Half Moon becomes county's first underwater preserve
By Marilyn Bowden
A vessel that sank off Key Biscayne nearly 70 years ago is South Florida's newest marine attraction.
The Half Moon State Underwater Archaeological Preserve is Miami-Dade's first, said Chris Eck, director of the Historic Preservation Division of the county's Office of Community & Economic Development.
"There are other sites contained within Biscayne National Park," he said, "but they're not individually designated or set apart.
"The difference is," Mr. Eck said, "preserves are monuments set up under water, with a brief history, photo opportunities and local support groups set up under the aegis of the Department of State."
The Half Moon site is also tied in with the Marjory Stoneman Douglas Biscayne Nature Center about to open nearby at Crandon Park, he said. A spokesperson for the center said its grand opening is scheduled for April 7, Ms. Douglas's 111th birthday.
"A display will be set up at the Nature Center," Mr. Eck said, "with pictures and artifacts from the ship saved by descendants of earlier owners, including the original ship's bell and photos of the vessel while she was in service."
State Underwater Archaeologist Roger Smith said the site is the seventh such preserve in the state.
"The Half Moon, a 150-foot, two-mast racing sailboat, was built in 1908 in Germany by the Krupp Germania Werft and christened Germania," Dr. Smith said. "It was a wedding gift from Bertha Krupp to her new husband, who was a count."
Ms. Krupp is immortalized in military history by The Big Bertha, a variety of heavy artillery made by Krupp and used during World War I.
As a racing yacht, the Germania excelled, Dr. Smith said. At her helm the count won some of the most prestigious races of the time, including the Kaiser's Cup and the Cowes Regatta.
"These were the aristocratic counterpart of the arms races occurring in Europe at the time," he said. "They were symbols of national and aristocratic pride and high technology.
"They were similar to the Americas Cup, except that they were wrapped up in aristocratic wealth, power and prestige."
The Germania, in English waters for the Cowes Regatta in 1914, was seized as a prize of war when fighting broke out, he said, and her crew became prisoners of war.
A pair of Scandinavian brothers who bought her at auction sailed her to New York, Dr. Smith said, and sold her to a former US secretary of the Navy.
"He renamed her Half Moon after Henry Hudson's ship," he said, "and refitted her with formal and luxurious furnishings. He planned to sail her to the South Seas, but got caught in a violent storm off the coast of Virginia and nearly sank."
Instead, the ship was towed to Miami, Dr. Smith said, and used as a floating restaurant and dancing pavilion on the Miami River in the 1920s during Prohibition.
"It got through the 1926 hurricane," he said, "but it was damaged. It was acquired by Ernest Smiley of Miami, who refitted the hull, named it Half Moon again and had it moored on a reef off Miami to use as a fishing barge."
During a bad storm, Dr. Smith said, Mr. Smiley had to abandon ship with his wife and son. Half Moon broke free of its moorings and sank to its current grave near Bear Cut.
Recreational diver Terry Helmers, a University of Miami professor who spearheaded the campaign to get the wreck listed as a state underwater preserve, first contacted the state's historic preservation division in 1980, Dr. Smith said.
"It fit all our criteria for an underwater reserve," he said, "but we didn't know what it was. It needed positive identification."
Research in Germany, England and the US finally established the craft's identity and history, he said.
"Its latest life," Dr. Smith said, "will be as the seventh member of our family of archaeological preserves representing recreational tourism, marine tourism and ecological tourism wrapped up into one attraction."
All seven sites were nominated by local people, he said.
"My office responded," he said, "to work with them and create a sort of shipwreck park managed and adopted by local communities.
"We spent a month cleaning up the site and drawing up a detailed site plan underwater that will help visitors make a self-guided tour.
"A brochure has just been printed and will be circulated throughout the area, as will a laminated underwater guide."
The Half Moon site will be managed by Friends of Half Moon, of which Mr. Helmers is president, he said, in partnership with the University of Miami.
Mooring buoys where boats can be tethered will allow even those who like to stay on the water's surface to see the wreck, which lies in about 20 feet of clear water, Dr. Smith said.
"It will be a great site for family picnics or for snorkeling," he said. "Under the bow there are thousands of little fish that hang out for protection. Big puffer fish live in the wreck. It's like a little aquarium."
Details: Marjory Stoneman Douglas Biscayne Nature Center, (305) 361-6767, ext. 111.