Monday, April 29, 2019

Diving the Gunilda in Lake Superior

Diving the Gunilda

Written by: Michael Lynch

A stitched panoramic of the Gunilda from some historic pictures of the ship.

"Writers note:  Our dives on the Gunilda were back in 2014.  We have had this footage and always wanted to complete this blog.  Hopefully (years later), you still enjoy it.  :-) "

Ever since I heard about the Gunilda after being scuba certified, I knew I wanted to dive her.  This has been a dream for many years and has taken a lot of time and training in order to get here.  Back when I become a basic open water scuba diver, the thought of diving the Gunilda seemed out of reach (in fact, WAY out of reach).  The Gunilda sits in 270 feet of water on the north shores of Lake Superior.

The Sinking of the Gunilda
The Gunilda stranded on the showl prior to her sinking (Near Rossport, ON).

The Gunilda was a luxury yacht from New York that was touring the great lakes back in 1910.  The ship was built in 1897 by Ramage & Ferguson in Scotland.  The ship was owned by William L. Harkness.  He was a business investor and also an heir to the Standard Oil Company.  One of the flaws of the incident was that Mr. Harness refused to pay a local pilot to captain the vessel while sailing the Great Lakes.  The North Shores of Lake Superior are known to have many shoals around the various islands.  While piloting the Gunilda near Rossport, ON, the vessel went aground on McGarvey Shoal.  After the grounding the passengers were safely brought to shore in Rossport and a note was sent for a tug to pull the Gunilda off the shoal.  The James Whelan answered the call.  Once seeing the Gunilda perched on the wreck, the captain of the James Whelan recommended that a second tug be brought in to stabilize the Gunilda before being pulled off of the shoal.  Mr. Harness refused to pay for a second tug, so as ordered the captain of the James Whelan pulled the Gunilda off of McGarvey shoal and she immediately began to take on water and sink to the bottom.  As the Gunilda was sinking the James Whelan cut the tow lines in fear that the Gunilda would take the James Whelan with her to the bottom.  The ship was deemed a total loss and Lloyds of London paid out a claim of $100,000 for her loss.  The date of loss was August 11th, 1911.

Image of Fred Bonnelle
There is a lot of also local history tied to the Gunilda.  In particular, the wreck became the obsession of Mr. Fred Bonnelle.  Fred spent large sums of money and time both looking for the wreck and trying to salvage the wreck.  This started in the late 60's during the really early days of technical diving.  There was very little known about the effects of deep diving on the human body and mixed gas diving was also very new.  A great website that documents these adventures and unfortunately some accidents along they way is:  The history of Fred's passion for the Gunilda was also documented in the video "Drowning in Dreams".  This is a must watch video as well!

An amazing historical find...

In 2014 before our dives on the Gunilda, a photo album of Gunilda surfaced from an estate auction in New York City.  The photo album showed the Gunilda during the 1902-1909 years.  This was just 2 years before its loss in Lake Superior.  The finder (RĂ©mi Frayssinet) scanned the photos in the album and shared them with the site owners of  Those historical scanned photos are used here for reference and provide a really unique perspective from the Gunilda during its sailing days to how she sits in the cold dark depths of Lake Superior.  It was always my intent to re-stage a few of the pictures on deck in the exact same location on the wreck.  We just need to schedule some more dives to the Gunilda to do this task.  :-)

Our Dives on the Gunilda

So, many training classes after that initial Open Water Scuba Diver certification, Cindy and I are now a Closed Circuit Advanced Trimix Rebreather diver.  We were invited by Ron Benson of Silent Explorers to a planned trip that he had planned for August 2014 to the Gunilda.  This was all the incentive we needed for me to complete my bucket list dream of diving the Gunilda.  So, we signed on to the trip and started planning our dives as well as doing warm up training dives at both Gilboa Quarry in Ohio and the shipwrecks of Lake Huron.

At the time I did not realize, but our dives coincided with the date of the sinking of the Gunilda.  We were scheduled to dive on August 9th, 10th, 11th, and 12th.  The sinking of the Gunilda was on August 11th, 1911 (103 years earlier)!

