Cross One Off the Bucket List

The story of the Daniel J. Morrell has intrigued me since I first read about it as a young teenager. She was a classic Great Lakes freighter just shy of 600 feet in length. By November of 1966, she was 60 years old. She was upbound on Lake Huron fighting the kind of November storm that the Great Lakes are known for. Just off the “thumb” of Michigan, she broke in half. The stern section, still under power, pushed the severed bow section aside and steamed another 5 miles before finally sinking. Of the 29 crewmen, only one survived.

Neither section of the Morrell wreckage is easy to get to. Both sections lie rather far from shore so near perfect weather is required to make the journey. Aside from weather, finding a charter boat is no easy task either. There aren’t many charter boats in the area, so to coordinate boat availability with the weather and personal schedules makes it difficult to dive the Morrell. I have however made it out to the bow section several times. I’ve always wanted to dive the stern section, but was never able to pull it off. That is, until Friday.

Early last week I saw a Facebook post by charter captain Greg Such that he and his passengers had just finished a great dive on the stern of the Morrell. I posted something to the effect that I’ve wanted to dive the stern for years and I wished that I had known he was going to be in the neighborhood. I asked him to let me know the next time he was running charters around the Morrell and maybe I could join him. He replied, “How about Friday?” That was all the motivation I needed. I began the process of readjusting work and personal schedules to free up my Friday. I called my buddy, Marshall Allan, and he started rearranging his schedule.

Friday morning we met Greg, Tyler and Mike in Port Austin, MI. There was not a hint of breeze and the lake was flat. We loaded up and headed out. The weather was perfect, with sunny blue skies and flat water. By 8:30 am Marshall and I were on our way down the mooring line.

We arrived on the stern at about 175′. The image of the stern coming into view is indescribable. The wreck is quite intact; even the funnel is still standing. We dropped into the engine room through the skylight. Everything is there, still in place just as she went down. Everywhere I turn is a different, yet remarkable reminder of the ship and her fate. Machinery, tools, even the light bulbs are still intact in their fixtures.

Back outside, we swim past the auxiliary helm and drop down to deck level. We swim around the aft deck house and peek into open doors. We can see into the galley. We see a sink and toilet in what was obviously crew accommodations.

The open doors invite us in for further exploration, but our time is gone. Time to begin the long ascent. The 37 degree (F) water hadn’t bothered me during the dive. But as we stopped at 100′ for our first decompression stop a little chill ran through me. “Damn,” I thought to myself, “Another 50 minutes of deco and it’s not going to get any warmer.” Actually I was wrong. By the time we got to the surface, the temperature had risen to 38 degrees!

Back on the boat, we lounged in the sunshine and warmed up. What a great day. Great weather, great company and a great (and safe) dive. As I suspected, this first dive of the stern of the Morrell only whets my appetite for more. On the drive back home, Marshall and I started figuring out how we can get back out for more dives.

After I got home, I checked “The Great Lakes Diving Guide” by Cris Kohl to see if he mentions any interesting historical nuggets I may have missed. He only devotes two sentences to the Morrell stern, one of which reads: “It (the stern) lies slightly deeper than the bow, but not quite as interesting.” Cris, you’re a great guy and a fountain of Great Lakes lore, but I couldn’t disagree with you more on this point!