Presque Isle Trip Report 2011

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Wow, what a busy summer this has been so far. I can’t believe I haven’t posted anything here in almost two months. I’ve done lots of dives around the Great Lakes and haven’t had time to do proper reports about them. Most recently, I led a group to Presque Isle, MI to dive the wrecks in that particular area of Lake Huron.

Lake Huron near Rogers City south to Presque Isle and Alpena, MI boasts some of the best shipwrecks in all the Great Lakes. This was the third year in a row I’ve run trips up to that area and every year we have an awesome time. The area is known for wrecks like the Cornelia B. Windiate and the Florida . This year, we wanted to get on some of the wrecks we had not visited in prior trips.

Perhaps my favorite wreck this trip was the Norman. Presque Isle is known for its sunken fleet of intact wooden schooners, so diving a nearly 300′ steel steamer was kind of a nice change. We did two dives on the Norman since she is so big, and there’s still plenty I’d like to go back and explore. The Norman was a victim of a collision which nearly cut her in half. She lies upright on the bottom with a list to port. The remains of the pilot house lie on the bottom next to her. You can easily see the large double wheel in the debris. The bow area offers opportunities for penetration. Since she was running empty at the time of her loss, it’s easy to swim through her double-decker cargo holds. The boiler room and engine room can both be penetrated, but the engine has some tight spots, so this an area only for those properly trained, equipped and experienced. The debris field next to the wreck is interesting to swim through. The ship’s yawl boat sits on the bottom next to the wreck. You can see various items ranging from the ship’s smokestack to ventilators (dorades) to plates.

The other two wrecks we dove were wooden schooners: the Defiance and the Kyle Spangler. I’ve written about the Spangler in previous trip reports, so I’ll tell you a bit about the Defiance. The Defiance was yet another victim of collision. Most of the wrecks in this area sunk due to collision. In the 19th century, shipping lanes on the Great Lakes were ill-defined and the lanes for upbound and downbound traffic converged near Thunder Bay. Combine the close proximity of northbound and southbound traffic with poor visibility like fog or the dark of night, and it’s easy to see why so many ships ran into each other in this particular stretch of the lake.

So in October 1854, the Defiance and John J. Audubon found themselves in exactly this situation. The Defiance was southbound while the Audubon was northbound. Around 1 a.m., the two ships collided in fog and darkness. Both ships sank, however both crews were able to escape in lifeboats. The wrecks now sit a few miles apart on the bottom of Lake Huron.

The Defiance sits upright on the bottom with both of her masts still standing. The cross trees (Great Lakes equivalent of a crow’s nest) stand at about 110′ of depth, while the main deck is at about 180′. It was quite a breathtaking sight on our descent to reach the top of the mast and see the entire ship below us. It made me think about those sailors that stood aloft in the course of their duties. I can’t imagine standing 70′ above the deck, swaying back and forth like a pendulum. The wreck is small, as most Great Lakes schooners are, only about 110′ long. There is very little damage to the bow area and the rest of the ship is intact. Swimming along the deck you’ll see the capstan, the centerboard winch, various booms and rigging. One of the most interesting features in my opinion is the absence of a wheel. Some schooners were not steered by wheels, but by tillers. And so, at the stern of the Defiance, one finds a very large tiller.

We didn’t dive the Audubon on this trip, but I have in the past and will again in the future. There are a few interesting trivia notes about the Audubon. First, it was one of the few brigs to sail the Great Lakes. Most vessels on the Great Lakes were rigged fore and aft, meaning that the sails ran down the centerline of the ship like a modern day sailboat. The Audubon however, was square-rigged, with the sails perpendicular to the ship’s centerline (think 18th century pirate ship). Also, the Audubon was in her first year of service at the time of her loss.

Presque Isle 2011 couldn’t have gone better. We executed four dives, saw some new wrecks, enjoyed calm seas and found the best ribs in northern Michigan! Thanks to Greg Such (www.shipwreckadventures.com) for providing top notch charter service once again this year. For more information about these and other wrecks in the area, including 3D animations of each wreck site, go to this website.

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