Wreckage

This summer, as the third wave of a pernicious pandemic waned in Ontario, I decided, as one does, to find a shipwreck. The quest seemed appropriate to the times. After about fifteen months of fear, isolation, professional and personal disruption, and daily reports of deaths and infections, why not celebrate the return to something resembling normal life by finding the last known position of some two-dozen lives, and whatever was left of the vehicle that saw them off to the Other Side?

I went looking for the wreck of the Wawinet, an 87-foot motor vessel that went down on September 21, 1942 on an evening cruise. She was owned by Bert Corbeau of Penetanguishene, who ran a machine shop in Midland. Forty-two people were on board, celebrating either the completion or the securing of a wartime contract (Fairmile class ships were also being built in Midland for the war effort). She went down just off the south end of Beausoleil Island in what is now Georgian Bay Islands National Park, as the revellers returned to Penetanguishene from the Delawanna Inn, in Honey Harbour. Of 42 people aboard, 25 were lost, including Corbeau.

The headline in the local Free Press Herald after the Wawinet went down. Image courtesy Neptune’s Locker.

There was an eerie resonance with Corbeau, pandemics, and loss. Corbeau was a former professional hockey player, a tough defenceman with the nickname “pig iron.” He had won the Stanley Cup in 1916, and was a member of the 1919 Canadiens that traveled to Seattle for another crack at the trophy. The most formidable pandemic to sweep the world before covid-19 was the so-called Spanish influenza of 1918-19, and it hit the 1919 Cup finals hard, as I wrote for the Champlain Society’s blog Findings/Trouvailles. Corbeau escaped it, but several teammates did not, and when his fellow Canadiens defenceman Joe Hall died in a Seattle hospital, the series was abandoned. I have also been able to complete enough genealogy research to discover that Corbeau had a brother who drowned in Georgian Bay in 1924 while fishing.

A Bert Corbeau hockey card from 1924, when he played for the Toronto St. Patricks, forerunners of the Maple Leafs.

The Wawinet wreck is not formally charted, but has been known to some sport divers. It’s not a great dive: although the wreck is only in about 25 feet of water, visibility is poor and there is a fair bit of boat traffic. You can see four videos from a 2015 dive on YouTube. Back in 2012, a user of the popular navigation software Navionics pinned a precise location for the wreck. I decided to check it out.

The good ship Orion

I run a 24-foot Limestone 24 Express Cruiser, Orion, and over the past spring I upgraded her electronics, adding among other things a Garmin GPSMap 942 Plus plotter/sounder with an external GPS aerial accurate to about 3 feet and a “high-wide” sonar transducer. For those of you willing to nerd out on sonar technology, the high-wide CHIRP transducer emits a much more powerful beam than a traditional transducer, at 450 or 800 kHz, and produces a more photographic result than your typical old-school fish-finder. Where a 200-kHz transducer projects a cone of sound waves downwards at 16-24 degrees from its apex, the high-wide sweeps a wide, narrow beam (50 degrees at 450 kHz, 30 degrees at 800 kHz) along the bottom, much like the way a photocopier captures the image on a page.

With a wreck position pinpointed on Navionics, I thought it would be a simple matter of me showing up at the site (about a 15 minute run, some five miles north of my slip at the marina down the road from my house) and staring at the display screen to watch the wreck emerge. It didn’t work out that way. The Navionics position was about as accurate as a dart thrown at a map. Over the course of four visits, I criss-crossed the position, looking for the vaguest sign of wreckage, while also expanding a search pattern outwards. The YouTube video said she was in 20-25 feet of water, and while allowing some leeway for water level fluctuations over the years, I ran a pattern covering off the nearby waters in that depth bracket.

I was also running Garmin’s QuickChart tool, an ingenious bit of software within the plotter that converts depth soundings to a custom chart with one-foot depth contours. I was hoping that QuickChart might pick up the anomalies in soundings at the wreck and practically draw it for me. That turned out to be overly optimistic.

The Wawinet in happier times, probably at Balsam Lake at the summer home of her original owner, Sir William Mackenzie. Image courtesy Neptune’s Locker.

