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Best Advanced Key Largo Diving
Is On The Mighty USCG Duane

The USCG Duane (WPG 33) is one of the best Key Largo diving sites for advanced scuba diving certification.

An easier Florida Keys diving site than her sister cutter the USCG Bibb, both had illustrious wartime and peace time careers.

When decommissioned, both were purchased as part of the Monroe County Artificial Reef program.

They were then prepped for scuttling, towed south of Molasses Reef off Key Largo FL.

They opened her hatches, pumped her holds with water, and on November 27, 1987, the Queen of the Fleet sank in full upright position, one day before the Bibb, and half a mile away.

History Of The USCG Duane

Built in 1935, the Duane was commissioned in 1936 as part of the USCG's Treasure Class or Secretary Class.

Like her sister ships, she was 327 feet long with a 41 foot beam, and had a top running speed of 20 knots. She was also outfitted with three 5-inch guns, three 3-inch guns, fourteen 40-mm and eight 20-mm guns.

These boats were extremely seaworthy, and were capable of withstanding the tough, heavy seas of the Atlantic, which tested them often.

Originally based out of Oakland, California, she was eventually transferred to the Atlantic in 1939 serving with Destroyer Division 18 on Grand Banks patrol.

She then went on to weather station duty, and eventually to surveying the coast of Greenland to look for places to establish airfields.

She was eventually returned to Boston, and from September 19 - November 15, 1940 she was refitted with extra anti-aircraft weapons as well as depth charge racks and projectors.

Then on September 11, 1941, under Executive Order, she, the USCG Bibb, the USCG Spencer and the USCG Hamilton joined 3 other sister ships who had already been transferred to the Chief of Naval Operations.

This was WW II and battles were fiercely raging, and the German U-boats were busy playing havoc in the Atlantic. They were opportunistic hunters, looking for easy prey.

Vessels making their journey across the Atlantic to the Mediterranean or through the waters of the Caribbean were prime targets. To help protect the merchant convoys that were moving personnel, equipment and other goods, these 327 cutters became part of an armed escort fleet.

It was during WW II that her crew was routinely called upon to help those in need. From February 3 - 6, 1943 her crew was involved in an amazing rescue effort involving the Dorchester.

This was an incredible incident where the Dorchester had been attacked after midnight by a German U-boat. The Duane and USCG Tampa arrived on the scene, along with several other ships.

The two cutters went into protection mode while also helping with search and rescue efforts. However the situation was complicated by several factors. It was dark, the water was frigid, and there was the ongoing, very real fear of being attacked by U-boats.

The men in the water were rapidly dying from hypothermia. They were unable to help with their own rescue as their numb bodies were unable to grasp onto the life lines thrown to them.

The only way to save those still alive, was to employ a new form of rescue. Coast guardsmen dressed in rubber suits, entered the frigid water, and then brought the injured and dying men to safety.

The whole operation was cumbersome and dangerous, but eventually they were able to rescue 250 of the crew who'd been aboard the Dorchester.

Just a few months later, on April 17, her sister ship, the Spencer, detected a German U-boat trying to infiltrate the convoy they were escorting.

The Spencer dropped depth charges onto the submarine and ordered the Duane to take over the contact. The USCG Duane began to search the indicated area and 30 minutes later the U-boat surfaced about 1.5 miles away.

USCG Duane on North Atlantic High Seas

USCG Duane On North Atlantic High Seas
Courtesy of

The Spencer began to fire upon the U-boat, and the Duane sped towards the sub, waiting until she had a clear shot before opening fire. The 2 cutter's fired for approximately 7 minutes until the German crew began to jump ship.

Both the USCG Duane and the Spencer then began their rescue efforts with the Duane pulling 22 of the Germans aboard. Within 25 minutes of the final survivor being rescued, the German sub sank.

As the war progressed, the Navy realized that the threat from U-boats was substantially declining and that her fleet of 327's could be used more effectively.

The USCG Duane entered the Norfolk Navy Yard and from January 16 - March 6, 1944 was refitted into an amphibious force flagship.

As an AGC, she would be used for amphibious landings, and so her heavy armament was removed and replaced with additional anti-aircraft weapons. They also enclosed rooms to house 35 radio receivers and 25 radio transmitters.

Once her transformation was complete, the USCG Duane served as the flagship for the commander of the 8th Amphibious Force.

Barely 2 months after D-Day, on August 15, 1944, she entered the European theater as part of Operation Dragoon, which continued the invasion of southern France.

When the war was finally over, she was once again refitted - this time serving as a weather observation ship. It was during this period, that on May 4, 1957, she responded to the SS Bornholm's distress call.

This was a Finnish merchant vessel that was taking on water 130 miles north of a weather station manned by the USCG Duane. The 327 made it to the vessel in time, and was successful in saving all 27 crew on board, before the Finnish ship sank 30 minutes later.

She carried out her latest role until she was returned to active duty in the Vietnam war as part of Operation Market Time.

December 4, 1967 she was assigned to Coast Guard Squadron Three of Vietnam. Her mission was to intersect supplies and arms being smuggled to the Viet Cong and to provide gun support to ground forces in need. As part of her duties, her crew was responsible for boarding and inspecting ships in the area suspected of carrying contraband.