The Cousteau Society once visited the wreck of the Gunilda and claimed it was the most well preserved and prestigious shipwreck in the world.   This statement is so true!  The Gunilda is such and amazing ship with so much detail and is in unbelievable condition!

The Dives

For me, this was my first dive on the Gunilda.  Cindy had many previous expeditions to the Gunilda, so she was able to provide some great insight as to what I should expect for this dive.  We met at the dock in Rossport at 7:30AM and loaded the boat with all the gear.  The boat left the dock about 8:00AM.  The Gunilda had mooring lines in place on both the bow and the stern.  Greg Such tied us into the bow mooring for our first dive.  Since we were planning on shooting pictures on this dive, the rest of the team agreed to allow us to splash first in order to get the best possibility of clean photos.  There is a heavy silt buildup on the wreck.  Any movement near to boat causes this silt to get kicked up and reducing the visibility for photography.

Rolling off the boat I was filled with excitement.  Cindy and I both dive Titan rebreathers.  Our diluent in the rebreathers for this dive was 11% Oxygen and 45% Helium (11/45).  For bail out gas we carried 11/45, 20/30, 50%, and 100%

The descent to the wreck was exhilarating.  At about 100 feet, it was like the lights were turned off.  The water went from a deep green to completely black.  At this point I clicked on the video lights for the camera rig.  The only thing visible was the down line to the wreck.  Down...  Down...  Down...  Then at about 230 ft, the wreck came into view.  Since we were first down, Cindy clipped off a strobe to the down line in case anyone had issues finding the down line on the ascent off of the wreck.

Descending to the wreck of the Gunilda.

Cindy and I discussed our dive plan and photography shot plan prior to the dive.  Since we were moored to the bow, we started off with Cindy posing for pictures on the bow.  We then headed aft to the beautiful Gunilda bell.  Cindy did a great job of posing here, but unfortunately, I was unable to get good quality pictures at the bell.  We will need to plan other shots on the bell on future dives as this is a premier location for photography of the Gunilda.

After viewing the bell, we continued aft up an over the upper bridge.  The artifacts on the Gunilda are breathtaking!  The spotlights are intact with glass still in place.  The Binnacle and Wheel are in prefect condition.  Its like the ship is ready to continue its journey across the Great Lakes.  With the ship sitting in the deep dark cold water of Lake Superior, the ship is free of any zebra mussels.  This is unlike any of the wrecks in Lake Huron that have masses of zebra mussels encrusting every square inch of the external structure of any wreck lying on the bottom.

Take a dive with us on the Gunilda!  Our dive video posted on YouTube.

Pictures from the Dive:
Cindy posing on the bow of the Gunilda.

Cindy on the bow with the Gunilda bell.  Compare this to the original photograph from the Gunilda below.

In this original image from the Gunilda you can see the bell that Cindy is posing next to in the image above.

Upper helm of the Gunilda.  Compare this to the original image below.

Original photograph from the upper helm of the Gunilda.  You can see the telegraph and funnel in this image.
Cindy viewing the upper helm of the Gunilda.  Compare this picture to the one above showing the Gunilda under way.

Cindy at the upper helm engine telegraph.

Cindy swimming down the port side deck of the Gunilda.

Cindy on the port side deck.  Look at that amazing woodwork on the Gunilda.

Inside one of the rooms of the Gunilda.

A mostly intact skylight.  Amazing condition after the sinking.

A view along the port side of the Gunilda.

Looking inside the galley.

Beautiful room layouts within the Gunilda.  A fan and mantle clock still sit above the fireplace.

Cindy at the stern wheel.

An original picture from the Gunilda.  Compare this to the picture above with Cindy by the stern wheel and the image below.
Stern deck of the Gunilda.  See the above image for comparison while the ship was sailing.

Cindy inspecting inside one of the deck skylights.

Another mostly intact deck skylight.  See comparison image from the Gunilda deck below.
An original photograph from the Gunilda showing the deck skylights.  Compare the forward skylight to the one above with the ship on the bottom.

