The Oliver Mowat Expedition Journal

The Oliver Mowat Expedition Journal

The Oliver Mowat Expedition

Planes, Trains and Automobiles

May 26, 2023

Cover Photo: Heading East to Picton, Ontario

As I start out on my expedition, I find myself in bumper-to-bumper traffic while towing a 22 foot boat. Despite the traffic my spirits are high with the anticipation of leading my team tomorrow in search of the OLIVER MOWAT. As traffic lightens and I finally get moving, I think about the differences in travel between the era of the OLIVER MOWAT and now.
In today’s day and age, we expect travel to be fast and efficient and we have a low threshold of tolerance for any delays.

Quebec City Harbour – Photo Credit: The Maritime History of the Great Lakes

In the 18th century there were no cars or freeways, so travelling on dirt roads was a long, dusty and tiring experience. A better alternative was to travel by train which was fast, comfortable and stylish. The downside was increased costs and a limited selection of routes and stops.
Schooners and the emerging steam ships offered an excellent compromise between the previous two modes of travel. Travel by ship offered lots of routes and ports of call at reasonable rates of passage. A range of accommodations were available from basic to luxurious; it was an unforgettable experience travelling on the open water.
Regardless of whether you choose carriage, train or boat, delays were expected and part of travelling in that era. While weather affected carriages and trains it had the greatest impact on sailing ships. No captain, either transporting passengers or cargo, would ever want to head out into foul weather.
Like travellers in the era of the OLIVER MOWAT, tomorrow as me and my team head out on our expedition our excitement about the journey and the joy of being on the lake with the wind in our hair is as great as the anticipation of reaching our destination.

Main Duck Island
The Oliver Mowat Expedition

The Fabulous Four

May 25, 2023

Cover Photo: Spencer Shoniker’s Boat The Brooke-Lauren

Two decades and thousands of search hours later the wrecks’ location still remained a mystery. Determined to find its final resting place, a group of four shipwreck hunters banded together in the mid-nineties and started spending a week together each summer camped out on Main Duck Island while searching the surrounding waters.
The team members were Tim Legate, Spencer Shoniker, Barbara Carson and the late Rick Neilson. Pooling their knowledge and resources they searched summer after summer, yet the grail still eluded them.

Lighthouse Beach on Main Duck Island

Then as the century turned, so did their luck!

Rick’s research uncovered a mariners notice and wreck report. Tim, searching through old records at the Marine Museum, found the commissioner’s inquiry into the sinking which included navigational details about the collision. With these two new clues, Tim was able to tri-angulate and narrowed a new set of coordinates to search.

The fabulous four headed out and in just a few hours hit the jackpot and the final resting place of the OLIVER MOWAT was discovered!
In order to protect and prevent the wreck from having its artifacts stripped, the group decided to keep the location secret. Since that time, only a small handful of divers have had the privilege to explore this amazing time capsule of history.

The Oliver Mowat Expedition

Modern Day Equipment

May 24, 2023

Cover Photo: Barbara Carson and fellow explorer Audrey Rushbrook in 1976

The early Great Lakes diving pioneers were using a single scuba tank with one regulator, no gauges, and homemade wetsuits. When their tank ran out of air, there was a rod connected to a J-Valve, which when pulled would supply a small reserve of air. This additional amount would give them a few minutes to reach the surface. A huge issue in the design was forgetting to check that the value was in the correct position before a dive which could lead to having no reserve supply. For decompression, the US Navy Tables were the only thing available which resulted in little safety and bottom times were limited.
Available to modern shipwreck divers today is an amazing array of high tec scuba equipment which has not only improved safety and comfort but has extended the depths and times that we can explore beneath the waves.
My personal diving rig starts with a Fourth Element Argonaut 2.0 Drysuit which was custom fitted to my body by an award winning BIOMAP system. Combined with my HALO 3D technical undergarments, I am completely warm for hours in sub-zero water yet still have amazing flexibility.

Kayla’s Diving Rig

For extended time underwater, I use twin 72 cubic foot steel tanks which provide two separate sources of air for safety. They are attached to me with a Hollis SMS 75 sidemount harness which provides me with perfect trim in the water and keeps me streamlined.
For regulators, I use a pair of HOG D3 first stages paired with Zenith second stages setup with custom hose lengths (short and long) plus swivel valves and small heads up pressure gauges.
Last, for maximum safety I wear a pair of diving computers. My primary is a Suunto EON Steel Black and my secondary is a Suunto EON Core White. With one on each arm, I can at a glance see all aspects of my dive on the large colour screens.

The Oliver Mowat Expedition

The Holy Grail

May 23, 2023

Cover Photo: Lost Ship – Photo Credit – The Joyce Hayward Collection

When the OLIVER MOWAT sunk her location was not lost. The masts on historic schooners were as tall as the ship is long, so when resting upright on the lake bottom in 35 meters of water there were still five meters of her top sails visible above the surface. This posed a hazard to navigation and her location was marked on maps of the era. Years later the masts were dropped to the bottom by dynamite charges, so with no hazard for ships the location was removed from future maps.

