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Benwood Wreck, A Key Largo Dive Favorite Had A Collision With Fate

The Benwood wreck is one of the most popular Key Largo wreck diving sites in the Florida Keys for a number of reasons.

However, there are five that immediately come to mind.

First, this Florida Keys shipwreck is easy to reach as she's positioned one mile northeast of French Reef off Key Largo.

Second, the Benwood's resting place is well marked with a buoy and 4 anchoring buoys so locating the wreck is simple.

Third, with her stern at 24 feet in depth, and her bow at 48 feet, she's a Key Largo diving site that accommodates all levels of scuba diving certification.

Fourth, abundant and varied marine life makes this Key Largo dive an exceptionally interesting wreck diving site.

The Benwood at Sea

The Benwood At Sea
Courtesy of

Fifth, historical importance is attached to the Benwood as she was involved in bringing important supplies to the military during World War II.

History and Sinking Of The Benwood

Built in 1910 in Sunderland, England, this merchant marine freighter was 360 feet in length with a 31 foot beam. She was capable of speeds of 9.5 knots and carried a crew of 38. Even though her home port was Newcastle, England she was registered out of Norway, with a Norwegian Captain.

During World War II she regularly plied the waters from Tampa, Florida to Norfolk, Virginia carrying ore for the military. Since this was war time, she also carried a small arsenal of weapons, including 12 rifles, 1 four-inch gun, 60 depth charges, and 36 bombs.

However, her routine travels began to take on an aura of danger due to the possible threat of attack by German U-2 boats. To avoid detection and attack, it was beginning to be common practice for ships to be ordered to black out, and travel with their lights off.

Under normal circumstances, maneuvering the waters off the Florida Keys is dangerous enough due to the coral reef structures. However, this danger is only compounded when you add in the threat of attack and being forced to travel without lights.

Unfortunately, during the early morning hours of April 9, 1942, the inevitable happened. The Benwood was traveling north on her way to Norfolk. Heading south to Texas was the Robert C. Tuttle, a larger ship at 544 feet in length with a 70.2 foot beam. Both ships were traveling under black out orders.

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According to records, at 12:45 a.m., Captain Johansen of the Robert C. Tuttle was notified of a black object ahead. He sounded once with the whistle to indicate his intention of turning starboard. He did not get a response back.

At 12:50 records show that the Benwood spotted a black object ahead. Captain Skjelbred sounded his whistle twice indicating he was turning to port. He did not get a response back.

This is the classic case of two people walking towards each other, and both turning the same way to avoid colliding with one another. You both move one way, and then to avoid each other, you again move the other way, with each move maintaining your collision course.

This is exactly what happened to the Benwood and the Tuttle. Without knowing it, they had set a collision course with destiny.

Upon recognizing the error, the Benwood's Captain ordered her engines full astern, but her final attempt to escape impact was too late. When they hit, the force was so strong that it caused the Benwood's bow to smash into the Robert C. Tuttle's port side. With her bow crushed, the Benwood began too immediately take on water.

In a last desperate attempt to save his ailing vessel, Captain Skjelbred turned her towards land in the hopes of grounding her. The turn caused her to take on water at an even faster rate, and after half an hour the Captain gave the order to abandon the doomed Benwood.

The following day, the salvage crew from the Willet determined that the ship's keel was broken and that the ship was unsalvageable. On the other hand, the Robert C. Tuttle was repairable and not in any danger of sinking.

The determination of this ship's fate brought about a massive salvage effort. Of immediate and prime importance was her cargo, which was ore needed by the military.

Benwood Wreck Diving Conditions

The end result of the salvage efforts have left this ship stripped, torn apart, and scattered over a broad debris field. In fact, salvage efforts continued into the 1950's where eventually the top portion of the ship was removed, leaving only the bilge section.

Hull of the Benwood Wreck

Site Map Of The Benwood Wreck
Courtesy of

The ongoing salvage of this ship, and the destruction this caused, finally prompted action. In 1959, the John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park developed a program that would protect the remains of the Benwood Wreck.

