Thursday, December 6, 2012

133-year-old wooden steamer New York found in Lake Huron

For scuba divers, watching an ancient shipwreck emerge in the murky gloom beneath their feet is quite a rush.
But imagine being the first pair of eyes to view that ship in more than 100 years. David Trotter has done that many times in his 30 years as a shipwreck hunter. For him, viewing a previously discovered shipwreck doesn’t get his juices flowing. It’s the thrill of the hunt and the journey rather than the destination. And it’s a passion he has followed for more than 30 years.
Trotter announced the news of his latest discovery on Tuesday, Dec. 4, the 133-year-old wooden steamer New York, discovered in Lake Huron in May and dived for the first time in July. The discovery was the result of more than two years of searching with his expedition team, Undersea Research Associates, an operation that is funded by Trotter and includes a small group of volunteer divers and support personnel.
The wreck was found about 20 miles southeast of Alpena and about 75 degrees and 25 miles out from the small port town of Harrisville. Side-scan sonar was used to locate the vessel, which is located in about 240 feet of water.
The time consuming part of the search is largely due to inaccurate information. Groups lay down search grids based upon information given at the time of the sinking by the surviving crew members. In this case, and many others, different men provide different locations and different stories. It’s not surprising, since as the ship is going down, the men are thinking about surviving, not about charting its last location. Trotter said some stories had the ship going down 25 miles further north, while others had it 5-10 miles further south.
"It was quite obvious we had a shipwreck and that it was a steamer as opposed to a schooner based upon its size," Trotter said of the initial sonar sighting. "Since the stern was damaged, we couldn’t determine its full length and whether or not it was the New York. It could have been one of three other ships that were thought to go down in that area."
The New York, built in 1879 to a length of 283 feet, is historically significant for two reasons. First, at the time of her construction, she was the largest ship to ply the Great Lakes, the leviathan of her time. And secondly, at the time of her sinking 31 years later, she represented a changing of the guard in ship construction. As a "woody," by 1910, she was a bit of a relic; most of her neighbors on the sea were made of steel.
The New York was headed northbound in October 1910 from Detroit to Canada carrying a load of coal when it was caught in a violent gale. She lost power and fell into a trough (sideways) where the waves pummeled the ship.
The 430-foot steamer Mataafa, with the 376-foot Whaleback Alexander Holley in tow, spotted the New York and realized she was in serious danger. Captain Regan, of the Mataafa, began a turn into the raging seas when its load of iron ore shifted, causing the vessel to nearly capsize. She was now two feet lower on one side. Despite the risks, Regan brought the Mataafa around and headed toward the New York. They also poured about 40 gallons of oil into Lake Huron to calm the water.
The captain and the 13-member crew of the New York were able to transfer into two small lifeboats and were then picked up by the Mataafa. No souls were lost.
Because the wreck sits so deep on the floor of Lake Huron, the dive down to her would be a technical one, with expert divers using mixed gas. Quite a bit of planning and safety considerations would have to be established.
"There is tremendous excitement and intensity for the first two divers down because they are the first ones to lay eyes on her, but they also have tasks to complete, securing the mooring line and shooting video. The second group gets to explore," Trotter said.
URA dived the site for three months, starting in July, and felt pretty confident they had found the New York, but they had no authentication, especially since the stern, where her identification would have been located, had been so severely damaged.
Then, in September, paydirt.
"(A diver) went portside, about 50 feet from the wreck and found what looked like a giant bowl," Trotter said. "It was very heavy … but he managed to turn it over and it turned out to be the capstan cover. It was made of brass and engraved in the capstan cover were the words, ‘New York.’ We had finally validated the ship’s identity on the very last dive of the year."
The ship sits upright with stern damage almost up to its engine compartment. Its two broken stacks lay nearby. As is common, its upper structure was blown off, thanks to trapped air pressure, during the sinking.
Trotter, 72, has been sidelined from diving for about two years to due to medical complications, but that hasn’t stopped his passion for searching the Great Lakes to track down its remaining lost ships. The former Ford Motor Credit executive has, by his estimate, explored and charted more than 2,200 square miles of Lake Huron. That represents about 20 percent of the U.S. side.
He has two more ships on his "bucket list," the Water Witch and R.G. Colburn, two ships that have eluded him for the last 15 years.
"The great thrill is to know what you have found and then view it for the first time and come up and share those tales. It’s quite a rush," Trotter said. "People often ask me ‘what’s the most exciting ship I’ve found, and I say ‘the next one.’ "
For more info, visit Trotter's website at

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