the Waterfront

Joe Weatherby. Photo by John Park.
Joe Weatherby. Photo by John Park.

By Holly Millea, Contributor
October / November 2013

Joe Weatherby repurposes old ships, such as the USS Gen. Hoyt S. Vandenberg, a decommissioned World War II troop carrier, and turns them into eco-friendly sunken reefs that support sea life, attract divers, and even become an underwater museum. 

Combine the Life of Riley with a good amount of Walter Mitty; toss in a heap of Ernest Hemingway; add tons of water; and you’ll get an idea of how Joe Weatherby navigates the world.

His adventures began growing up on the Jersey Shore hustling for the family marina, Weatherby’s Wharf, before heading off to the University of Delaware from where he’d take long leaves to work on a fishing boat in Alaska; ride an elephant through the jungle in Thailand; tend bar in the Florida Keys; borrow a friend’s diploma to teach English in Japan; and foray into the urban forest of finance before ultimately being called back to the sea.

“When I was very young I’d read all the accounts of Sir Francis Drake and Captain Cook, Kon-Tiki and the Master and Commander series, and most everything Hemingway published,” says Weatherby over a beer in a bar with a view of the East River. “I always knew my future led to the Keys.” Today he is the co-founder and project manager for Reefmakers, an artificial reef making company. Smiling, he hands you a business card with his preferred title: “Shipwrecker.”

Weatherby, 52, was the captain of his own dive boat business before his current incarnation. At 6’ 2”, with a gravelly voice, sandy hair and blue-green eyes, he has the weathered appeal and easy charm of a man who’s self-made opportunities were at turns smooth sailing and stormily survived.

“He’s quite the character,” says his friend and college roommate, Corey “Ira” Stein. “He’s got some kind of charisma, an eloquence. He knows how to talk with anybody, even when he doesn’t know what he’s talking about. He’s quite the salesman. Quite whimsical, actually.”

Though Weatherby is an English name,  “I’ve always felt that my background is Irish, having grown up in such a big Irish family,” says Weatherby, whose mother’s side of the family hails from counties Cork and Clare. “That makes me mostly Irish. I think I certainly exhibit some of the stereotypical Irish characteristics.” He chuckles. “And Robert Frost is my favorite poet.” (You must resist the urge to tell him that Frost is of Scottish/English descent).

Last year Reefmakers sank the USS Mohawk off the Sanibel Coast. “She fought in 14 different U-boat engagements,” Weatherby says. “But her most famous feat was that she broadcast the weather from Greenland that greenlighted the invasion of D-Day.”

Sinking the USS Vandenberg in 2009, seven miles off the Florida Keys put Reefmakers on the map. The ship, which had transported soldiers during World War II, carried refugees from the Hungarian Revolution, and monitored Soviet missile launches during the Cold War, now rests on the ocean floor serving as the most successful artificial reef and the second largest dive ship in the world. Measuring ten stories high, two football fields long and weighing 17 tons, it took less than 3 minutes to slip down 150 feet into the deep.

Now the Mohawk and the Vandenberg can add “underwater art gallery” to their list of credits. Through September, the Mohawk is home to “The Sinking World,” an exhibition of photographs taken by the award-winning Austrian photographer Andreas Franke, who took pictures of the ghostly ships and layered photographs of people re-enacting every day occurrences on her decks, bringing them eerily back to 3-dimensional life. Sealed in plexiglass and attached to the sides of the steel vessels with magnets, the photographs include ballet dancers using the ship’s rail as a barre, a woman hanging laundry on a line, a little girl with a butterfly net chasing minnows, and a sailor being tattooed.

“Andreas had photographed the wrecks and contacted me with the idea of hanging an underwater exhibition and it was just crazy enough that I loved it,” recalls Weatherby. “The really cool thing is that when we pulled the pictures up, the algae and microorganisms in the salt water attached to the glass and embellished the art. It gives it a burnished, rich patina. It makes it that much more surreal.” (You can see the artworks above board at the Lee County Alliance for the Arts gallery in Fort Myers, Florida, October 4-28).

“Joe’s a dreamer and a schemer,” observes Reefmakers CEO Jeffrey “Tiny” Dey, a close friend from college. “He has so many things going on, he’s incredibly ADD. I love him for it, but he’s all over the place.”

Next up on Weatherby’s radar is a benefit for Wounded Warriors. Three years ago when the BP oil spill started, he brainstormed ways to bring people back down to the Keys. And then it struck him: “An underwater race to showcase the clear water and the wreck of the Vandenberg.” Thus, his Wreck Racing League – “underwater NASCAR meets pro wrestling” – was born. In other words, guys racing diver propulsion scooters around sunken ships adorned with sexy girls dressed up as mermaids.

On September 20, the League (cofounded with Dave Sirak), is co-sponsoring the Weeki Wachee Warrior Challenge, a three-day event in Weeki Wachee Springs State Park benefitting wounded Special Operations veterans and their families. “Given the history of these ships, it’s really a privilege to be involved and work with the veterans groups,” Weatherby says.

The waitress, who’s been flirting with the captain at every turn around the table, comes by with the check. Old school cool, Weatherby says, “thanks doll.” A crimson flare lights up her cheeks.

“His nickname in college was ‘Dog,’” Dey says, laughing. “You know the guy who walks out of a party with the best looking woman? That was always Joe.” Stein confirms this fact, but is quick to note, “Dog is man’s best friend. There’s rarely a person who knows Joe that doesn’t love him.”
Unlike his closest confidants, Weatherby has yet to marry. “I was in the crosshairs a couple of times, and managed to wiggle out,” he says, adding, “I’m an old dog, I find it hard to learn a new trick.”

Outside it’s dark and wet, a heavy rain falling. Weatherby will head home in the morning, weather permitting. He seems restless, anxious even, to get there. You can feel the pull. Like Frost’s woods, the ocean is lovely, dark and deep. “Everybody needs a place where they can go that puts their soul in a place that feels comfortable and that’s always been the water for me,” he says, holding out a hand to catch some rain. “In the water burdensome things are taken away. The water is my church.”

NBC Segment on “The Sinking World”

NBC-2.com WBBH News for Fort Myers, Cape Coral

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