The end will come slowly, with whooshing water, jets of escaping air, and the creaks and groans of metal.

The 563-foot Arthur W. Radford, a decommissioned Navy destroyer with 26 years of service, will slip beneath the waves off Cape May Point by early November to begin a new mission as the longest vessel ever turned into an East Coast artificial reef.

After serving during the Persian Gulf War and in peacekeeping operations off Lebanon, the Radford will become the home of marine life, including bluefin tuna and mako sharks.

"This is a big ship and we want it to sink with the keel hitting the sand," said Hugh Carberry, who coordinates the reefs program for the New Jersey Division of Fish and Wildlife.

"We want it sitting on the bottom perfectly upright," he said. "It will have one heck of a profile."

The destroyer, now at the old Philadelphia Naval Shipyard, is expected to be a premier attraction for divers and a magnet for recreational fishermen.

That means tourism dollars for hotels, restaurants, retailers, and scuba diving and tackle shops in New Jersey, Delaware, and Maryland - which are roughly equidistant from the reef site, said Jeff Tinsman, an environmental scientist in charge of the reef program for the Delaware Fish and Wildlife Division.

For scores of former Navy crew members who knew the Radford and walked its decks one last time this month, the ship's fate stirs emotions.

"I can walk through that ship blindfolded," said Keith Barth, 51, of Portsmouth, Va., who served as a first-class hospital corpsman on the Radford from 1989 to 1992. He recently toured the vessel, with its peeling paint and stripped interior and exterior.

The visit "brought back a flood of memories. I could say what each space used to be," said Barth, who served 30 years in the Navy.

"I plan to watch it go down," he said. "It will be emotional. It's like losing your grade school to fire."

Knowing the Radford won't be scrapped or used as a bombing target offers some solace, said Robert Sax, 43, who also visited this month. The resident of Plains, in Luzerne County, Pa., was a radio operator on the ship from 1985 to 1987.

"I'm glad it's serving a purpose," Sax said. "It will have a different life, like being born again."

The Radford had to be prepared for its new role. Tons of aluminum, brass, bronze, and other metals were recovered for recycling, and efforts were made to make the vessel "diver-friendly." Sharp edges were rounded off, and doors removed.

The site of the reefing will be 29 miles south of Cape May Point, about the same distance from Ocean City, Md., and 26 miles from Indian River Inlet, Del.

The $800,000 cost for the work is being borne equally by the three states and the Navy. New Jersey's share came entirely from the Ann Clark Foundation.

The ship "has been tested for PCBs and nothing came back hot," said Patrick Pawliczek, a principal of American Marine Group, the private contractor in charge of the towing and sinking. "Asbestos was not an issue."

It's "the perfect reef candidate," Tinsman said. "It's a fairly modern vessel where you don't find much that's toxic."

The former warship will become a playground for humans and marine life.

It will have "a lot of areas to explore," Carberry said. "I hope to dive on it the day after it sinks."

The sinking is expected to be captured by underwater cameras, probably attached to the ship's bow and fantail, Carberry said. Dignitaries and former sailors may watch from the Cape May-Lewes Ferry, if arrangements can be made, officials said.

"It's 75 feet from the [ocean] surface to the top of the [ship's] wheelhouse and it's 140 feet to the bottom" of the ocean, Carberry said. "Holes will be cut in the hull in the starboard and port for novice divers. You'll be able to do some speargun hunting."

The ship will be a fishing resource as well. "Bottom currents on the seafloor will direct nutrient-rich water to the [ocean] surface and that will cause blooms of plankton that draw marine life," he said.

The Radford was commissioned in 1977 and sailed thousands of miles to South America, Europe, the Persian Gulf, and elsewhere.

In 1999, it was severely damaged when it collided with the Saudi Riyadh, a 656-foot container ship heading toward the Chesapeake Bay for Baltimore.

The container hit the starboard side of the Radford, leaving a deep gash that cost $32.7 million to repair. The ship was deployed again to the Eisenhower battle group and decommissioned in 2003.

This fall, on a calm day with wave heights no more than three feet, the Radford will be towed, then anchored at four points. Concrete in the hull will act at ballast to stabilize it after the loss of so much weight from the salvaging operation, officials said.

Valves on board will be opened to let water in, and as the vessel drops to the level of the holes in the hull, more water will rush in.

Watching it will be "intense," said Joseph Hare, a retired Navy rear admiral, vice president for shipyard operations and general counsel with Rhoads Industries, which is in charge of the pier where the Radford is docked.

"When you're on a ship thousands of miles from land, living there continuously, every day, you have an affection for it," he said.

The sinking could take about an hour.

"It's pretty impressive," Tinsman said. "There will be a tremendous amount of air coming out of this thing. It will look like a bubbling fountain."

The ocean finally will flush over the deck and the Radford will disappear in a cauldron of white water.

"You'll be able to see it [via] the cameras and catch the sounds of cracking and popping, air escaping," Carberry said.

When the Radford hits the ocean floor, "she will begin a second life of over 100 years as an artificial reef - and that's a positive thing," Tinsman said.