Cindy posing by the stern of the Gunilda.

Waiting out the deco time after the dive.  Pictured Cindy and Shawn.
During our trip we were able to successfully complete 3 dives on the Gunilda.  We were able to get some great photo documentation as well as video documentation of the wreck.  This truly is an amazing wreck within the Great Lakes.  The Cousteau Society was definitely correct when they claimed the Gunilda was the most well preserved and prestigious shipwreck in the world.

With the continued advancement in scuba and rebreather technology, the Gunilda is within the reach of more and more technical divers.  If you have the experience and get the opportunity the dive on the Gunilda is worth every minute!

Friday, April 12, 2019

Diving the Whaleback Clifton in Lake Huron

Shipwreck: Whaleback S.S. Clifton

By: Michael Lynch

The History

The S.S. Clifton was originally built and christened as the Samuel Mather.  The whaleback was built at the American Steel Barge Company in West Superior, Wisconsin in 1892.  She was 308 feet long, had 30 foot beam, and had a 24 foot depth with a 3,500 ton capacity. 

For 31 years the vessel worked the great lakes carrying iron ore.  From 1923 to 1924 the vessel was refitted in Sturgeon Bay, Wisconsin with a topside self-unloading boom to handle the change in cargo from iron ore to stone aggregate .  Inside the cargo holds, a Smith-patented tunnel scraper system was installed and allowed the ship to quickly unload and allowed the vessel to offload at ports previously unable to be serviced by the ship.

The tragic story of the S.S. Clifton started out on September 21, 1924 in Sturgeon Bay.  This was right after the Clifton had completed the upfit of the unloading boom to the deck of the whaleback for service as a stone aggregate carrier.  From there the Clifton took on a load of stone aggregate that was scheduled to be delivered to Detroit.  By 10:20am the Clifton was seen passing through the Straits of Mackinaw.  There was even a report that a tug on Lake Huron saw the freighter downbound that evening in Lake Huron.  Unfortunately, that evening a gale hit the Clifton while on Lake Huron.  It is believed that sometime during that storm the Clifton quickly foundered with the lost of Captain Emmett Gallagher all 27 other souls on board.  Speculation was that the upfit of the self unloading boom contributed to the loss of the vessel due to instability. 

Drawing by Robert McGreevy ( of the Clifton in that fatal Gale in 1924
When the Clifton did not arrive in Detroit three days later a search was started.  The searchers looked along the coast of Lake Huron and couldn't find a trace of the Clifton.  It wasn't until days later that wreckage started to wash ashore on the Canadian side.  This was the first indications of where the Clifton foundered.  The Clifton and what really happened would remain a mystery for another 92 years! 

Newspaper Article from Wisconsin Journal, September 26, 1924

The Discovery

It wasn't until Dave Trotter and the Underwater Research Associates announced the discovery of the Clifton in September 2017 that more details about the mystery could be gathered. Within his announcement they state that the wreck was found in June of 2016 with the first dives by the URA team on September 24, 2016.  From that dive they were able to confirmed the target was the S.S. Clifton.  From that point, the teas was able to complete 9 more dives on the Clifton through the following 2017 dive season before announcing the find and the first pictures of the Clifton laying on the Lake Huron bottom.  As normal practice for the team, the location of the wreck was held in private with the team.

Drawing by Robert McGreevy ( from information by the URA team on what the Clifton looks like on the bottom of Lake Huron.

In 2017, before the announcement by the Trotter team, there were rumors within the local diving community that the Clifton had been found.  We also spent days in 2017 investigating and scanning leads for areas that we thought the Clifton might be.  Unfortunately the 2017 season did not provide any substantial targets for us.  So we continued more research and chart investigations over the winter to setup plans for searching in 2018.

Our Story

In May 2018 the shipwreck diving season started for us on the Great Lakes.  Diving this time of year is very cold and any technical dives this time of year are normally kept pretty short.  We were fortunate that this early season gave us a very flat day, albeit very cold, and we decided to follow up on some potential target information that we had been pursuing at the end of the 2017 and researching over the winter.

