September 22, 2011 - The Spar: "The Cutter with the Most Gold"

The Spar
"The Cutter With the Most Gold"         
The USCG Cutter Spar in 1957.
Courtesy of USCG Archives.
A close encounter with a Sand Tiger Shark, Carcharias Taurus
on the deck of the USCG Cutter Spar. (Stock)
     Hovering at a depth of 80 feet of seawater and only a few inches over the foredeck of the wreck, I remained motionless while breathing slowly in and out in an effort not to startle my prey with the noisy bubbles venting from my regulator.  After waiting nearly ten minutes several targets in the distance slowly approached to within range for a shot.  My patience was about to pay off.  A large Sand Tiger Shark at around 8 feet in length slowly approached me from the head on while not heeding my presence.  I lined my sights up on the rows of the gnarly ragged teeth jutting out of her mouth and just when it seemed she was going to bump in to my dome port I fired off a round of shots from my submerged digital SLR camera.  Snap, snap, snap!  The brilliant flash of my twin underwater strobes fired off in rapid succession but did not alarm the Shark as she continued to approach me.  I then had to lower the bulky camera housing and try to back out of the situation to avoid contact.  My sudden movement must have gotten her attention because within a split second the once languid Sand Tiger Shark instantly sprang to life as she snapped around folding her body almost in half until pointing her snout nearly in the opposite direction. The whipping motion and the lighting speed of the tail created a cracking sound like a muffled shotgun blast.  
Sand Tiger Shark on the Spar. (Stock)
Instinctively, I covered my face with my free hand so the concussion of water would not knock my mask off as had nearly happened on previous encounters with these sharks.  A turbulent wall of water rushed at me knocking me for a spin but luckily with no further dire consequences for the shark or myself.  When I dropped my hand all I could see was the faint outline of the shark speeding away from me in to the blue water. Phew!  I could now take a deep breath and allow my heart rate to return to a normal pace while reviewing on my cameras LCD the images that I hoped would yield one great shot.  I could clearly see a large quantity of teeth taking up a substantial area of the LCD while many of the details of the face were in clear focus.  Success!  I had just landed another prized photograph of one of my all time favorite subjects.  

A Sand Tiger Shark swimming across the buoy deck
of the USCG Cutter Spar. (Stock)
     This is but one of many of my memorable encounters with Carcharias Taurus  on the wreck of the United States Coast Guard Cutter (USCGC), Spar. She was sank 26 nautical miles due south of Morehead City as part of the North Carolina artificial reef program in 2004 and has become one of the most sought after wreck dives in the region primarily due to her abundance of marine life highlighted with the ever present Sand Tiger Sharks. The Spar is visited every year by hundreds of sport diving enthusiasts from all over the country and even the world to experience the thrill and excitement of wreck diving with these enigmatic creatures. However, I suspect many who dive upon her rusting hulk are unaware of the distinguished career the Spar had with the Coast Guard prior to her sinking. I'm going to change that as of right now.

The USCG Cutter Spar under construction at the
Marine Iron and Shipbuilding Corp. in Duluth MN September 30, 1943.
     The USCG's motto is Semper Paratus; Always Ready whose acronym spells SPAR. The Spar was commissioned on June 12 of 1944 as part of the Coast Guards program to develop a new class of buoy tender that was initiated in early 1941 prior to the outbreak of WWII. This new class of tender was designed to fulfill the service’s multi-mission role to conduct Search and Rescue operations (SAR), Law Enforcement missions (LE) as well as their primary mission of tending to Aids to Navigation (ATON). The new class of tender measured 180 feet overall hence making them the 180 Class tenders. The 180's, also known as Iris class, had a beam of 37 feet at her widest point and drew 13 feet of water with a displacement of 935 tons. They were propelled by a single screw electric turbine motor powered by twin diesel generators with a 30,000 gallon capacity and a max speed of 13 knots sustained.  A reinforced bow and an ice belt at the waterline gave the vessel ice breaking abilities and with design modifications to the hull it made her a more seaworthy vessel then her predecessors.
The launching party for the Spar on November 2, 1943.
Photo courtesy of USCG Archives.
The launching of the USCG Cutter Spar on November 2, 1943.
Photo courtesy of USCG Archives.
    By the time the Spar's keel was laid in September of 1943 at the Marine Iron and Shipbuilding Corporation in Duluth, MN, WWII was already in full swing and the industrial might of America at this time was at it's peak. All of the thirty-nine  180 class buoy tenders were produced between 1941 and 1944 at two shipyards in Duluth. With much of the male workforce off fighting in the war, shipyards began turning to women by the thousands as electricians, welders and machinists in Minnesota in order to get the job done. These women workers, also known as "welderettes", played a key role in the production of the USCG modern class buoy tenders and their efforts in the war should not be discounted.
The Spar during WWII painted gun
metal gray. Photo courtesy of the USCG
    The Spar was placed in to service in June of 1944 and participated as a convoy escort in anti-submarine warfare off the coast of Brazil. To protect the ship and her crew of 6 officers and 74 crew the Spar was fitted with an assortment of weapons. To defend against air attack she was fitted with 4-20mm guns two on the superstructure and two on the aft section. A single 3" cannon was mounted aft of the stack to attack air and surface targets. Depth charge racks mounted on the stern were installed and a device called a 'mousetrap' was mounted on the bow to defend against enemy submarine attacks.
Anti-sub weapon a 'mousetrap".
A 'mousetrap' was a rocket propelled explosives that were designed to detonate on impact of a submarine hull. The Spar although equipped for action did not encountered the enemy in the war but served her country well all the same.
    After the war ended the Spar was permanently stationed in Woods Hole, MA until 1951 where she was relocated to Bristol, R.I. at that time. In 1957 she was assigned the duty of conducting hydro graphic surveys in the Northwest Passage and it would be here where her ice breaking capabilities would play a key role. The Spar during the course of this mission became the first ship to circumnavigate North America. President Dwight D. Eisenhower even sent his personal congratulations to the crew of the Spar for this remarkable feet.  In 1966, the Spar was dispatched to the North Atlantic where she participated in an undersea oceanographic charting operation. During the course of this mission she logged over 17,000 miles and visited over 6 countries including Germany, Iceland and Norway.
The Spar in the ice during her mission to the Northwest Passage in September 1957.
Photo courtesy of USCG Archives.
The Spar testing oil skimming equipment. Date unknown.
Photo courtesy of USCG Archives.
    In 1973 the Spar was relocated once again to Portland, ME where she served general duties maintaining New England Coastal navigational aids in waters that were known for their rocky and treacherous shoreline. To be able to pilot a vessel with success in such hazardous waters leaves much to be said for the superior skill of the crew. It was in 1981 where the Spar was noted for her outstanding service when she scored the highest marks by any ocean going tender in the fleet at Refresher Training in Little Creek, VA. In following years she would accumulate additional high scores and proudly displayed a gold "E" with three gold service stripes for eight consecutive overall excellent scores in operations and seamship training. Vice-Admiral Paul Welling, the commander of the Atlantic Area (LANTAREA), recognized the Spar as "The Cutter with the Most Gold" in the Atlantic Fleet.

