Trip Report: Straits of Mackinac and Hammond Bay 2014

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I’ve just returned from a fantastic week of diving in northern Michigan. It was sort of a two part trip. On Saturday and Sunday we dove several of the wrecks in the Straits of Mackinac. Monday through Thursday we expanded our scope and dove some deeper wrecks in Lake Huron’s Hammond Bay, about 30 minutes south of Mackinaw City.  We stayed in Mackinaw City the whole week and used it as a base of operations.  We used Greg Such (Shipwreck Adventures) for our charter needs and as usual, Greg did a great job for us.  The weather was near perfect and we got to dive all 6 days.

As noted, the first two days of the trip were dedicated to diving a few of the wrecks in the Straits of Mackinac.  The Straits lie at the northern extremes of Lake Michigan and Lake Huron.  The narrow strait connects the two lakes.  The five mile long Mackinac Bridge connects Michigan’s Upper and Lower Peninsulas.  The Straits has a reputation for being tricky to navigate and a dangerous area owing to storms and fog.  Over the years many ships have been lost in the treacherous Straits of Mackinac.

The first wreck we dove was the Cedarville.  Built in 1927 as the A.F. Harv, the Cedarville is the third largest freighter lost on the Great Lakes (after the Edmund Fitzgerald and the Carl Bradley). This 588 foot ship sank in a tragic accident on May 7, 1965 in Lake Huron. An ocean-going Norwegian freighter collided midships with the Cedarville in foggy weather. Ten men died when she rolled and sank in 37 degree water. The Cedarville lies on her starboard side broken nearly in two in 105 feet of water. Because she is partly inverted, divers can become disoriented on her. The hull can be reached at about 40 feet. The bow and stern sections are generally both buoyed. Divers can visit the pilothouse and large holds.  The stern features the galley, crew quarters and of course, the engine room.

For our first dive, we moored to the stern buoy.  Dropping down the line, the hull quickly comes into view.  We descend all the way to the bottom so that we can explore the deepest part of the wreck first, and then finish up on the shallower side.  We start by entering the engine room.  There are few things more dangerous than going inside a wreck underwater.  Don’t even think about it unless you are properly trained, equipped and experienced.  And then consider it carefully before going in.  Since the ship is tilted about 45 degrees short of upside down, it can be disorienting inside.  Nothing is level or where it should be.  It is also silty inside, so care must taken to preserve visibility.  I swim around the massive engine.  Forward is the electrical panel.  Machinery of every size and shape is everywhere.  After an all too brief visit, it’s time to head back up to the boat.

For dive 2, we move to the bow mooring and explore the front part of the wreck.  It’s interesting to explore the nearly upside down pilothouse and see the radar mast stuck in the bottom, like a kickstand holding the wreck from rolling over.  We swim around the forward end of the self unloader boom and the first cargo hold or two.  Then back to the bow and up the line.

The next day we motor out of Mackinaw City and head to the west side of the bridge.  First up, the Eber Ward.  The 213 foot long Eber Ward was built in 1888. She was cut by ice and sank on April 9, 1909 in Lake Michigan. She is upright and mostly intact and is an excellent example of a classic wooden bulk freighter. Her deck is at about 110 feet and the bottom at 140 feet. Her port bow has a large and unique “mushroom” anchor. A conventional anchor rests on her starboard bow. Large holes can also be found in the bow where the ice sliced open her hull.  Dropping down the mooring line, we find ourselves at the bow of the wreck.  

Eber Ward bow, notice mushroom anchor at bottom of frame
Photo by Andy Morrison

The first order of business is to drop over the port side and check out the mushroom anchor.  Then up on deck, drop through a hole and swim up to the bow area.  From inside the wreck, the ice damage is apparent as light streams in through the large holes at the water line.  We stayed inside and swam to the stern to see the engine.  After exiting the wreck, we looked around the stern before swimming along the deck back to the mooring line for our ascent.

The Sandusky was next on our agenda. The Sandusky is arguably the most popular wreck in the Straits.  She is a 110 foot brig, built in 1848.  She was lost in a storm in Lake Michigan with all hands on September 20, 1856. She sits upright with a ram‘s head figurehead still gracing her prow.   The figurehead is a replica however.  The original was removed in 1988 and given to a museum.  She is a very popular with divers since she is one of the few well preserved sailing ships in water shallow enough (about 80’) for most any diver to visit.

The following day we began our trips to explore the wrecks of Hammond Bay.  Hammond Bay is about 35 minutes south of Mackinaw City between Cheboygan and Rogers City, MI.  There is a small boat launch there run by the Michigan DNR.  For the next few days, we met 7 am and followed Greg as he trailered the boat down to Hammond Bay.

Henry J. Johnson

Our first dive in that area was the Henry J. Johnson.  The Johnson was built in 1888 and was a 260′ wooden steamer.  She collided with the Fred Pabst in July 1902 while navigating through dense fog.  The Pabst struck her just aft of the bow and the Johnson sank quickly.  All hands were able to abandon ship and take to the lifeboats.  The Pabst however, never stopped to rescue the survivors.  They were picked up several hours later by the tug Parker.

The Johnson rests in about 150′.  She is in good condition.  There is some damage to the bow and the stern has collapsed at about the boiler house.  This makes it convenient to examine the engine and propeller.  Near the bow, the forward mast has fallen over and juts out from the port rail.  Wire rigging trails back to the deck.

The next dive in Hammond Bay was the Persian (also called the Persia).  She was a 128′ schooner that sank after colliding with the E.B. Allen.  The accident occurred in September 1868 and all 10 men on board the Persian were lost.  Today she sits under about 160′ of cold Lake Huron water.  Her masts have toppled over the port side.  It is interesting to swim out to the end of the masts to see the intact cross trees (kind of a crow’s nest).  The mizzenmast even has the topmast still attached.  Returning to the deck, we swim aft.  The cabin is missing, but there are artifacts present and the wheel is impressive.  Swimming towards the bow, the collision hole is evident on the starboard side.  Reaching the bow, we find the anchors, one on the bottom, one hanging from the catshead.  

One of the days we were supposed to dive Hammond Bay, Mother Nature threw some wind at us and kicked the lake up a bit.  Luckily, the Straits were out of the wind, so we happily headed out of Mackinaw City for another dive on, or more precisely in, the Cedarville.  Once again my buddy and I planned a penetration dive for the engine room.  Having familiarized ourselves with it on previous dives, we pushed a little farther on this dive and had a nice long dive exploring the interior of the stern of the wreck.

This trip went really well and I had a lot of fun.  Anytime you plan to dive the Great Lakes six days in a row, you have to expect to get weathered out at least one day, perhaps several.  I really expected we would miss a day or two of diving, but the weather was on our side and we had good diving conditions everyday.  We also had plenty of time in the afternoon for sightseeing around Mackinaw City and Mackinac Island.  This is a great destination for both divers and non-diving spouses and families.  Thanks to Greg Such of Shipwreck Adventures for his hard work driving the boat, towing it all over Michigan for us, filling tanks, and finding restaurants.  

If you’re interested in joining me on a dive adventure, contact me at rick@GreatLakesTechDiving.com and keep an eye on my website, www.GreatLakesTechDiving.com.  I can also offer classes in conjunction with trips, so you can combine fun dive travel with education.


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