USCG Duane Returning from Vietnam

USCG Duane Returning Home From Vietnam

Her first day in the theater began with a true bang. She was immediately called upon to provide gunfire support and for 30 minutes she fired 70 rounds of 5-inch ammunition from her main battery. Her actions resulted in the destruction of 1 enemy command post, 5 bunkers, 2 tunnels and 36 fortified foxholes.

On her last patrol, July 4, 1968 she was in the Bo De River area and here she fired her 1,776th rounds of ammunition. In total, during her time "in country" she had been responsible for inspecting 338 steel hulled and 5,211 wooden hulled vessels as well as the boarding of 32 vessels.

The duties this ship performed are illustrious and varied. As such, she was rewarded with the moniker "Queen of the Squadron", which during her next decade, changed to "Queen of the Fleet".

Upon returning to her native waters, she was tasked with a variety of non-military duties, which eventually led to her involvement in the war on drugs.

Her career came close to ending in the late 1970's until Congress realized they needed additional coverage off the coast of Maine. To prepare her for more service she underwent a major overhaul and refurbishing.

In 1980, she was en route to intercede with the Mariel boatlift, but on the way, she encountered several vessels in distress requiring rescue.

She also came to the aid of the DC-3 that had crashed in the waters off the Bahamas, only to find that no one had survived the disaster.

Eventually she made her way to Cuba, and once she arrived, she quickly became the command post and flagship running the operation.

On April 1, 1982, the USCG Duane became the oldest cutter on active duty. In keeping with a USCG tradition, her hull numbers were painted in gold, and a plaque was placed below her bridge that read:

"Cutter Duane proudly sails as the Nation's
oldest active commissioned naval vessel."

Even though she was successful in her role of saving lives, and in her continued war on drugs, her new honor was short-lived.

She had become old, and she was fast on the road to becoming obsolete. Many of the parts she needed for various repairs were no longer available, or in production.

Maintaining her was becoming impossible as well as very expensive. Finally the decision had to be made, and on August 1, 1985 she was decommissioned.

The history she helped shape, and the lives she saved are just part of what makes this wreck diving the Duane so special.

Not only was her service above water exemplary, she shines below in her new role as an artificial reef. The gold numbers she once proudly sported, are nothing compared to the brilliant colors of coral and sponges encrusting her steel hulled form.

USCG Duane Wreck Diving Conditions

This cutter sits at 120 feet in depth, about half a mile from the more challenging Key Largo diving site the USCG Bibb.

She's located outside the reef line so anyone in Key Largo diving this area, needs to know that the current will be quite strong.

This factor, along with her depth, are the reasons why she's considered one of the advanced Florida Keys diving sites requiring proper documentation.

Like the USCB Bibb, which is often dived the same day, the Duane is equipped with a descent line at her bow and stern. It's essential when wreck diving this Key Largo dive site that these lines be used to avoid being swept away by the current.

However, unlike the nearby Bibb, this advanced diving certification site is visited more frequently. This is due to several factors.

First she's in very good shape, and she retains much of her original materials including screws, ladders, port holes, railings and rudders.

Second, her upright position makes penetration as easy and as safe as can be expected on at an advanced wreck diving site. Of course, like all other wrecks, you'll need to be mindful of the ever present cables and lines to avoid entanglement.

The strong current also means that the water is usually exceptionally clear. From above, you can easily see the ship far below, making out her dark form 120 feet below the water's surface.

Your Duane dive map gives you a chance to study her deck where at 60 feet you'll encounter her mast and crow's nest.

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At 70 feet, forward of amidships you'll find her navigating bridge. Her superstructure deck is reached at 90 feet, and the main deck is found at 100 feet.

On her forward deck you'll find a large circular hatch, which marks the ammunition storage area for her gun turret.

USCG Duane Mast and Crow's Nest

USCG Duane's Mast

Numerous species of fish inhabit her nooks and crannies, and when diving into the wreck, scuba divers are often surprised by a nurse shark, goliath grouper or barracuda coming out to greet them.

At-A-Glance Wreck Diving Description
And GPS Coordinates

Wreck Name
USCG Duane - 327' Coast Guard Cutter
Off Key Largo, near Molasses Reef
GPS Coordinates
24 59.380 N 080 22.920 W
Buoy at bow and stern
If you're scuba diving Florida Keys, this is an advanced site due to depth and current. Penetration is not recommended due to possible obstructions, loss of way, and entanglement
60' - Crow's Nest, 80' - Wheel House, 98' - Main Decks
200' with 30' - 80' being most common
Dive Site Description
Strong currents. Half mile from sister ship Bibb. Bow points southeast. Duane is intact and upright in an average 118'
Marine Life
Barracuda, schools of grunts, grouper, wrasse, sea turtles, damselfish, cobia, goliath grouper, butterflyfish, amberjack, yellowtail, angelfish, nurse shark, sponge, fire coral, star coral, finger coral, cup coral, sea fans, sea plumes

When Scuba diving Florida Keys, the USCG Duane is considered to be one of the best advanced Florida Keys diving sites. Not only is it possible to explore much of the ship, the coral and other marine life is diverse and more unusual than what you'll find at shallower reef or wreck diving sites.

However, all of this pales in comparison as you sense the ghosts of times past. Listen closely and perhaps you'll hear her guns blazing, or see the relieved smiles of those yanked from the icy jaws of death. This ship was once the Queen of the Fleet, and today she continues as one of the most interesting Queen of the Deep ships.

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Local Weather Zip Codes

Key Largo - 33037
Marathon - 33050
Key West - 33040