It’s impossible not to get excited, emotional or moved through all of this. The deceased have been honored at the memorial reef in myriad ways: Tributes are welded to reef material before deployment, prayers are spoken, stories are shared, and ashes are spread. The manner in which people grieve and celebrate life seems to vary at the site, but there is always a common thread: The connection to a lost loved one is palpable during and after the experience.
The Smoaks were deeply moved during that first reef deployment. They watched the event unfold as a family, remembering the man they had lost much too soon. Tony had always been a family man, raising his two young daughters around the docks and aboard the Smoak family’s Fishwrapper, which is still operated today by Tony’s brother, Joey Smoak. Tony’s daughter Amanda, now in her early 20s, says: “Harbor cruises, early-morning fishing trips and after-school time all started at Ripley Light Marina with my dad. Heading to the docks was my favorite place because it meant spending time with him, grabbing leftover fish for dinner, checking on the tiny shrimp that lived under the dock, netting mullet or hoping that a manatee picked our slip to take a drink.”
It’s easy to see why a kid would want to spend hours alongside Dad when he introduces his children to this constant supply of adventure and entertainment. And Tony, whether spending time with kids or sharing stories with adults, was no stranger to entertaining those around him. So it was only fitting that Tony’s memorial at sea was a breathtaking show for his family and friends. “The first barge going down with all the crosses attached and Tony’s ashes was an awe-inspiring sight to experience with my children,” Tony’s wife, Alison, recalls. “All the boats were surrounding the site when the barge sank. The water turned an amazing Caribbean blue color; we all cheered and threw out wreaths of flowers. All the hard work the SCMR team had done became a reality.”
Stevie Leasure, captain of the 57-foot Sea Island Summer Girl, was also involved in the initial proposal for the South Carolina Memorial Reef. He had been friends with Robbie Johnson and Tony Smoak. When he later served as the chairman of the advisory board of directors of the South Carolina Governor’s Cup Billfishing Series, Leasure recognized and appreciated the site’s biological and social significance. Once the site started to attract sailfish and blue marlin, he was largely responsible for encouraging others to donate to the cause, often citing the consistent billfish bite during the summer months. “The fishing reports within the area can be outstanding,” he says. “It’s not uncommon to see boats that have traveled 80 to 100 miles in the area just to fish for the day. Many boats that are traveling up and down the coast have been known to spend a couple of extra days in Charleston to fish the reef as well. During the Governor’s Cup tournaments, you’ll always find a crowd there.”
Some competitors in the SCGC Series have even credited the reef site for playing a major role in their success during tournaments. The 59-foot Spencer Man Cave, owned at the time by Billy Gressette, won the 2018 Megadock Billfishing Tournament after releasing one blue marlin and six sailfish at the reef over the course of two days. The Man Cave team had the good fortune of fishing the site by themselves on the last day of the tournament because most of the fleet chose to fish farther north. It didn’t take long for word to spread that Gressette had made the right choice by returning to the reef that day, going on to clinch the win after releasing an additional four sails at the site. In many ways, tournament participants have Leasure, the Johnsons, the Smoaks, and the other early pioneers of the project to thank for that.