A truly fascinating shipwreck to be explored through the Michigan Department of Transportation Underwater Documentation Project, as conducted by the Shipwreck Society, is the familiar Comet, one of Whitefish Bay’s most popular, however dangerously deep, shipwrecks for sport divers. The cold depth of this historic wreck implies that its artifacts and construction detail are well preserved and that there is much to learn.
The Comet was launched with her sister ship Rocket in 1857, each measuring 181 feet long and 621 tons. Both had vertical direct-action steam engines built by Cleveland’s Cuyahoga Steam Furnace Company. During their careers, both vessels were sold two times to new owners.
The Comet seems to remain one of those ships afflicted with a proclivity to lucklessness. In 1865, she ran hard aground on a reef off Port Washington, Wisconsin. The Comet rammed and sank the Canadian steamer Silver Spray in 1869; she also rammed and sank the propeller Hunter later in that same year. Her own loss – which converted her into an archaeological resource for our time – came on August 26, 1875, when she was herself rammed by the Canadian sidewheeler Manitoba in Whitefish Bay, quickly sinking with the loss of 11 lives.
She was first discovered in the 1970’s by veteran Milwaukee diver Kent Billrichard, armed with research information provided by Shipwreck Society diver Tom Farnquist. Shortly thereafter the Society conducted a series of technical deep dives on the wreck to collect 16mm imagery. These films produced the first documentation of the Comet, but their images seem like an ancient technology compared to the quality that can be captured today.
The Project Dive Team’s assigned task is to take measurements of this wreck, including lateral dimensions taken from the bow-stern centerline; vertical measurements taken along the ship’s port and starboard hull, arches, and stanchions; bulwarks; and exposed engine and propulsion system. The Shipwreck Society is fortunate to have engaged a very skilled technical dive team comprised of Steve Ouellette; Kevin Jones; Rick Heineman; and Suzanne Camden, all of whom are highly experienced in TriMix deep diving. We also thank technical divers Darryl Ertel and Sarah Wilde for their diligent efforts exploring this difficult wreck; and particularly to Sarah for her site plans she is now producing based on information gathered during the 2006 and 2007 diving seasons.
At a depth of 230 feet the Comet presents a serious challenge to any diver. Extraordinary skill is required to perform meaningful tasks at this depth. Further, the Comet presents a hazardous tangle of broken timbers and cables at its resting place in Whitefish Bay. Underwater currents can produce maneuvering problems for the ROV and divers, with poor visibility.
Despite this vessel’s depth and complexity, the GLSHS’ dive team, ROV and sonar technicians have nearly completed a survey of this 129-year old wreck site.
All images are copyrighted Great Lakes Shipwreck Historical Society, 2007 and may not be reproduced without permission.