Friday, October 24, 2014

The Wreck of the Gunilda

William Lamont Harkness, a wealthy financier and partner in the oil business with the Rockefellers, was a yachting enthusiast who commissioned a steam yacht from builders in Leith, Scotland.  The Gunilda was 195 feet long with a gross tonnage of 385.  (His two other brothers also had huge yachts built in Scotland.)  The yacht was steel, with a coal-burning steam plant.

In midsummer 1911, he, his family and guests set out for a trip around Lake Superior.  Harkness decided that he would like to cruise around Nipigon Bay.  The captain of the Gunilda recommended that he hire an experienced pilot who knew the waters, but Harkness over-ruled him, deciding that the $15 fee was too high.  A little further on, another pilot offered his services for $25 and trainfare back to Jackson Bay, but again Harkness refused on the basis that the price was extortionate.  While the Gunilda had charts of the water, they were American, and differed from the Canadian ones in some important respects.  In particular, they did not show McGarvey Shoal, a granite peak that rises from a depth of 300 feet, and ends just four feet under the water.  On August 29th, ignorant of this danger, and believing he had 300 feet under his keel, the captain ordered full speed ahead.  The yacht hit the shoal with a tremendous shock, Passengers and crew were tossed around, and the yacht continued her course until a full 80 feet of her hull hung over the rock.  

No one was seriously injured, and the passengers were disembarked.  The insurers contracted with the Jim Whalen of the Canadian Towing and Wrecking Company of Port Arthur, which owned the James Whalen, the largest and most powerful tug on Lake Superior.  Whalen was concerned that, unless two scows were brought and chained to each side of the yacht, the Gunilda might keel over once pulled free of the shoal.  Harkness would have none of this, suspicious that this was yet another attempt to extort money from him.  So, he overruled Whalen, and told him to just pull the yacht straight back off of the shoal.  After various attempts, the Gunilda finally began to slip backwards, but one free immediately took on a heavy list to starboard.  No one had thought to close her port holes or companionway doors, and so water flooded into her hull and began to pull her down.  The tow lines were quickly severed with axes so that she wouldn't pull the tug down as well.  In only a few minutes she was gone, vanished into 300 feet of water.

Images and information taken from Dwight Boyer, Strange Adventures of the Great Lakes (Dodd, Mead & Company, 1974).

Over the ensuing century, various proposals have been made to raise the yacht.  The Gunilda has defied all efforts, and remains deep in the Bay, considered by Cousteau Society to be one of the best preserved wreck sites in the world.

The Art Gallery of Ontario has a builder's model of the Gunilda on display as part the the Thompson Collection of Ship Models.

You can see some fascinating underwater footage by going to youtube.

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