On my fourth try I spent way too much time quadruple checking the Navionics position. The Wawinet was not insubstantial: 87 feet long and 12.5 feet wide. (She was basically a leisure boat built for canal cruising, She was constructed in 1904 for the railway impresario Sir William Mackenzie for his summer home at Balsam Lake and the Trent-Severn waterway. Corbeau had purchased her in 1938.) The YouTube video showed that the wreck was in poor shape: all the superstructure and deck were gone, but this shell of a vessel still appeared to rise a good 6-8 feet from the bottom. I saved a half dozen or more points in the GPS where something faint and ghostly appeared, but there was nothing that returned the strong signal that the Wawinet ought to.

Looking in all the wrong places, based on a bogus position (WAWINET) from Navionics. The green and grey squares are spots where I thought there might be something interesting. But there was nothing there, except for perhaps schools of fish. The yellow flag marked a small structure on the bottom that I haven’t returned to check out.

The story of her loss as I understood it was that as the party headed back to Penetanguishene, she suddenly heeled: her open ports flooded, and she rapidly went down. The south end of Beausoleil Island is an extensive, shallow shoal of wading depth that rapidly drops off to twenty or more feet along the edge of the bank. My working hypothesis for the wreck was that Corbeau must have grazed the very edge of the bank in 6-7 feet of water. The narrow, top-heavy vessel, with the additional instability of about three tons of human beings aboard, probably mostly on deck, would have lurched disastrously to port, flooded, and gone down quickly. So I decided to have a look along the edge of the bank.

Every story about a wreck find, it seems, has to have a moment of “it was the last run of the day and we were about to give up.” And I really was making a last run of the day, doubling back to parallel the track I had made on my first pass along the edge of the bank. On the sonar side of the display, something appeared that looked like a tall tree stump or telephone pole, rising perhaps eight feet from the bottom in 20-25 feet of water. That looked promising. I came back around, and crossed over the “hit.” This time there was more structure: unclear as to what it was, the image a bit wavy because of chop from boat wake, but undeniably big and interesting. I felt a bit foolish for having spent so much time marking far less substantial hits.

After the first promising hit of something pole-like, I doubled back and got this much more promising hit. My QuickDraw sounding are overlaying the plotter chart. The edge of the bank at Beausoleil Island is in blue.

On the third pass, I didn’t see anything. Even with a sonar beam of 50 degrees, trigonometry tells you that in 25 feet of water it only sweeps a path 23.3 feet wide. When you’re looking for something like the Wawinet that’s only 12.5 wide, it’s easy to be ever so slightly off and miss altogether. But on my fourth pass, the wreck filled the screen with enough detail that there was no doubt that I had found her. A fifth pass was equally substantial.

The fourth pass.

The fifth pass.

I made several more visits to the wreck, hoping for better (less bouncy) conditions, and to produce better images. Waviness from boat chop continued to be a problem, but I did grab a few more screen captures before deciding that it would be better to wait for a calm day late in the season, when boat traffic and wake would be minimal.

A later run, with some waviness in the sonar return due to passing boat wake.
Probably the best image from my initial scanning runs.

For all that this search was meant as an exercise marking the end of covid’s worst privations, it was still very much in the spirit of covid. Connecting with the Wawinet via a GPS/sonar plotter was like making a Zoom call with the relic. There is a remarkable sense of distance in this experience. The bottom of the bay is only about as far away as the length of my boat, and the upper part of the wreck is about seventeen feet below the surface. But the wreck can’t be seen the way many Georgian Bay wrecks can at similar depths because of the turbidity here. And so the Wawinet remained at an immeasurable sort of distance, experienced only through a software program’s manipulation of sound waves. Someday, perhaps, we will actually meet face to face.

After locating the wreck site, I contacted a local dive pro, Michael Lanigan, who runs Neptune’s Locker in Penetanguishene. He told me he had last dived the wreck three years ago, and confirmed it was in poor shape. He noted that it has been pilfered by divers who wrested away the bronze ports, and that someone had even made off with the plaque other divers had installed to commemorate the dead. It’s a site only experienced divers should attempt, and because of past abuse and the fact that so many people died here, I’ve decided not to share her exact position.

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