Andrew Krueger, Published October 06 2013
Shipwreck hunters find Scotiadoc in Lake Superior
But now a group of shipwreck hunters with ties to the region have capped off a memorable year by confirming they’ve located the lost vessel resting in more than 850 feet of water, making it – in all likelihood – the deepest shipwreck ever found in the Great Lakes.
That follows the group’s discovery of the long-lost, long-sought-after wreck of the Henry B. Smith offshore from Marquette, Mich., in May, a find that drew widespread attention.
“Finding the Henry B. Smith was the entree; the Scotiadoc was the dessert,” said Jerry Eliason, of Cloquet, part of the group that had searched for the Scotiadoc for years. The 424-foot ship sank in a collision with another freighter in June 1953, resulting in one death.
The Scotiadoc was launched in 1904, and spent most of its career, as the Martin Mullen. It made frequent trips to and from the Twin Ports. In 1947, it was sold and renamed the Scotiadoc.
The Scotiadoc departed Port Arthur, Ontario – part of what’s now Thunder Bay – with a crew of 29 and nearly 260,000 bushels of wheat just before 4 p.m. on June 20, 1953. At that time, the 451-foot freighter Burlington was passing Passage Island, in ballast en route to Port Arthur, according to documents from a post-wreck court of investigation. Eliason obtained copies of those documents to aid in the search for the Scotiadoc.
About two hours later, the two ships were in the vicinity of Trowbridge Island, and each ship, the court ruled, made crucial errors as they navigated through thick fog and driving rain.
The captain of the Scotiadoc, George Edgar Morris, later testified that he picked up the Burlington on radar when it was about five miles away. He kept watch on the radar screen as the Burlington drew closer, and sounded the Scotiadoc’s fog signals – but, inexplicably, failed to make radio contact with the rapidly approaching vessel, and failed to reduce his ship’s speed.
First mate William Crosson testified that he thought the Burlington was going to run parallel to the Scotiadoc, off the ship’s starboard side – but the ships never exchanged passing signals. On the bridge of the Scotiadoc, the fog signals of the Burlington grew louder and louder. Morris watched it get closer and closer on radar. And then, Crosson later testified, he “saw a shadow in the fog.”
Meanwhile, aboard the Burlington, Captain George Stephen Ward said he had slowed his vessel’s speed and was switching his radar screen between long-range – to monitor another vessel, the Secord – and short-range, which had “an awful lot of interference and sea clutter.” Then, from amid the clutter, “this object appeared on the radar screen” about a mile and a half away. It was the Scotiadoc.
Visibility was a few hundred feet, and Ward later testified that he initially could not hear a fog signal from the Scotiadoc. He made some course alterations, but – like Morris on the Scotiadoc – failed to use his radio to contact the nearby ship. Then, finally, “we heard the whistle off on our port side, a blast of the whistle, (and) immediately (after) I heard the blast I was pumping the telegraph full astern,” in an attempt to avoid a collision, Ward later testified. “Then I ran for the window, and I just saw this object coming out across our bow.”
The Scotiadoc tried to evade the approaching ship, but it was no use. The Burlington plowed into the starboard side of the Scotiadoc at an angle near the stern, gashing a hole in the smaller vessel as its bow scraped along the side. The collision crumpled the bow of the Burlington, pushing it in 4 to 8 feet.
Edward Quail, third mate on the Scotiadoc, was off-duty, lying in bed reading a comic book, when he heard the collision.
“As soon as I heard it hit I jumped, grabbed my boots and ran, grabbed a life belt and went to put her on and went to the deck, taking steps 10 feet long,” Quail later testified.
Up on the bridge, it was quickly clear that the Scotiadoc was fatally stricken. As the ship started to list, Captain Morris testified, he “was sending out S.O.S. calls.”
By that time the Burlington had faded back into the fog. Radar indicated the ships were three-tenths of a mile apart.
Morris, and most of the crew, went to the port-side lifeboat, which was launched successfully. But about a half-dozen crew members went to the starboard-side lifeboat, where a mishap in the launching led to the sole fatality of the collision.
“Quite a number of the crew of the (Scotiadoc) who should have reported to the starboard boat did not report and there were an inadequate number of crew to properly launch the boat,” the court of investigation reported. “Owing to some mischance, the reason for which is not entirely clear … the after falls of the starboard lifeboat were let go and as a result of this the stern fell to the deck.”
Then, in heavy seas and with several crew members in the lifeboat, the stern slipped from the deck over the side of the sinking ship, dropping five people about 15 feet into the frigid lake. Four of them grabbed onto ropes and were hauled out of the water, some in shock.
Others threw a “punt,” a small raft, to the fifth crew member in the water – Wallace McDermid, 39, of Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario.
“(We) hollered, ‘Wally, grab a hold of the punt,’ but he – at that time we hollered at him he was all right, (but) the next time we looked it was so foggy we couldn’t see whether he was hanging on to the punt,” testified third engineer Austin Proulx.
McDermid, who may have had some physical limitations, apparently did get a hold of the raft, but he disappeared into the fog and was not seen again.
After McDermid vanished, the waterlogged lifeboat rowed away from the sinking ship and was met by the port-side lifeboat. Everyone transferred to the port-side boat and the 28 surviving crew members shouted and fired flares in the fog. They were picked up by the Burlington about an hour later and returned to Port Arthur.
The court of investigation later found the Scotiadoc 75 percent to blame for the collision, and the Burlington 25 percent – with poor communication and excessive speed given the weather conditions as contributing factors. Captain Morris of the Scotiadoc had his master’s certificate suspended for a year; Captain Ward of the Burlington had his certificate suspended for two months.
Finding the wreck
Eliason said the Scotiadoc first came to the group’s attention as they searched for the Theano, another shipwreck in the area. Thanks to the court testimony and other accounts, there was a well-defined point from which to start looking.
With the Scotiadoc, it was old-fashioned “mowing the lawn” with a sonar unit developed by Eliason’s son, Jarrod – running a grid pattern over a defined search area, hoping to turn up something. The group set its search area after taking into account how the Scotiadoc may have drifted after it was hit.
Beginning in the early 2000s, the group – which, over the years, also has included Ken Merryman, of Minneapolis; Kraig Smith, of Rice Lake, Wis.; and Randy Beebe, of Duluth, all veterans of decades of Great Lakes shipwreck hunting – made periodic trips to search for the Scotiadoc, eventually acquiring a good “target.”
But it was only in early September of this year that the many factors involved in this wreck search – time, correct gear, permits from Canadian authorities and, above all, favorable weather – came together to allow for the group’s camera to get the video footage needed to confirm the wreck’s identity: the name “Scotiadoc” spelled out along the side.
The ship rests upright, and largely intact near Trowbridge Island, about 20 miles southeast of Thunder Bay, with the bow at a depth of 850 feet and the stern at 870 feet. Eliason said it appears the previous record-holder for deepest wreck found in the Great Lakes is the Isaac Jenkins, discovered in Lake Ontario in about 750 feet of water.
“It looks to us like it sank stern-first,” Eliason said. “The stern is very chaotic.”
While that is not a definitive conclusion, Merryman said, it would make sense. The Scotiadoc was struck near its stern, and that’s where water would have poured into the ship.
The Henry B. Smith rests in about 535 feet of water and proved a challenge to film. The Scotiadoc, at more than 300 feet deeper, put the group’s skills and technology to a far greater test.
But the season was a good learning experience, Merryman said, that should bode well for future explorations.