Diving the wreck of the SS Vienna

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A “Glad you made it!” sign greeted us in Paradise, Michigan as we entered this charming rural town located in the eastern part of Lake Superior. Near Sault Ste Marie, it is truly a paradise for shipwreck diving with intact freighters, steam ships and schooners lying at both recreational and technical diving depths. What is different about diving in Lake Superior compared to the other Great Lakes is the almost complete lack of zebra and quagga mussels covering the shipwrecks and generally good visibility. Visiting Paradise in August also offers various non-diving activities including the annual blueberry festival. We headed to the aptly named Vagabond motel to settle in. The NOAA forecast was calling for gale winds for the next day and we knew we would have to wait to go diving, so we settled in at our favourite local restaurant, the Fish House for our favourite whitefish dinner as a diversion until the “seas” calmed down. Whitefish Bay’s name came from the abundance of whitefish in this large bay, and the people in Fish House know how to prepare it to perfection. Ahh… Paradise Found.

The gale winds subsided quickly and we were able to get out the following day.

This part of the lake saw an increase in ship traffic after the Soo Locks opened up in 1855, and more traffic meant more accidents and disasters. The Edmund Fitzgerald sank here in November of 1975 in a perfect storm. Whitefish Point sticks out into the bay creating a hazardous navigation obstacle as ships pass by. Ships sank here for a variety of reasons: Some of them ran into unexpected storms with steep waves, which are not like ocean swells, but rather waves following each other in short distances. When these waves are 30ft tall, they can literally break a ship in half, as the bow is suspended by one wave and the stern by another. Others sank in pre-RADAR days during snow storms and dense fogs with collisions due to the reduced visibilities. One of our favourite wrecks that we visited on this trip, the propeller steamship Vienna, sank due to a collision. The cause of the collision is still unknown, although we know from research that the weather was fair that day.

Project artwork: Portrait of Vienna at Whitefish Point by Bob McGreevy

Project artwork: Portrait of Vienna at Whitefish Point by Bob McGreevy

The SS Vienna was a 191ft long steamer built in 1873 when sail rigging was still popular on steamers. It was not unheard of ships sinking more than once during their career, and the Vienna was not an exception, sinking only three years after she was built. She was recovered, rebuilt and enhanced with additional cabin structures on top of her deck, making her somewhat awkward to manoeuvre. She sailed for another 16 years until she sailed to her final voyage in Whitefish Bay. On September 17th  1892, the steamer Nipigon was travelling upbound in Whitefish Bay towing two schooners when the Vienna was passing by downbound toward the Soo Locks. As is customary for passing port to port they exchanged the appropriate signals, however the Nipigon suddenly veered and rammed into the iron ore filled Vienna, plunging into her port side close to the bow and tearing a large hole into her. The Nipigon attempted to tow the Vienna to the shore, but the damage was too great and she filled with water, causing her to go down only about a mile from the shore in about 146 feet of cold water. As unfortunate as this incident was, the close distance to shore and the moderate depth makes her a very accessible site to recreational divers who can enjoy exploring a nearly intact old wooden steamer, one that is sheltered from most of the windy weather prevalent in Paradise.

After securing Molly V to the permanent mooring, we put on our Megalodon rebreathers and followed the line down to the bow. It was early in August and the water was relatively warm for the lakes. Surface temperatures were at 68F and we didn’t hit the thermocline until 100ft, where the water was 48F. Even so, drysuits are a good idea in these waters.

Joining the wreck at the bow, it is obvious that Vienna hit the bottom hard as she sank, and one can see the damage to her clearly. Even so, the load markings are still clearly visible on the bow.

Load markings on the bow

Load markings on the bow

Swimming over the bow and the deck towards the port side we encounter the collision break. It is large and it became apparent that she took on water fast when she sunk. Bilge pumps in those days were often manual and unable to keep up with the amount of water pouring in. Furthermore ships were not usually compartmentalized, and one large hole was often a fatal wound.

