Thursday, October 22, 2009
Ninety years after their disappearance in a Lake Superior blizzard, shipwreck hunters are trying to find two French warships that vanished without a trace, taking two Canadian Great Lakes captains and 78 French sailors with them. The wrecks of the Inkerman and Cerisoles, newly built at the Canada Car foundry in what was then called Fort William, Ont., caused the greatest single loss of life in a marine accident on Lake Superior. No one knows what happened to the 50-metre ships and their crews after they left Thunder Bay in late November 1918. Legendary shipwreck hunter Tom Farnquist has taken up the challenge of finding the two minesweepers, the last warships to be lost on the Great Lakes. He wants to answer one of the great mysteries of the Great Lakes: how could two warships built for the Atlantic Ocean simply disappear? The ships were Navarin-type minesweepers designed for clearing the thousands of German and Allied mines laid along the French coast and in the English Channel during World War I. Canada Car had a contract to build 12 of the ships under supervision of French naval engineers. Each ship carried two 100 mm guns with a range of 20 kilometres. The Inkerman, the Cerisoles and their sister ship the Sebastopol, which left Thunder Bay with them, were named after famous French victories. The ships' crews were reluctant conscripts pulled from the trenches of Flanders, who arrived at the Lakehead by train shortly before their ships were to make their maiden voyages. They left Thunder Bay less than a month after the war ended, sailing together into what Farnquist, executive director of the Great lakes Shipwreck Museum in northern Michigan, calls "a classic Lake Superior storm." Canadian Great Lakes skippers Capt. R. Wilson and Capt. W.J. Murphy were on the two ships as advisers. The storm that hit them was packing dense snow pushed by 80 km/h winds that whipped up waves the size of houses. The few ships still on the lake raced for safe harbours while the minesweepers struggled southeast toward Sault Ste. Marie. Two days after the storm hit, the Sebastopol emerged from the storm on the Michigan side of the lake, but the Inkerman and Cerisoles disappeared. Marius Mallor, a French sailor on the Sebastopol, later wrote, "We had to get out the life boats and put on lifebelts ... the boat almost sank – and it was nearly `goodbye' to anyone hearing from us again. "You can believe me, I will always remember that day. I can tell you that I had already given myself up to God." Water had poured into the Sebastopol, flooding part of her engine room and nearly putting out the coal fires in her boilers. After taking shelter near Michigan's Keweenaw Peninsula, the Sebastopol struggled through pounding seas for two days before finally reaching Sault Ste. Marie. Capt. De Vaisseaux Leclerc, overall leader of the expedition, waited in vain for the other two ships. The search for the missing ships began Dec. 3, 10 days after the three ships left the Lakehead. Fort William's mayor at the time, Harry Murphy, hinted the two ships might still be sailing somewhere on the Great Lakes, under a shroud of censorship and official secrecy. In the next few days, rumours swept Fort William that the ships could have secretly moved through the locks at Sault Ste. Marie without being registered because they were naval vessels. Stories that the two lost ships had been seen together at Whitefish Bay on Lake Superior by the crew of the steamer Osler also spread along the city's waterfront. There were false reports that the ships were on Lake Huron or Erie, or headed for the Welland Canal. The speculation has never ended. Here's what we do know. In the few weeks between the disappearance of the Inkerman and the Cerisoles and the winter freeze-up, tugboats searched the islands and shoreline of northern Lake Superior. On the U.S. side of the lake, searchers were misled by wreckage cast ashore by the storm that turned out to be from another ship. After that initial search, neither Canada nor France lifted a finger to try to find the resting place of the ships and their crews.Presumably, the two are French war graves. Even in those early days, people connected with the wreck acted mysteriously. Leclerc, the expedition commander, sent a telegram to Thunder Bay suggesting the ships had turned up at the Lake Erie end of the Welland Canal. People in Thunder Bay wondered what was in the sealed orders given to each captain by French authorities as they left Thunder Bay. They were not allowed to open them until they cleared the harbour. If the French government, the Canadian navy and the bureaucrats in charge of investigating shipwrecks did take any interest in the wrecks, their correspondence has been purged from Canadian archives. The federal government's Great Lakes shipwreck registry book, now held in the collection of Library and Archives Canada, has a one-line entry saying the ships disappeared on Lake Ontario. Except for photographs of their construction, Canada Car's records of them have disappeared. Outside of Thunder Bay, there was virtually no press coverage of the loss of the ships. Wartime censorship lasted in Canada until late 1919. Rumour replaced fact. People in Thunder Bay said the ships were built poorly, and a rumour persists that, because of wartime shortages, they were held together with wooden pegs instead of steel bolts. Peter McCorkindale, representative of Lloyd's Insurance Co., which held a policy on the ships until they left Canadian waters, watched the construction project and denied the ships were unseaworthy. "The French minesweepers built at the Canadian Car and Foundry Co.'s shipyards were structurally strong and seaworthy, and as perfect a type of boat that I have ever inspected," he told a Thunder Bay reporter. In 1918, there were even wilder rumours: somehow a German U-boat had made it into Lake Superior; the minesweepers had been seized by the Americans. In recent years, attention has shifted to UFOs and the so-called "Lake Superior Triangle" that consumes ships and airplanes. Meanwhile, marine historians have tried to find the two ships. Some have speculated they foundered on Lake Superior Shoal, a patch of shallow water near the middle of the lake that was not charted until more than a decade after the minesweepers were lost. Most, however, like Farnquist, believe the ships foundered in U.S. waters near the spot where the Sebastopol emerged from the blizzard. "It must have happened fast. They had wireless radios, but they had no chance to use them," said Farnquist, known for salvaging the bell of the Edmund Fitzgerald in 1996. The discovery of the minesweeper wrecks would be a career-making achievement for shipwreck hunters, who have scoured French and Canadian archives for clues. They've also tracked down rumour after rumour, some of them published, that parts of the wrecks have been found and that bodies have been discovered. So far, all have been dead ends. There is a range of opinions on the site of the wrecks. Some sailors said at the time they saw the Inkerman and the Cerisoles near Manitou Island, Mich., in the southwest part of the lake, which could place them near the Edmund Fitzgerald. Farnquist believes they are further to the north and west, off the Keweenaw Peninsula. Farnquist, who also heads the Great Lakes Shipwreck Society, is determined to find the two warships. He has led one attempt to hunt them down and plans to try again, using state-of-the-art underwater scanning. That search will likely take place in August 2010. Early August is usually the most tranquil time on the temperamental lake. "This is the Holy Grail of Lake Superior, to find two 155-foot brand spanking new minesweepers with 5-inch guns fore and aft," he says. "One might have got into trouble and the other went to help it and was swamped when it turned its side into the wind. If we're lucky, they'll be close together." Farnquist is pinning some hope on Ottawa, which will send frigates into the Great Lakes next summer in celebration of the centennial of Canada's navy. He hopes they can help him "mow the lawn," using high-tech equipment to do grid searches of the lake bed. "This would be a good project for a partnership between the Canadian, French and U.S. navies, since the ships were built in Canada for the French and were lost in U.S. waters."