Frozen in time and the cold, fresh water of Lake Michigan, the corpse of the Eber Ward sat perfectly upright in its liquid tomb. As we descended 100 feet to the freighter's rear deck, I immediately noticed something was odd. This 213-foot wooden steamer sank 93 years ago, but had somehow escaped the ravages of time. More accustomed to the broken-up, marine-encrusted wrecks of the world's oceans, I was amazed to see carved wooden railings and deck planking securely in place, and by ocean standards, quite clean. The level deck contributed to the impression that this ship was somehow suspended in time. We dropped over the broadly arched stern to swim around its massive wooden rudder before entering this subaquatic museum piece.
We were in Upper Michigan's Straits of Mackinac, where Lake Huron and Lake Michigan converge in unpredictable degrees of harmony. The juncture of these two inland seas has caused some rough transits for ships throughout history. Many captains have fared poorly here, but their misfortunes have become a well-preserved museum of maritime history.
Our transit of the ship's interior took us through various storage rooms, a galley, and several passageways as we glided from stern to bow. Century-old gear and equipment lay scattered about the chaotic lower deck. We used lights, but numerous open hatches and portholes made the penetration surprisingly nonclaustrophobic. Broken beams and wall sections created a few obstructions, but overall, this was a diver-friendly penetration.
Nearing the bow, we found an open hatch that led to the upper foredeck. We then dropped over the the side to examine the steamer's mushroom anchors. A tour of the deck brought us back to the ascent line.
Earlier that day, we dived the Cedarville on the Lake Huron side of the straits. This 588-foot freighter met its untimely demise in 1965 after colliding with a Norwegian vessel in fog. Constructed of steel, its surface appeared unblemished beyond an invasion of zebra mussels. The railings and exterior stairs still boasted a coat of paint after 35 years. We swam through the ship's bridge and peered into the officers' quarters, remaining aware of our position even though the ship lay on its side.
We passed through several of the freighter's huge cargo holds; piles of undelivered coal lined the interior. Halfway along the giant vessel, we discovered the twisted steel plates of the collision that brought her down. This area contrasted sharply with the ship's otherwise pristine condition. Because of its huge size, this ship can be dived repeatedly at depths from 40 to 106 feet. I peered into several foredeck cabins before reluctantly leaving this massive ghost ship.
If you haven't dived freshwater shipwrecks, you're in for a treat. After scuba diving every state in America for a book project (see "Fifty Dives in Fifty States"), I can say the wrecks of the Great Lakes were by far the most memorable sites. Their state of preservation and fascinating penetrations are unbeatable. You won't find lobsters or legions of fish here, but if you're into pure wreck diving, the Straits of Mackinac are well worth a visit.
Location: Both Mackinaw City on the south side and St. Ignace on the northern side of the straits offer plenty of accommodations and restaurants. The Mackinac Bridge, which crosses the straits within sight of popular Mackinac Island, is a top attraction itself.
Water Conditions: The season runs from May to October, but call ahead for reservations, departure times and dates. Visibility averages 30 to 50 feet, and sometimes reaches 70 feet. Water temperatures range from 40F to 55F. Some divers wear quarter-inch wetsuits, but dry suits are the way to go in these waters. The straits contain many wrecks and most are within sport diving limits.
Dive Operators: Two boats service the area. The Rec Diver is berthed in St. Ignace while the Intrepid is based in Mackinaw City. Both are operated by Macomb Scuba Center, (810) 558-6008, near Detroit. The Straits Scuba Center, (906) 643-9922, is local, but isn't much more than an air fill station.