The Spar underway in 1968.
Photo courtesy of USCG Archives.

This series of photos was taken by Robert Purifoy in August 2004  at the sinking of the USCG Cutter Spar.

     The Spar's career came to a halt when she was decommissioned in February of 1997 and placed in to storage at the Coast Guard yard in Curtis Bay, MD. Her illustrious duties of course were far from over. After collecting rust for seven years the Spar was purchased by the State of North Carolina and sent to the bottom of the Atlantic to become an artificial reef to attract fish life for sport fishing and recreational sport diving. Today, the Spar is one of the hottest wreck dives off the North Carolina Coast. With a max depth of only 110 feet and the shallowest point at 75 feet she appeals to divers with beginner to expert skills alike. The water temp in the summer months can climb as high as 82 degrees on the bottom with average visibility at a respectable 50-60 feet. Traditionally dozens of Sand Tigers could be found hanging about the wreck on any given day as well as large schools of Atlantic Spade Fish schooling around the tall superstructure. Fearless Greater Amber Jacks regularly sneak up behind divers coming to within arms reach. I have had to push them away from me on many occasions while photographing.
A Greater Amber Jack swimming
past the stem of the Spar. (stock)

The USCG Cutter Spar.
Illustration by Charles R. Hitz© 1990.  
The Wreck of the Spar may be only a modest 180' long and not have as memorable a history as say the aircraft carriers USS Oriskany, and USS Saratoga or even the WWII troop transport ship the SS President Coolidge but her story is a respectable one that deserves attention all the same. Let it not be forgotten that this ship served it's country to the best of it's abilities in war and in peace time and continues to serve today as a stunning and marvelous dive sight. The "Cutter With the Most Gold" just keeps on giving.

A Sand Tiger Shark swimming past the superstructure
on the buoy deck of the Spar. (Stock)

The latest News from the Spar.

Diver hovering over the superstructure
of the Spar with school of Spade Fish beneath. (Stock)
     In the summer season of 2011 the population of Sand Tiger Sharks had dwindled somewhat and divers had only spotted a few at a time per dive. The reason for this is unknown but the behavior is not unheard of. These sharks have been known to take up residence in mass on other wrecks only to have moved to other wrecks years later. Why Sand Tigers will move off a site to another site is a mystery but we are expecting them to return in force to the Spar soon enough. Other recent noteworthy happenings with the Spar occurred when the eye of Hurricane Irene passed directly over the wreck of the Spar in August of 2011 with waves an estimated 29 feet on the surface. The force of this storm apparently has moved the wreck nearly 200 feet from its previous location and pushed it over on to its side with a 45 degree list to port. As of the writing of this article I have yet to dive the Spar in her new location and her position due to adverse weather and poor visibility left behind by Irene.  I am scheduled to run charters there this weekend since conditions have improved vastly and the 2011 dive season in North Carolina continues. I hope to have new photos to publish when I get down to the Spar again soon.

Happy Diving!
Mike Gerken

Please visit my web site to see video excerpts from my documentary films and a complete underwater photographic portfolio of my work and purchase fine art prints and DVD's of my films.

If you wish to dive the Graveyard of the Atlantic contactOlympus Dive Center for more information.

Olympus Dive Center, Morhead City, NC.
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Mike Gerken



Joe Eiche said...

Nice article Mike. It is nice to get a detailed history of a wreck I have done around 6-7 times over the last 3 years.

Mike Gerken said...

I'm glad you liked it Joe. Thanks!

Tom Hough said...

Hello Mike... You do such nice work, very clean indeed. I just posted John Hagerty's dive he made not long ago. This is the page I will keep for you. If you have anything you wanted to share your more then welcome. Hope you had a great Christmas. Tom Spar wlb-403/66/

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