Collision gap on the port side near the bow

Collision gap on the port side near the bow

Not very far from the collision gap on the deck lays a small wooden boat. It is a popular stop for exploring divers, and we pause here to investigate. The crew from the Vienna escaped without harm when she went down, not using this as a life boat. In fact the boat was initially salvaged in the days when artefacts were collected by divers, but was later brought back and replaced on the deck of Vienna for divers to enjoy.

Life boat on the deck

Life boat on the deck

The Vienna was a double deck wooden bulk freighter. It is a relatively easy swim through the decks and divers can explore around the engine, the boilers, and the smoke stack.

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Open boiler door

There are still many artifacts remaining to see such as partially fallen cabin walls with white paint on it, cups, shovel, hammer, and capstone.

Hammer left behind on top of the deck

Hammer left behind on top of the deck

Cups, wise, and an iron on a table

Cups, wise, and an iron on a table

Descending down past the stern one can see a huge rudder, rudder shaft, and the propeller.

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Rudder and rudder shaft with load markings

As we take a closer look at the triple-expansion steam engine we notice a star shaped oil-painted decoration, painted there by one of the engineers at his work station so many years ago. The colours are so vibrant that it is difficult to imagine it has been under water for 120 years. We envision a boiler tender or perhaps the engineer painting the decoration on one of the long voyages. Is it a flower, reminding him of a pastoral scene far away from the heat of the engine? Or a cross, representing his faith? Or is it a star? We ponder these questions as we gaze over this beautiful hint of domestic life afloat so many years ago.

Drawing left behind by a crewmember

Drawing left behind by a crewmember

While we chose to use our rebreathers to do one long 40 min dive and saw the whole wreck, recreational divers may choose to do two shorter dives, one on the bow and one on the stern and accomplish the same. This wreck has usually two mooring lines, a courtesy of Whitefish Point Underwater Preserve.

Bitts set on the deck of a ship used to secure ropes.

Bitts set on the deck of a ship used to secure ropes.

If you like old wooden ships with a lot of their design and artistic details still present, then the Vienna must be on your short list of underwater treasures to see! Don’t let the sound of “Great Lakes” and cold water scare you away because we had plenty of warm water on this visit!

If you’re not a diver you can still enjoy the local shipwrecks by visiting the world class Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum located on the tip of the Whitefish Point.

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Besides being able to view a number of artefacts from the local shipwrecks such as ship’s wheels, telegraphs, or china, the exhibit contains the Newt-Suit used during diving and recovering the bell from the Edmund Fitzgerald, which is now also on display. Outside you can stroll around the oldest operating lighthouse on Lake Superior, learn about how life boats were constructed and used, visit the museum store or take a leisure walk around Lake Superior’s sandy beach.

Check out Jitka and Dave’s online schedule and contact them to sign up for a diving adventure in the Great Lakes including Lake Michigan, Lake Superior, and Lake Huron by visiting them at www.ShipwreckExplorers.com  or by emailing them at info@ShipwreckExplorers.com

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Jitka Hanáková & David Sutton

Jitka Hanáková & David Sutton

Captain Jitka Hanáková is the owner of Shipwreck Explorers LLC, and Owner/Captain of the charter boat MOLLY V, based out of Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Shipwreck Explorers offer recreational and technical scuba diving trips throughout the Western Great Lakes. Jitka is an avid Great Lakes diver, award winning underwater photographer and videographer, and also enjoys free-diving, cave diving, and ocean wreck diving. Captain David Sutton has been diving since 1966 and has been cold water wreck diving since 1974. He holds a USCG 100 Ton Master License, has his own offshore dive boat, EXPLORER, and has been diving using rebreathers since 1978. These days he spends summers in the Great Lakes aboard MOLLY V, and winters "someplace down south" aboard EXPLORER, shipwreck hunting, running charters, and teaching rebreather and technical diving techniques.

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