Subsequently, due to boundary expansions, and the formation of the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary, she now resides in protected waters.

These protectionist measures have allowed the Benwood Wreck to become an extraordinary example of an artificial reef. Between her structure and the significant coral and marine life abounding on and around her, she's one of the most interesting and photogenic Florida Keys scuba diving spots.

You'll notice when Key Largo diving, that some of her outer plating is gone. Her hull plating was stripped away in certain sections so salvagers could access her inner holds and compartments.

Without the cover of the plating, it's almost as if you're looking at her ribs, where her bones are outlined, but her "skin" is missing.

When exploring around the port side of the vessel, you'll discover that much of this plating or skin is still lying in the sand.

You'll also notice that her first deck contains numerous holes and gaps. These caves and hiding spots create the habitat fish prefer and seek out.

These features add to success of the Benwood wreck serving as an artificial reef. You'll also find that having a Benwood dive map in advance will give you the opportunity to study the wreck site.

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You won't want to miss exploring the Benwood wreck's stern where you'll find the skeleton of what was once her propulsion system - the engine's support platform, plus 4 propeller shaft pillow mounts.

The Benwood's bow was the reason for her sinking. Ironically today, it's crushed form is perhaps her most intact portion.

Another point of interest associated with her bow is an anchor that's found about 100 feet southeast on her seaward side. Even though controversy occasionally continues about this popular Key Largo dive attraction, the anchor is not hers.

Indiana University, which has been involved in extensive research and documentation of this Florida Keys shipwreck site, has determined that her anchor was of a more modern design than the one located 100 feet away.

The authorized and unauthorized salvaging, along with the damage from Florida hurricanes and strong currents, have substantially reduced the size of the Benwood wreck. Originally her hull depth measured just over 25 feet, today her hull reaches only 8 feet amidships.

There is a considerably large debris field surrounding the Benwood wreck. Key Largo diver's will find that this field extends quite a distance away from the actual Benwood wreck site. Of particular interest is a metal cargo mast assembly and mast partner, located approximately 800 yards from where she lies.

The Benwood wreck is a result of an unusual and unfortunate calamity on that fateful night in April, 1942. 50 years and and a few weeks later, a ceremony was held in her honor.

NOAA (the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) and Indiana University coordinated the affair. A commemorative buoy along with documentation of the wreck were placed at the site.

Also, the ship's bell which had been discovered earlier, and was now residing at the Burton Methodist Church was temporarily reunited with it's ship. To symbolize the end of this great ship's watch, her bell rang once again, 8 times loud and clear.

At-A-Glance Wreck Diving Description
And GPS Coordinates

Wreck Name
The Benwood - 340 foot metal hulled freighter
Key Largo - 1 mile northeast of French Reef within the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary
GPS Coordinates
25 03.160N 080 20.020W
Four mooring buoys for divers to descend, 1 marker buoy
25' at stern, 48' at bow
30 to 50'
Wreck Diving Description
Currents are mild to moderate. Diving into the wreck is not possible, but there are numerous holes, nooks and crannies that can be peered into and inspected. If you're planning on scuba diving Key Largo and this is your first time out, this is a fantastic first dive site.
Marine Life
Numerous varieties of stony and gorgonian coral, including fire coral, elkhorn coral, star coral, brain coral, sea fans, sea whips. Assortment of other marine life including red sponges, parrotfish, moray eels, grouper, grunt, snook, lobster, barracuda, yellow tail snapper, trumpet fish, nurse shark, hog fish, and angelfish

This is one of the best scuba diving in Key Largo sites. Here you'll be able to enjoy the interesting and unusual marine life the Florida Keys is famous for.

Combined with the 5 earlier mentioned reasons why this is one of the best scuba diving in Key Largo sites, you'll also find the opportunities for underwater photography to be amazing. We hope you take the time to plan a dive trip out to the Benwood Wreck while on your Key Largo diving vacation.

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Local Weather Zip Codes

Key Largo - 33037
Marathon - 33050
Key West - 33040