Historical Map Showing Location of OLIVER MOWAT

In the sixties and seventies shipwreck hunters in the region poured over old maps and newspaper reports for the possible locations of shipwrecks. With the location of the OLIVER MOWAT clearly marked, divers believed that this would be an easy wreck to find. They searched in the area and quickly found a wreck but were puzzled because something was not right.
The OLIVER MOWAT had three masts and was 40 meters long, but the wreck that they found only had two masts and was just 28 meters in length. Research later ended up identifying her as the OLIVE BRANCH which had sunk in September of 1880, so the old maps had been mistakenly marked and the location of the Mowat remained a mystery. This created a lot of interest in finding her location and she became the Holy Grail of shipwreck hunters in the region.
Little did they know then that the quest would last more than 30 years!

The Oliver Mowat Expedition

Practice Makes Perfect

May 22, 2023

Cover Photo: Kayla inspecting mooring buoy

With the environmental challenges that the team will encounter on the OLIVER MOWAT, practice is critical to success!
Just as mountain climbers will scale several small peaks before attempting a major climb, scuba divers must climatize to the frigid waters. Plus, practice essential dive skills and emergency procedures. With my team spread out across Ontario we have been individually preparing by completing multiple dives in our regions.
Personally, for my climatization dives I found a solution that lets me have my cake and eat it too.
With my passion for shipwrecks one of my roles is serving on the Board of the Toronto Chapter of Save Ontario Shipwrecks. Two weeks ago, I spent the day on Lake Ontario installing moorings on the three historic shipwrecks located in Humber Bay. This involves making a free descent to the bottom and then attaching a lift bag to the mooring ropes laying on the bottom. Then the lift bag is filled with air to send it rocketing to the surface, where the boat crew will attach a large floating buoy to it. These are then left in place for the season so that divers do not have to drop an anchor which can potentially damage the wreck and have a safe line to descend to and from the wreck.

The Oliver Mowat Expedition

The Fateful Night

May 21, 2023

Cover Photo: Ship Sinking – Photo Credit – The Joyce Hayward Collection

September 1, 1921 was a clear moonless night as Captain Thomas Van Dusen manned the helm of the OLIVER MOWAT as she headed from Picton, Ontario to Oswego, New York. As midnight approached out of the east the lights of a large steamer appeared to Captain Van Dusen heading directly towards his ship. Using an oil lantern, he attempted to signal their position and warn the oncoming vessel away.

Onboard the Steamer KEYWEST the Captain was off duty and resting in his cabin, while the second mate was on the bridge recording the day’s events in the ship’s logbook. With calm winds on this quiet night, the lookout had left his post to light a fire in the galley to prepare a pot of coffee for the long night ahead.

The Steamer KEYWEST– Photo Credit: The Maritime History of the Great Lakes

At 10:57 pm, the fate of the OLIVER MOWAT was sealed as two thousand tons of steel struck her amidship driving a wall of water into her heart, sending the schooner to the bottom in just four minutes. The Captain made a heroic attempt to save his crew of five, but in the end he went down with his ship along with the first mate and cook. The remaining two sailors were pulled from the icy waters by the crew of the KEYWEST and survived to tell the tale.

The Oliver Mowat Expedition

The Challenges

May 20, 2023

Cover Photo: Kayla exploring the shipwrecks in Picton, Ontario

The location of the shipwreck is far offshore close to the international border between Canada and The United States of America which runs down the middle of Lake Ontario. With the lack of sheltering land masses wave heights in the area can build significantly.

Laying in deep water the temperatures on the bottom range from three to five Celsius year-round. Due to wind and rain, the visibility can vary greatly from just a few centimeters on a bad day to a dozen meters on a good day. Travel to the site near Main Duck Island involves crossing several hazardous shoals which over the years have sent many ships to a watery grave.

Scuba diving in this combination of challenging environmental conditions poses a high degree of risk to the team members. In order to minimize these risks, the expedition will be spread out over several months in order to wait for optimal weather.

The Oliver Mowat Expedition

The Era of Wind and Sail

May 19, 2023

Cover Photo: Painting of the OLIVER MOWAT docked in Mill Haven, Ontario

The morning of July 16, 1873 dawned bright and clear over the Mill Haven Shipyards as the passenger steamers began arriving from nearby Kingston, Ontario bearing the guests for the day’s historic launch.

The excitement of the crowd of over three thousand grew as Sir Oliver Mowat took to the stage to witness the christening of the three-masted schooner named after himself.

Along the wooden slides, the shipwrights were proudly standing at attention to watch their crowning achievement glide down into her element. They had put their heart and soul into her design since she was the first ship to be built at this new shipyard and would represent the finest of the era of wind and sail. The crew of the OLIVER MOWAT cheered as Miss Helen Fraser broke the traditional wine bottle across her bow marking the start of her journey into history.

OLIVER MOWAT – Photo Credit – The Maritime History of the Great Lakes

Schooners were the workhorses of the age transporting everything from raw materials to finished goods between centers of commerce around the Great Lakes. Maritime heritage played a key role in Canada’s development but is often overlooked in the history books.

One of the goals of The Royal Canadian Geographical Society is to help Canadians better understand their country and its place in the world. The RCGS has funded this expedition to descend into the frozen depths of Lake Ontario and explore the time capsule of history hidden beneath the waves!