(published June 30, 2014)
When I was growing up, I spent my summers with my family on Lake Michigan. During those idyllic months, I became a devotee of sailing, thanks to the encouragement of the likes of the Herb, Edith, David, and Ann Irish who ran the Irish Boat Shop. During my adolescent years, I also became a devotee of scuba diving thanks to Dick Nagel. Initially he and I had no idea what we were doing and, on our first dive, we simply strapped on our air tanks and jumped off the end of the longest pier around. When I reached the bottom, I noticed that my mask was filled with a black liquid and, when I returned to the surface, I discovered it wasn’t black at all, but rather red (the color having been filtered out by the blue of the water). It turned out to be blood because I had ruptured my sinuses! Nevertheless, I was hooked. Clearly we had a lot to learn, but the learning wasn’t easy to come by because, this being the late 1950s, scuba diving was the domain of professionals such as Jacques Cousteau, not of laypeople who were interested in it as a sport, and there was very little in the way of literature available. Over the course of the following winter, we both read everything we could get our hands on relative to the subject, and when we got together again early the next summer, we undertook an intensive program of learning and experimentation, mostly by trial and error. Eventually we decided that we had our acts sufficiently together that we could go into business. He ran the dive shop and I taught the sport to his customers — a delightful, well-paying summer job that lasted a couple of years.
As a young adult, I spent 5 years as an officer in the U.S. Navy, one of those years being in Vietnam. Later, I became a “blue water” sailor, sailing relatively substantial boats on the ocean. When I had been teaching scuba diving, I had promised myself that one day I would dive on some of the Great Lakes shipwrecks (of which only a few dozen were documented at that time), but keeping that promise was not to be. All of these factors combined, made writing this book “a natural” for me, and I have, in some regards, managed to keep my original promise to myself, in that during the course of this research and writing, I have been able to dive on several of those wrecks, even if only in my imagination.
As I got into my research, I talked to a number of my friends and acquaintances about what I was discovering, and was flabbergasted to discover how little the average person knew about the Great Lakes and the shipwrecks thereon. Almost nobody, myself included, knew the name of any ship that had gone down on the Great Lakes, other than the Edmund Fitzgerald (which was made famous by Gordon Lightfoot’s 1976 song). One example: A resident of Duluth, MN to whom I spoke, had never heard of the SS Mataafa despite its being one of the most famous Great Lakes shipwrecks ever, and its having gone down in 1905 at the entrance to Duluth’s harbor. Most people were unable to comprehend the magnitude of the Great Lakes, thinking of them as “just lakes,” rather than as “inland seas.” Almost everybody, myself included, guessed that there had been 100 – 500 shipwrecks on the Great Lakes, rather than the actual 6,000+ with the loss of more than 30,000 lives. Quite a few people were unable to name the five Great Lakes, which are Huron, Ontario, Michigan, Erie, and Superior. (A good mnemonic device for this is the acronym “HOMES.”)
While most people think of major storms as being the cause of ships lost, in addition to winds and waves, which are, indeed, the primary cause, many ships have also been lost through groundings, collisions, and fire. Additionally, several ships were sunk on the Great Lakes in naval battles, but that’s a subject for another book that should be forthcoming soon.
Nautical terminology is used frequently throughout this book. If you want to know the meaning of a term that is unfamiliar to you, please check the Glossary. You should be able to find it there.
I want to thank Cornelia Keener for her superb editing work, Lynda Vieytes for her excellent proofreading work, and both of them for their ongoing support.
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