Scuba divers explore an eerie shipwreck in Devil Island Channel
The W.L. Wetmore lies on the bottom of Georgian Bay in a passage known as Devil Island Channel. Smashed and broken, the huge timbers and metal parts are surprisingly intact, serving as a vivid and eerie reminder of the disastrous night and near tragedy of November 20th, 1901. Nearly 120 years have passed since the ship was dashed upon the rocks in gale force winds and blinding snow, but the ship's beams and giant boilers have been preserved in the icy depths.
Captain Adam Hartman, owner of the Wetmore set off from Parry Sound, Ontario with his crew and an enormous load of timer, bound for Buffalo, New York. It was late November of 1901, more than 13 years before the world would see the start of the first great war. Steam ships were a commanding presence on the Great Lakes that bordered Canada and the United States as they kept trade alive. The lumber industry relied on these great ships to ferry supplies and products between the two nations. The Wetmore was a powerful ship and she towed two schooner barges, The King and The Brunette, also fully laden with great stacks of lumber. Sadly, none of these ships would reach their destination.
Lake Huron, one of the Great Lakes is a massive body of water that includes Georgian Bay. The name is misleading as Georgian Bay is almost as large as the rest of Lake Huron. Its waters are every bit as unpredictable and treacherous as the rest of the five Great Lakes. Winds drive rain and snow in all directions without warning, especially in November and shipping during this time is not without risk.
With no warning, the weather turned foul and a blinding snowstorm raged and pounded the ship. The familiar beacon of the lighthouse in Tobermory harbour could not be seen and Captain Hartman found navigation impossible. Unintentionally, they ventured into Devil Island channel and struck the rocks of Russell Reef. An ominous thump was the first indication that there was trouble. Before the Captain could order the engines to be stopped, a grinding crunch told the crew that the propeller had struck the bottom. The blades were destroyed and the ship was at the mercy of the waves and the powerful wind. As the ship was pounded against the rocks, the crew made the decision to abandon the Wetmore and take their chances in the icy water.
A crewman became tangled in the rope that was towing the Brunette and the rope was cut in order to save him. Inadvertently, this also saved the Brunette which drifted away from the rocky shoal. With only one lifeboat and a fire now raging on the King, the crew jumped overboard and began to swim.
The most perilous part of the whole event was the half mile journey across the channel to Babbit Island and their only chance of survival. The crew would later credit teamwork and perseverance for their success as the stronger swimmers helped the others. They stayed together as a group and all of them made it ashore, even though one crew member had suffered a broken leg. As they made their way slowly to land, they watched the King burning and the two ships being dashed on the reef. The Wetmore and King slipped out of sight right in front of them.
The crew battled the cold by huddling together for warmth and building a large bonfire on the island. Nearly 36 hours after the ships wrecked, a passing tugboat saw the flames of the bonfire and came to their aid. All members of the crew were saved. The Wetmore and the King were complete losses, as was a great quantity of lumber. The Brunette was found stuck in a muddy shoal nearby, with little damage from the mishap. The timbers and ship parts strewn across the lake's bottom are stark reminders of the power and unpredictability of nature.
The wrecks of Tobermory lie in various depths of the crystal clear water of Lake Huron. They are world class dive sites that attract scuba divers from all around the planet. Float n' Flag Dive Centre in Burlington runs an annual event called "Tobermory Takeover" that provides the adventurous with a tour of various wrecks and dive sites in these waters. Their events are the perfect way to explore some of the most fascinating and intact wrecks from the turn of the century.