Mary Ann Conrad said her son Kyle always wanted a bigger boat. Although she guessed a 68-foot steel tugboat wasn't exactly what he had in mind.
Late Monday afternoon, following a day of challenges brought about by poor weather conditions, the Kyle Conrad Memorial Artificial Reef became a reality. According to reef building consultant and commercial diver Kerry Dillon, the 68-foot steel tugboat christened Sunday with Conrad's name, sank in about 165 feet of water about nine mile northeast of St. Lucie Inlet at 4:50 p.m.
Unfortunately, more than a dozen of Conrad's family members and friends were unable to see the event take place when severe weather ahead of a fast-moving cold front chased them back to the safety of land at about 1:30 p.m..
"Sea conditions deteriorated quickly," said John Burke, founder of the not-for-profit MCAC Reef Fund that coordinated the reef's creation. "We had some 6-8-footers out there, and it was all a close chop driven by high winds. We had to return for everyone's safety."
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Dillon and the crew of the tugboat Dawn Star remained on the scene battling the waves, wind and eventually darkness to attempt to get the reef into its proper position for deployment to the sea floor.
The project came to fruition following a tragic mishap in December that cost the life of Kyle Conrad, 21, a standout soccer player with Jensen Beach High School and Lynn University.
Conrad, a college senior, was due to graduate this spring semester and had received invitations to workout for major league soccer clubs. Despite his skill and love for his sport, dad Sherman Conrad said soccer was third on Kyle's list of priorities.
"Kyle was recognized for his soccer, but to him it was family first, then his love for the water followed by soccer," said Sherman Conrad. "Boating, diving, fishing, he loved anything that took place on or in the water."
Sunday, about 80 members of the Conrad, Mang, Fitzpatrick and Andrews families of Jensen Beach and friends gathered at Harbortown Marina in Fort Pierce for a brief and emotional ceremony to re-name the tugboat that was sunk today in honor of Conrad's memory. The tug, formerly known as Tuff-E-Nuff, but constructed in 1895 as the Thomas Cunningham Sr., had the name "Kyle Conrad Reef" spray painted on its smokestack and bow by the family. Also, a steel sign that read "Kyle Conrad Reef" was bolted to the top of the tug's wheel house.
Family friend Dr. Chris Wigley, a Jensen Beach dentist, led a ceremony to christen the vessel with its new name since it is considered bad luck to rename a vessel. The ceremony was complete with offerings to King Neptune and the pouring of champagne across its decks.
"We wanted to make sure we did this in the proper way so that the reef would benefit those who fish or dive there," Wigley said.
The crew aboard the towing tug Dawn Star of Jacksonville led by Capt. Tim Lawton moved the vessel to Fort Pierce last week after it was purchased for $40,000 by funds provided by a campaign led by Wigley and a $20,000 contribution from the Martin County Commission through its Artificial Reef Program. The not-for-profit MCAC Reef Fund worked with the Jacksonville-based reef building organization Think It Sink It Reef It who originally found the tug abandoned and partially sunk in a Georgia waterway, raised it, cleaned it and prepared it for artificial reef use after hundreds of donated man hours.
The Conrad family was surprised with the speed of which the entire memorial project came together.
"Kyle would have been embarassed by all this attention," his mother said. "But he would love that he is helping to do something positive for so many others."
The reef will be placed in 175 feet of water about nine miles northeast of St. Lucie Inlet in Martin County's Sirotkin permitted reef construction area. It will soon be inhabitated by corals, crustaceans and fishes and will provide a place where anglers can catch many species of offshore fish.
In the coming days, Dillon will return to the site to verify the tug's position, location and how it landed. The reef's GPS coordinates will then be made public on county, state and reef building websites.