Diving the Straits of Mackinac

Makinac Bridge

We’d spent the night in Cadillac and gotten up at 4:30 am in order to make the boat in St. Ignace by eight o’ clock.  It was a beautiful day and as the sun came up we cruised North on I-75.   My dive buddy, Dennis, and I talked about the days planned
Dive excursion.     When we arrived in St. Ignace, most of the other divers were already on board the dive boat , “Rec Diver,” and the captain had the diesels warming up which filled the air with sickening fumes.


Dennis and I very quickly unloaded with the help of the other divers.
The weather looked like it was getting worse and as I looked to the west I could see the Mackinac Bridge in a haze with dark skies behind it. The waves as far as I could tell looked like 3 footers outside the harbor and I began to worry that we were in for a rough ride.
Next we started to put our gear together and at the same time began to meet some of the other divers.  It was at this point that I started to notice the other diver’s equipment, big doubles, dry suits, deep diving computers and other assorted expensive equipment. It looked like we were in for some serious diving.

Cedarville, The First Dive

   Sure enough, as we made the Mackinac City side of the straits, the water calmed and the rain stopped. We finished setting up our gear and divers started hitting the water.    The first divers in warned us that there was a surface current but they seemed to be moving along ok and so when out turn came we stepped off the back of the boat.  I don’t know whose idea it was but at about this point we decided to do a free decent and skip the down line as we were eager to get down.  Ultimately this wasn’t a good idea because it wasn’t just a surface current as I thought and the current continued to push us back as we went deeper.  
We descended headfirst and in the beginning could use the buoy line as visual reference.  At about 30 feet the port side of the Cedarville came into view. She had started to roll over as it sank and came to rest on the starboard side.  It was huge. It was so big that all we were looking at was a big flat slab of steel. Then after a minute you could make out the rounded edge of the bottom of an immense boat.  We continued to descend and move into the current toward the bow.  The smooth steel side of the ship was suddenly broken by a large crack. This was were she had been hit in the collision. No wonder she sank on the run to ground her on shore.  The opening was several inches wide and ran vertically all the way down her side well below the water line.  We passed over the crack and “landed” on the ships side, massive welded steel plates that gave off a little rust as I touched them and stained my glove.
I moved over to the ship’s rail and signed down to my buddy.  Aught oh, trouble, Dennis was signaling me back that he was having trouble equalizing his ears and needed to stay at his current depth. He signaled me to go on.    I hesitated and then went over the rail and dropped to the bottom of the lake. Looking back at the ship I could see the huge open hatch covers, spilled cargo and up above there was Dennis hovering on the rail.  I moved forward and soon a self-unloading crane came into view.  It angled out from the deck of the ship and down into the sand bottom of the lake.  The big ship wasn’t sitting squarely on its side. It had rolled slightly as if it were trying to tip over and the crane I thought looked like a giant kickstand of a bicycle holding the ship on its side and preventing it from rolling over further.

Reprinted from SHIPWRECKS OF THE STRAITS OF MACKINAC courtesy of  Dr. Charles E. Feltner and Jeri Baron Feltner.

As I looked forward I could see the pilothouse ahead. Wow, I had to see that.    I was almost there so I kept going. I finally grabbed the roof with my hand and pulled myself to a porthole and looked inside.  It was dark and I couldn’t make out much inside but I had made it. I wished I had more time and air. I checked my gauges, 86 ft, and started up. 
The weather had improved by the time we were up and as we sat there on the boat two massive Great Lakes Cargo ships passed us (after all the Cedarville went down in the shipping lanes). I don’t know how close they were but close enough to hear the rumble of the big engines.  What a dive!!

Author on the after deck of the Rec Diver in the Shipping Lanes of the Straits


The Cedarville Story


  It’s surprising sometimes how little divers and even boat operators know about the wrecks they dive on. Not that you have to be a historian but it is interesting to know some of the shipwreck’s details and it also makes the dive more fun.  The Cedarville is a good example of this. Most divers will tell you simply that she was in a collision in the straits in 65.  Other more informed divers know that the captain was speeding in a fog, the collision occurred and he started running for the shore when she sank. These accounts place the blame on the Cedarville’s captain for the accident. All of this is true however, there is more.

The real cause of the accident was communication error. The captain on the Cedarville had two ships, the Topdalsfjord and Weissenberg on his radar as he approached the narrow passage of the straits and was, he thought; in radio contact with the closest ship the Weissenberg.  It wasn’t until it was too late that he discovered the error that ultimately caused the collision. He was actually in radio contact with the farthest ship.  By the time he realized this it was too late, and he was unable to reach the Topdalsfjord by radio and was unable to navigate out of her way.

The Sandusky


  After recovering our divers, we moved to the west passing under the Mackinac Bridge to the next dive site, the Sandusky.  The Sandusky had left Chicago in September of 1856 with a load of grain and was sailing for Buffalo, New York. Two days later she floundered in a gale and sank west of Old Mackinac point.
Depth on this dive would be 85 feet. We descended on the buoy line this time arriving on the stern of the ship. The visibility was amazing. Before even making the deck I could make out most the stern and after half of the ship.  I was amazed at how well preserved it was even after over a hundred years on the bottom.  Most wooden Great Lakes wrecks look like a lot of “boards on the bottom.”  Not this one. It was as if she had just sunk months ago.   

