I dived the Cape Charles a few months in July 2021 on the Marissa with Lora & Chris. I had dived the wreck once before but it was one of my early tech dives here in SoCal so I only took a GoPro and didn’t get any photos. I had a chance to return and hopefully get better pictures. The visibility can often be very limited on this dive site due to the location.
The Cape Charles has an interesting back story that I believe many divers are not aware of…
The Cape Charles
The Cape Charles was actually originally a US Coast Guard Cutter (thanks to Tyler Stalter for the history here). The Cape Charles was originally named the USCG Cutter Colfax WSC-133 (and was originally named the Montegomery) and was a Patrol Boat. It was build by American Brown Broveri Electric Corp in Camden, NJ and was launched March 22, 1927.
It was 125′ long and had a beam of 23′ 6″ and was powered by 28 cylinder diesel engines (after a retrofit of the original 2 x 6 cylinder engines) and had a crew of 3 officers and 17 men. Having been in and around the wreck, it is hard to picture 20 people being on that boat.
The Colfax was first stationed on the west coast in my “hometown” of San Pedro, California but then went to San Francisco and then on to Charleston, South Carolina and then Chicago and was based out of Philadelphia during WW II. After the war, the Colfax was stationed at Cape May, New Jersey and then went into storage for a while before being reconditioned in Curtis Bay, Maryland in 1951.
The Colfax was decommissioned on 9 November 1954 and sold on 5 January 1956.
I don’t know exactly what year the ship was renamed to the Cape Charles, but I know the approximate timeframe. The publication Merchant Vessels of the United States is published annually and is an invaluable reference.
The 1957 edition on page 784 lists the new owner on page 640 the fact that it was renamed from USCG Colfax to Colfax:
I didn’t look at every year of that publication to determine when it went from the Colfax to the Cape Charles but the 1965 edition still had it listed as Colfax and by the 1969 edition it had been renamed (sorry for the blurry screen capture, I couldn’t find a good PDF copy):
In February 1981, a three masted 83-foot sailing ship used for whale watching ran aground off Point Loma in heavy fog while 54 people were on board. Salvage crews attempted multiple times to free the ship including attempts with multiple tug boats. One of those boats was the Cape Charles which had a line tied to the ship that snapped.
The rest of the story on the Cape Charles is a bit obfuscated and I haven’t been able to find any public information on it. According to popular knowledge, the Cape Charles sank in San Diego bay at some point in the late 1980s. The plan was to re-float the wreck and tow it to wreck alley to create another dive site and artificial reef. While en-route to wreck alley, the vessel capsized and sank in 165′ of water.
I have been unable to find any newspaper articles or other references on-line that provide any additional details. The type of ship matches and the location matches along with some of the debris around the wreck (floats, etc); however, I have seen some indication that it might not be the same length.
Tyler had an old picture of the Cape Charles that somebody took from a picture in a book. You can clearly see the pilot house and the hull structure and possibly either the crane or the exhaust in the rear.
As mentioned, the wreck lies in 165′ of water and sits upright. There is a lot of debris around the wreck site and there is a large gash in the bow from the towline. There are also a lot of large, inflatable lift-bags that were used to float the wreck. On the day of our dive, the visibility was reasonably good at depth but it was very dark at depth and almost like a night dive.
Welding (?) tanks behind/below the wheelhouse
Divers penetrating and exiting the wreck
Ocean Recon (link now broken)
Credit / Thanks
A big thanks to Tyler Stalter for his archival knowledge and to Steve Lawson for the same (as relayed through Tyler).