Resting just offshore of Hillsboro Inlet lies one of the most visually spectacular artificial reefs in Florida. Commonly referred to as the “RBJ,” this site actually consists of two shipwrecks: the Corey N Chris and the Ronald B. Johnson Vietnam Veterans Reef. The fact that there are two shipwrecks at one reef site is nothing special. However, the fact that the Ronald B. Johnson rests directly on top of the Corey N Chris makes the site quite unique. The site could not have been planned better. Yet, it is interesting to note that the final orientation of the two wrecks occurred simply as a result of dumb luck.
The Corey N Chris was named after the two sons of Carlos Sanchez, a Boca Raton man who won a contest to name the new artificial reef. The Corey N Chris was originally the 130-foot long dredge BC-246, and was owned by the U.S. Army. Built in 1942 by the Nashville Bridge Company, the BC-246 eventually was sold and renamed as the Trident. At the end of her useful career, the rusting dredge was acquired for $30,000 and sunk on May 18, 1986, through the efforts of the Pompano Beach Fishing Rodeo, Inc. and Broward County. The vessel was originally intended to be placed in 200 feet of water, but she ultimately came to rest on the seabed at a depth of approximately 260 feet. Oriented with her bow pointing towards shore, there is a slight slope associated with the site; the depth around her stern approaches 270 feet, while the sand off her bow is 255 feet in depth.
The Ronald B. Johnson was a 226-foot long freighter formerly known as the M/V Otto. The general cargo freighter was constructed at Deest, Holland in 1955 for the Otto Shipping Company, Ltd. The vessel was destined for use as an artificial reef after she had run aground in Kingston, Jamaica and was abandoned by her owners. Resolve Marine Group patched and refloated the vessel, which was subsequently towed to Florida. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service provided funds to help clean the vessel in preparation for use as an artificial reef. A young girl named the freighter after her uncle Ronald B. Johnson, a serviceman who died in Vietnam, following a raffle conducted by Broward County. During a joint operation with the U.S. Navy Explosive Ordnance Disposal team from Jacksonville, Resolve Marine Group sank the Ronald B. Johnson with C-4 explosives on May 15, 1988 – almost two years to the day after the sinking of the Corey N Chris. Amazingly, the hull of the Ronald B. Johnson came to rest directly across the deck of the dredge Corey N Chris. While the Corey N Chris is oriented along the east-west axis, the Ronald B. Johnson runs north-south over the perpendicular hull of the older dredge.
Two ships, their sinkings separated by approximately two years, now rest in one discrete area off South Florida. Initially, the hull of the Ronald B. Johnson was fully supported by the hull of the Corey N Chris. While the bow of the large freighter rested on the sandy seabed, the stern of the Ronald B. Johnson arced up and was suspended in the water column at an approximate 45-degree angle, rising to within 120 feet of the surface. However, time and the forces of nature worked to weaken the integrity of the Johnson. The influence of Hurricane Andrew in 1992 delivered the final blow, as the keel of the freighter collapsed fore and aft of its bisection with the Corey N Chris.
With a maximum depth averaging approximately 260 feet, the “RBJ” is definitely a technical dive. Frequently, strong currents sweep over the site, and divers have also experienced cold-water upwellings that drop the bottom temperature into the low 50s. However, when conditions are nice, the “RBJ” can be an awe-inspiring dive. On one recent dive this past January, I had the pleasure of exploring the wreck site in brilliant blue, 74-degree water, with perhaps 100 feet of visibility and a negligible current.
The grapnel hook was secured into the forward kingposts of the Ronald B. Johnson. Commonly, the hook will encounter this portion of the wreck as it is at the southernmost extremity of the “RBJ” wreck site. Scootering down the line, I settled onto the stern superstructure to begin capturing the surreal scene with my camera. My buddies and I explored the cargo holds of the Johnson, noting the breaches in the hull from the scuttling charges that sent the freighter to the bottom. I worked to document the wreck site in all its glory, gratified to be experiencing such a wonderful dive in the middle of winter. Dropping down off the hull and onto the sandy seabed, I watched one of my buddies proceed to scooter under the hull of the Ronald B. Johnson where it was still supported by the dredge Corey N Chris; it is not too often that a diver can swim entirely under a massive shipwreck.
The stern of the dredge rests at the eastern-most point of the site, which is in slightly deeper water than the inshore side of its conjoined neighbor, the Ronald B. Johnson. Both wrecks were enveloped by monofilament line from unlucky fishermen, while a few anchors were also spotted amongst the artificial reef site. On this particular day there was an odd absence of marine life. Typically, it is not uncommon to observe grouper, amberjack, and other large denizens of the deep on the “RBJ.” However, only a few large mutton snapper made their presence known to my fellow divers as we traversed the wrecks.
After scootering around both wrecks, generally having an insane amount of fun, we made our departure plans as our bottom time approached 30 minutes. While my buddy released the line from the kingpost of the Johnson, we slowly ascended and drifted northward. My last glimpse of the ghostly stern of the Ronald B. Johnson was just as I ascended past 150 feet. Carried slowly to the north by the gentle current, I completed my decompression with the other divers, content in the fact that our time was well spent. Where else can you get two spectacular dives for the price of one?
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Michael C. Barnette is the Founder and Director of the Association of Underwater Explorers (https://uwex.us), a coalition of divers dedicated to the research, exploration, documentation, and preservation of submerged cultural resources. Employed as a marine ecologist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), he recently published Shipwrecks of the Sunshine State: Florida’s Submerged History, which offers an extensive and comprehensive cross-section of Florida shipwreck narratives.