Reprinted from SHIPWRECKS OF THE STRAITS OF MACKINAC courtesy of  Dr. Charles E. Feltner and Jeri Baron Feltner



We traveled down the middle of the ship being careful to hover well above the deck to avoid stirring up any sediment and destroying the visibility for other divers.  As we moved, we passed over the open cargo hatches.    In the middle there was the bilge pump.  This pump looks like a child’s teeter-totter with handles on each end. Two sailors would take opposite ends and work this pump to bring water up out of the ship’s hold.   The handle is connected to a pump shaft. This pipe shaft stands a foot or two out of the deck and has a little spout on it much like the spout of a water pitcher you would serve drinks out of.  Because the Sandusky “floundered” or swamped, I’m sure this pump was manned for many hours before she sank in a vain attempt to keep her afloat.


Reprinted from SHIPWRECKS OF THE STRAITS OF MACKINAC courtesy of  Dr. Charles E. Feltner and Jeri Baron Feltner

Near the bow a massive windlass and two anchors appeared.   Next to the windlass was a shallow hold filled with anchor chain.  I knew this wreck was famous for a carved figurehead on the bow so I immediately located it on the bow, a ram’s head.  As I hung with one arm on the bow sprint to admire this I could see the entire bow and its two anchors. Looking in the other direction the massive bow sprint, almost the size of a telephone pole, just seems to disappear into the distance.
We made the up line this time and did our ascent and safety stop. What a dive!!!


The Eber Ward

   After spending the night in St. Ignace, we boarded the Rec Diver again for another day in the Straits.  It was hectic as usual setting up equipment as we left the harbor. I asked the Captain and first mate where we were headed and they said they didn’t know, depended on conditions. After a while I overheard some of the other divers mention the Eber Ward.  I had read about this wreck and although I couldn’t remember all the details, I knew it was a deep wreck.


  The Eber Ward is about 4 miles west of the bridge and it wasn’t until we got well past the bridge that we knew it was the destination.  Listed as a 140 ft dive, it is definitely an advanced dive I didn’t think I was equipped to handle. I talked it over with my buddy Dennis and he was just as convinced as I was. We’d sit this one out and do the second dive which is usually always shallower.  Besides the PADI dive tables only give you a total dive time of 8 minutes at that depth. Another diver also decided she wasn’t going to dive it and we joked that it was a “testosterone” dive. 
We didn’t start to gear up as we got nearer the site and that’s when we started getting pressured into doing the dive. Everybody assured us we (Dennis and I) could do it. Maybe they felt guilty that we weren’t going to dive and they had picked the site.  Anyway, just about everyone was off the boat when we decided we’d go to a 100 or 120ft maybe just so we could see it from the line.
At the 15 ft safety stop we ran into three divers.  Since we only had 8 minutes max if we did the full dive, I quickly worked my way around these guys. I continued down in a headfirst position and I guess it was around 80 ft or so that I could first see the Eber.  I couldn’t believe the visibility. It was great.  We hit a 100 ft and another OK check.  It was at this point I knew we were gonna do the whole dive.


Hull of the Eber Ward: Note hole from collision with ice
Reprinted from SHIPWRECKS OF THE STRAITS OF MACKINAC courtesy of  Dr. Charles E. Feltner and Jeri Baron Feltner

  We hit the bow deck at about a 120 ft. Another OK check. We cruised across the bow and pilothouse. She was a huge ship and I could see other divers in the distance and bubbles coming out of the holds. Man--I would have liked to explore some more. Eight minutes was all we had.  I looked at my computer.  I was already pushing high in the green zone, about 2400 psi. in my tank. As long as I was this far I was going over the opposite rail to the bottom of the lake.  As we dropped over the side we floated down feet first. Immediately we found a large hole in the bow.  This is how she sank.  She struck an “ice flow” which punched the hole. Amazingly, the oak planks were several inches thick and yet they were snapped clean.  The two of us could easily swim through the hole at the same time. Looking in I could see two decks and actually a lot of light from the open hatches. If  I only had more air and time.   I dropped to the bottom of the lake and put my computer on the bottom—133 ft—the deepest dive of my life. I then popped back up to the rail and looked across the deck.  It seemed different somehow. The silt was kicked up a bit and I couldn’t see the up line. This worried me for a second or two. What if we missed it like we had the day before on the Cedarville?  I figured I was just a little narced and headed in the direction of the bow and up line. It wasn’t very far and the line came into view.  I felt relieved.  I got on the line, checked my air (well over a 1000psi, great) and computer (I was in the yellow caution zone).  I started up.  My computer nitrogen loading graph was dropping.  I was out of the caution zone.
We made the safety stop at 15 ft. and started timing our 3 minutes. Soon three other divers came up the line. Gosh, these guys looked like the same three we had passed before. They started their hang below us. One of them seem to be having trouble with his buoyancy. He kept adjusting his BC. We finished our time soon and surfaced leaving the three divers at the safety stop.

