Cayman Brac’s Shipwreck of the Century

by Walt Stearns

Russian Warship Takes A Dive for Peace

The sinking of the MV Capt. Keith Tibbetts Memorial was a success. Swimming next to the Russian warship, formally known as #356, I was completely awed. The view before me was highly impressive. Resting even keel on the gentle grade of sugar white sandfloor, the ship’s towering, fully intact superstructure presented one of the most arresting profiles I have ever seen. Gazing up at the vessel’s midsection from 60 feet, her bridge, watchtower and radar/microwave array seem to vault to infinity. In reality, they are a mere 10 feet from the surface.

A product of the former USSR’s Nalhodlka shipyards in 1984, vessel #356, a Brigadier, Type-II Class Missile Frigate, with an overall length of 330 feet and a 42.6 foot beam, was once part of the Soviet Union’s Atlantic Fleet. Like most frigates in her class, #356, weighing more than 1,590 metric tons, was designed as a fast-strike fighter capable of high speed maneuvering, a point made quite obvious by her three, eight foot in diameter, deep-pitch, four bladed propellers. Driving this triple screw configuration was a powerplant comprised of two massive diesel engines generating 8,000 horse power each and two gas turbine engines. Run in tandem, they produced a whopping 20,000 horse power. When in attack mode, #356 could maintain a top cruising speed of 63 knots. Now silent and still, nearly half buried in the sand at a depth of 56 feet, the propellers have become home to groupers and grunts.

Swimming along her hull; nearly the length of a football field; toward her bow, I was able to get a true idea of the vessel’s massive proportions. Reaching the bow, which is only 120 feet from the drop-off, what I found took my breath away. Suspended some eight feet above the sandfloor at about 80 feet, 356s bow looked as if it was cresting a giant wave.

Putting the ship down in such tight quarters was no easy feat. One miscalculation and she would have slid over the edge of the drop-off and into oblivion.

Stopping to look over the foredeck, I saw two cannons protruding from their protective deck turret at a depth of 48 feet. In a short time, I thought, they’ll be adorned with small sponge and coral communities.

Beating Swords Into Plowshares

Once the ink had dried on the purchase agreement, the next steps (or hurdles) the Cayman government had to undertake were the preparations necessary for a safe, ecologically sound sinking. We took a lot of heat over this. Everything from start to finish had to be looked into and cleared by several agencies, including our own Department of Environment, to be sure that there was nothing on board that would be damaging to both divers or the marine environment, the Honorable Thomas Jefferson, the Minister of Tourism, told me.

Attending the vessel’s sinking was master marine environmentalist Jean-Michel Cousteau. He refers to the subject of eco-tourism in the Cayman Islands with words of praise. What the Cayman Islands have done to preserve their natural resources, now and hopefully for the future, compared to the rest of the Caribbean, has been the most successful.

Cousteau calls frigate 356 the Destroyer of Peace. He feels this is marking a new era at the threshold of the 21st century; taking these former killing machines, sitting worn and deteriorating, and making them the basis for new life. I see a very symbolic thing here. We’re talking about a quintessential killing machine that is now turned into a reef; a feature providing both a pleasurable site for visiting divers, which will hopefully help alleviate pressure to surrounding popular coral reef sites, to a scientific, data collecting piece of equipment where we can collect photos over time to monitor the development of the flora and fauna that will take hold on it.

In the days when 356 was operational, she carried 11 officers and 99 enlisted men. Now her hallways and quarters await new residents. Lying in the depths that she is now in, close to the drop-off where the reefs ecosystem is the most energetic, the first new growth to colonize her metal skeleton will likely appear in six to eight months. As Jean-Michel pointed out, Nothing in the sea is wasted, even objects discarded by man often become home to a variety of marine life. This was substantiated by the presence of several small Sergeant Majors, which had already taken residence in 356s radar tower.

Is the Minister of Tourism planning to dive this new site? Oh yes, he told me, I haven’t spent all this time trying to get this ship here just for everyone else. But I will wait my turn. As wreck sites in the Caribbean go, there is no doubt in my mind that this addition to Cayman Brac is destined to be a real beauty. Besides, where else in the Western Hemisphere can you find a modern era Russian warship that has been sunk with or without a battle?