Published 4:36 pm Monday, April 4, 2011

Divers with Michigan Shipwreck Research Associates discovered the sunken H.C. Akeley near Grand Haven. MSRA will present "Mysteries and Histories Beneath the Inland Seas” Saturday, April 16 at 7 p.m. at Holland's historic Knickerbocker Theatre. Photos courtesy of Michigan Shipwreck Research Associates


Shipwrecks tend to provoke images of pirate tales and the Titanic tragedy, but they have occurred closer to home than some may believe.

Michigan Shipwreck Research Associates, based in Holland, Mich., focuses on locating sunken ships in Lake Michigan. The non-profit MSRA has made 14 discoveries between Holland and South Haven since its inception in 2001.

“There were quite a few stories about ships gone missing, but very few discoveries,” said Valerie van Heest, author, Women Divers Hall of Fame inductee and MSRA director.

“Essentially, in the founding of MSRA, I was interested in the discovery of vessels,” she said.

Van Heest has written three books about MSRA’s discoveries: “Buckets and Belts,” regarding the Hennepin discovery; “Icebound: The Adventures of young George Sheldon and the SS Michigan,” on the SS Michigan discovery; and most recently, “Lost on the Lady Elgin,” about the Great Lakes’ deadliest disaster.

The MSRA will discuss a discovery — a “mystery” ship — made in 2010 between Saugatuck and South Haven, during “Mysteries and Histories Beneath the Inland Seas” on Saturday, April 16 at 7 p.m. at Holland’s historic Knickerbocker Theatre.

MSRA focuses not only on discoveries, but making shipwrecks available to divers and educating the area about shipwreck history.

“We’ve also opened up a lot of dive sites,” van Heest said. “It’s adding to our cultural awareness for those who don’t dive. For those who dive, it’s really increasing tourism. We are bringing more people to the area to specifically find these shipwrecks.”

One elusive wreck, the Chicora, reportedly sunk in 1895. The entire crew of 25 people perished.

“Even though the debris came ashore at South Haven, you don’t know where it was shipwrecked,” van Heest said. “Knowing the fascination of this ship, we became interested in finally solving this mystery.”

MSRA began a program in 1998 called Shipwreck Quest to locate the famous wreck.

“In 2001, we made a discovery, and for a few months we thought we had found the Chicora,” van Heest said. “When we got out to it, we found it was the H.C. Ackley.”

The Chicora has not been found, although MSRA discovered a mysterious shipwreck in 2010.

A 60-foot, single-masted sloop dating back to perhaps the 1830s was discovered in deep water between Saugatuck and South Haven.

MSRA made the discovery in collaboration with nationally-acclaimed author Clive Cussler and his sonar operator Ralph Wilbanks of the National Underwater and Marine Agency (NUMA).

During an exploratory dive to the 250-foot deep wreck, MSRA made note of three features that are significantly different from sailing vessels dating to the mid- and late-19th century: the lack of a centerboard, the presence of a raised afterdeck and deadlights (a pair of openings) in the stern that allowed light to reach the cargo hold.

MSRA’s historians have verified that the vessel’s construction and design is consistent with ships built in the 1820s and 1830s, making it perhaps one of the oldest vessels discovered in the southern basin of Lake Michigan. The vessel sits upright and is in surprisingly good condition considering it was built nearly 200 years ago.

Exact identification will be difficult as these small, early sloops were rarely documented and most had wrecked or been scrapped before photography became available. MSRA will continue to research and explore the wreck during the 2011 season.

Underwater video of this new discovery will be shown at the annual “Mysteries and Histories Beneath the Inland Seas” event April 16 at the Knickerbocker Theatre.

In addition to a program about four Ottawa County shipwrecks presented by local author Craig Rich, attendees will learn about the newly-discovered steamer Westmoreland, the schooner Marion Egan and the steamer Lady Elgin, in which 300 people perished in the Lake Michigan’s deadliest disaster — the subject of van Heest’s latest book.

“Largely, the people who get involved (in MSRA) are the people who want to hear about the discoveries, and come to the programs and be entertained,” van Heest explained. “Non-divers are attracted to these great stories and heroism, and the divers are very attracted to the connection.

“It’s not just busted up wood on the bottom — it’s history,” she said.

To learn about joining MSRA or to obtain tickets for the April 16 show, visit MSRA’s website at