The last voyage of the steamship Copenhagen took place on May 20, 1900. The ship was carrying 4,940 tons of coal from Philadelphia bound for Havana, Cuba. The collier was a large steel-hulled vessel, 325-feet long with a 47-foot beam. Captain William S. Jones left his chief officer on deck and retired for the night ordering the course set South-South-East after passing the Jupiter lighthouse.
When Captain Jones returned to his post he miscalculated the ship’s distance from shore. His ship was steaming at full speed when it struck what is called the first reef, about three-quarters of a mile off Pompano Beach, Florida.
“The Copenhagen is a State of Florida Underwater Archaeological Preserve. When it wrecked in 1900 it was on top of the reef. They couldn’t get it off. For a long time the wreck just sat there until it became a hazard to navigation. They took a cable and sheared it off,” Bryan Armstrong said. Bryan is the manager of the Pompano Dive Center located right on the Intracoastal Waterway just north of Atlantic Avenue Bridge on Riverside Drive.
“The anchor sits in the sand. You can see the ribs and plates of the vessel,” Bryan explained. The dive center takes snorkelers and Scuba divers to the Copenhagen. It is a twenty-minute cruise north from the dive center to the Hillsboro Inlet passage to the Atlantic Ocean. From the inlet it is a fast fifteen-minute run south.
There are fixed moorings all along the reef line. This enables boaters to tie off without anchoring. It is sound policy to protect the fragile reefs below from anchor damage. Once tied off, divers jump off the stern of the dive boat and discover the Copenhagen for themselves.
Florida created underwater archaeological preserves throughout the state. The Lofthus, another shipwreck that came ashore about a mile north of the inlet at Boynton Beach, is also part of Florida’s underwater archaeological preservation project. The idea behind the program is to offer sites of historic interest for divers and snorkelers to enjoy. No collecting of artifacts or disturbing the remains of the ships is permitted on the sites themselves so they may be enjoyed for future generations. In many cases the wreckage has become part of the living reef and is overgrown with corals and sponges, inhabited by fish and crustaceans.
The Copenhagen’s crew of 26, along with local helpers, labored for days to remove its cargo of coal. The ship’s engines were reversed, pumps engaged to remove water from the leaking hull hoping to refloat it. Salvage vessels arrived on the scene to try and pull the Copenhagen off the reef. Eventually the $250,000 vessel was abandoned as a total loss and left wedged on the reef where it struck. Naval aviators used the wreckage for target practice during World War II. The wreck was by-and-large forgotten save as a place for anglers to cast their lines.
The Copenhagen was nominated to become part of Florida’s Archaeological Preserve in 1994. It was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2001. Bryan Armstrong gave divers brochures produced by the Florida Department of State that include a diagram of the vessel’s underwater remains. “It sits in twelve- to fifteen feet of water to the top of the wreckage, twenty- to twenty-eight feet to the sand,” he explained.
Captain Matt Heath took us out in Pompano Dive Center’s brand new 46-foot ‘Sea Siren.’ “We had it built for us. It is totally customized. There is one ladder in the center of the transom and two jump seats on either side for those needing assistance. I do a lot of work with Wounded Warriors,” Bryan said.
He described how the jump seats allow divers with special needs to sit comfortably at the edge of the dive platform on the stern of the boat while instructors and crew help them on with equipment.
“This weekend Operation Blue Pride will be here. Some are disabled veterans, some just need a jump-start getting back into life. We’ll get them into diving,” Bryan explained.
The Pompano Dive Center operates three boats. One is a 36-foot Newton called ‘Sea Dog Diver’ rated for 20 passengers which the Center limits to 15 to prevent crowding. Their brand new ‘Sea Siren,’ is rated for 36 divers that they limit to 28. Their ‘Sea Pup Diver,’ a 30-foot Island Hopper, is rated for 14 which they limit to 10 divers.
“In summer when it is calmer we run ‘Sea Pup’ as a snorkeling boat. In warmer months the demand for snorkel diving is higher than in winter. Especially with all the hotels in the area. We can concentrate on snorkeling with our various boats here,” he explained.
The wreckage of the Copenhagen is spread out over a good distance underwater. The anchor is at the southernmost end of the shipwreck in the sand. A plaque has been placed nearby designating the SS Copenhagen as an underwater preserve. Fan corals grow on the iron structures and fish dart in and out of twisted steel plates.
The ship was built with a double bottom to separate the inner and outer hulls. This design afforded safety in the event of collision. Large pieces of the intact hull and steel ribs offer underwater photographers a chance to frame subjects.
The wreckage of the ship has become an artificial reef. Coral growth is everywhere. There are places where the eye has difficulty detecting where the reef ledge ends and pieces of the shipwreck begin. Sea fans sway and soft corals decorate the hull. Depending on the Gulf Stream there may be current. Each buddy dive team is given a flag and float with a reel to take with them. The wreck is a fun dive for snorkelers, beginning Scuba divers and experienced divers alike.
Questions about marine life can be fielded to Bryan, a marine biologist, with a graduate degree from Nova Southeast University. From Ohio originally, Bryan had been coming to Florida with his family since he was a kid. “I graduated with my masters in 2009. I realized that this is really what I wanted to do. Even when I’m in the office all day I get to talk about diving. I can share my passion for the ocean,” he said.
Diving shipwrecks is like turning back the clock and discovering history. The turn of the century saw the advent of steam power over sail. Many vessels, including the Copenhagen, still had masts to take advantage of wind power in the event of engine failure.
For more information and to dive on the SS Copenhagen go to www.pompanodivecenter.com or call them at 855-DIVE-SFL toll-free or 954-788-0208.