Beautiful day out on Lake Huron to be searching for shipwrecks.

After about 4 hours of sidescan work, we ran across a hit.  Running the boat over the target it was very clear that we found what we were hoping to find.  We believed it to be the Whaleback S.S. Clifton!

Calm waters on Lake Huron make for great conditions for side scan imaging

Our first view of the S.S. Clifton as it appears on the side scan image

Did I mention it was still really cold out!  Cindy and I were the only ones on the boat that day searching the lake.  In fact, I don't remember seeing another boat except for a few passing freighters.  We had a good discussion about diving the target.  Only having two people on the boat makes for a more challenging time mooring into the wreck as it would require one to dive and tie into the wreck and the second person, single handed, managing the running of the boat.  While this is not impossible, adding in the variables of the cold temperatures and the long distance from shore for help or emergency aid, we made the prudent decision that we would need to come back later in the season to make our dives.  We saved the coordinates and dreamed of warmer times when we would get back and make a dive on the site to confirm what we had found.

Cindy warming up between rounds at the helm sidescan searching Lake Huron's bottom
Mike at the helm trying to stay warm while searching the Lake Huron bottomland

One of the good and bad things about the Clifton is that its wreck location is a ways out in Lake Huron.  This means that not many people will be stumbling across it and diving this location requires an almost perfect day due to the time it takes to make the run out to the location.  So, it took us a while before we could get a good opportunity to get back out to the site.

The Dive

Later in the season (with somewhat warmer water temperatures) we had the opportunity to make that dive.  This time we had our dive buddy Chris Roth along to add a 3rd set of hands for setting up the mooring into the shipwreck.

Upon descending to the shipwreck, it was undeniable that this was the Clifton.  The whaleback ships are so distinctive!  This is an amazing dive.  Many artifacts are all over the shipwreck.  Here are a few images from our dive on the Clifton.

The stern of the whaleback Clifton.  Its such a unique design.  The Clifton is laying on its port side.

Chris swimming toward the bow of the Clifton

Chris taking video of items laying on the bottom of Lake Huron.

Chris stops to look at the beautiful ships wheel on the Clifton.  The upper section of the stern cabin is missing.

This gives you some perspective on the size of the stern cabin with Chris visible just to the left.

Much of the bow is destroyed on the Clifton when it impacted the lake bottom.  This is the remains of the forward structure that was on the bow of the Clifton.

Another view looking toward the stern of the bow section of the Clifton.  You can easily see the massive amount of damage as the ship struck the bottom of Lake Huron.

More mangled debris from the bow of the Clifton.

Penetrating into the engine room of the Clifton.

White paint, gauges, and controls all visible within the engine room of the Clifton.  Being inside the wreck this area is protected from the Zebro/Quagga mussels that invade a shipwreck on the outside.

Another image showing the white painted woodwork inside the Clifton.

A guage panel inside the engine room.  Notice the intact light bulb and glass enclosure in the background.

Looking within the very stern of the Clifton.  On the right of the image is the white painted wood ceiling with the light bulb still intact after all these years.

Looking down the deck of the Clifton.  Much of its stone cargo has spilled out onto the lake floor.  The mooring winch is visible on the middle of the deck.

The A-Frame of the unloading boom.  This boom was just added in Sturgeon Bay prior to its fateful journey that ending in a Lake Huron storm.

Another view of the deck of the Clifton and its load of stone spilled out onto the lake floor.

Items from the Clifton that were most likely placed by the original discovery team.

More artifacts from the Clifton.

A fire extinguisher from the Clifton.  This sits just outside the openings to the stern structure.  Most likely this was placed here by the original discovery team.

An image of the unloading boom that was added prior to the Clifton's last sail.  Many believed the loss of the Clifton was due to instability from the addition of this boom.  However, after now finding the Clifton, the boom is still in position and does not appear to be the cause of her sinking.

The A-Frame for the unloader boom on the Clifton.

The bow structure completely torn free from the bow itself.

Looking down the remains of the stern cabin structure.

Dive Team
Cindy Lynch
Chris Roth
Michael Lynch