Eric Sharp: Shipwrecks in Thunder Bay offer sanctuary for divers
By Eric Sharp - Freep
Fourteen years isn't a long life for a ship, yet that's how long the schooner Portland lasted from her birth in a shipyard in upstate New York in 1863 until she went aground on the shores of Lake Huron in 1877 and was pounded to pieces by an October gale.
Portland's short career was marked by numerous close calls that included a collision with another ship. An early demise wasn't unusual in a day when 2,000 cargo schooners hauled everything, including lumber and coal, on the lakes without the assistance of satellite navigation systems, radios or even accurate charts.
Stephanie Gandulla, a marine archaeologist at the Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary, glided over Portland's hull about 8 feet below the surface of Lake Huron, examining the way the builders had fastened together the massive timbers of the keelson, which helped hold Portland's bottom together.
She surfaced, blew a miniature whale-spout from her snorkel, and said, "A lot of the spikes have been bent over by ice, but you can see how they fastened the planking, and you can see the mast step and the centerboard pivot."
Portland is one of a dozen shipwrecks that are in less than 20 feet of water in the sanctuary and easily accessible to snorkelers, and another three dozen wrecks as deep as 240 feet draw scuba divers from around the world. The wrecks range from a schooner sunk in 1843 to the freighter Nordmeer that went down in 1966.
Gandulla said the deep Thunder Bay wrecks are gaining a reputation as a mecca for technical divers who breathe exotic gas mixtures that allow them to make deeper dives for long periods.
Superb underwater visibility has made the area a popular site for both shallow and deep diving. Thanks to billions of zebra and quagga mussels filtering the water, diving Thunder Bay is often like diving in the tropics, with 60-foot visibility commonplace.
Even snorkeling over Portland's timbers, lying in 6-10 feet of water where the waves could stir the bottom, we could easily see 40 feet along the huge beams and planks that once were the ship's bottom and starboard side of the hull.
Like most ships wrecked by grounding, Portland was smashed apart by decades of Great Lakes storms. But her structure is still in big pieces, and the wrecks that lie in deeper water are often perfectly intact.