The Accident

  I was really pumped when I got back on the boat.  We’d done it. Taken the deepest dive of my life. Dennis and I high fived each other and started talking with the other divers about what they had seen.

   It seemed like it was only a few minutes later that the one diver and then another of the trio slowly surfaced.  We were all talking and all of a sudden the divemaster asked the last two on board, “where’s Doc?”  At first they both seemed stunned and a little lost.  After a few seconds, “well he was right behind us.”  A quick check below, in the head and on deck confirmed he wasn’t on board and because there were no diver bubbles on the buoy line he wasn’t in the water around the boat.

We immediately started scanning the surface, down current of the boat.  Maybe he had been blown off the line and was drifting.  We hoped he was doing a free floating decompression stop off the buoy line.  No bubbles, no sign.  I’m guessing it was a few more minutes and the first mate called the Coast Guard.   We continued to look.  After a half hour there was no chance he had enough air or needed to be underwater.  The Coast Guard arrived with an inflatable zodiac and crew and began a search around and downwind of the dive boat.  It didn’t look good! 

  When the surface search didn’t turn up anything, an underwater search seemed like the next step.  We weren’t leaving without our diver no matter what.  By this time we had over an hour on the surface. 

  Larry the lawyer was the first to go. He had a set of doubles, dry suite, and the gas and computer to do it.  He went solo and after deco he told us he saw nothing and had gone all over and around the wreck. Now the dive master group was ready to try. They borrowed Dennis’s wreck reel and did a bottom search.

   About this time, a Coast Guard Cutter arrived,  relieved the Zodiac and continued the search. We were also told that the decompression chamber in Traverse City was put on alert and that a helicopter was on the way.  

  They found him about 300 ft from the wreck on the bottom during a sweep on the wreck reel line.  Unfortunately the group was low on air when they found him and couldn’t bring him up.

  Because Dennis and I had had the shortest dive time and hadn’t been doing decompression diving we were asked to retrieve the body.   Gosh, I had just done the deepest dive of my life on a single Aluminum 80 cu ft tank with no pony bottle and that dive had killed somebody.  At this depth you only have 6 to 8 minutes bottom time doing no decompression diving.  Now, to retrieve the body, we had to repeat the same dive, travel 300 ft on the bottom and return with a corpse.  There was no way!  If the boat had had a shot line to drop so it was a straight decent then maybe but there was no way to make that distance on the bottom.  Maybe the Coast Guard could do it?  At least we knew where he was. 

  I’m not sure how the conversation on the radio went or how the connection was made but two nearby deep divers with decompression gear agreed to do the recovery. We cut loose from the buoy and a boat with the two fresh divers moored up.  About this time a Coast Guard helicopter arrived and at the same time I noticed quite a few other boats in the area too.

  The two deep divers were down for about 45 minutes and probably did 15-20 minutes on a deco.  Even at the distance we had backed off, we could see their bubbles while they deco’ed and I remember wondering to myself what that would that be like to hang there that long with a dead body on the line.

  Just before they surfaced the Coast Guard lowered an EMT from the helicopter to the deck of the cutter. When the divers surfaced they quickly moved in and treated it like cold water near drowning.  It was a great effort by the Coast Guard but by now Doc had been in the water close to two hours.  We watched as three men struggled to lift his lifeless body, with all the dive gear, on the cutter and then quickly speed away to St. Ignace.

Helicopter Lowering EMT                           U.S. Coast Guard Cutter on Scene

We were asked to report to the Coast Guard Station in St. Ignace so the captain could file an accident report.  At the Coast Guard Station we learned that Doc had been pronounced at the scene.  His equipment (he had some air) was lying on the deck of the cutter and a seaman was standing guard over it. What happened?  Maybe he had been  narced (had nitrogen narcosis or rapture of the deep). Anytime you dive deep, especially on regular air, everyone experiences it to a degree. It’s a little like being drunk because your senses are clouded. He could have been confused and simply “lost it” at or near the surface.  Another possibility is shallow water backout.  This is where divers, usually snorkeling breath holding divers,  pass out near the surface. Another possibility would be some form of decompression sickness.  Decompression sickness is caused by nitrogen bubbles, from the compressed air you breathe,  forming in your blood stream.  Proper use of dive tables (controlling your bottom time)  or the use of dive computers, usually means this isn’t a problem. Maybe he had a medical problem like a heart attack or seizure and because he was the last one in the line of divers it went unnoticed.  Later we learned that his death was ruled a drowning by the local coroner so we’ll never know for sure what happened
We gave our names, the boat was inspected and I think the captain was drug tested. Then we motored on to the Star Dock at St. Ignace.  When we landed, the wives of some of the divers were on the dock. On the previous day’s return they had helped us unload and mingled and talked to all of us. On this day we started to unload and soon someone told them about the accident. They just sat there stunned in a car near the dock. As I loaded my diving gear in my car I remember passing these women, with extremely startled faces, who were frozen in place after learning that there had been a death on the boat.