Corresponding with a shipwreck victim's grandson has changed my perspective
Full fathom five thy father lies;
Of his bones are coral made;
Those are pearls that were his eyes:
Nothing of him that doth fade,
But doth suffer a sea-change
Into something rich and strange.
Sea-nymphs hourly ring his knell:
Hark! now I hear them,—ding-dong, bell. — William Shakespeare, The Tempest
On Monday, I was scrolling my Instagram account for a daily dopamine hit when a long comment on one of my posts caught my eye. The post was from May of 2020, a slideshow of photos taken by my friend and intrepid cold water dive buddy, Chris Winters, with whom I’ve shared countless adventures over the years. In 2015, we dove a shipwreck in the Straits of Mackinac, the stretch of water that divides Michigan’s upper and lower peninsulas and connects Lakes Michigan and Huron. The wreck was the tormented remains of the SS Cedarville, a 588-foot steel freighter that sank on a foggy night in May of 1965 after a collision with a Norwegian ship. The Cedarville is one of the largest wrecks in the Great Lakes and one of the most spectacular dives due to its condition and its relatively shallow resting place. I remember being awed by the immense size of it, and the dramatic scene its toppled pilothouse offers the diver and camera lens. The story of its sinking was, like so many wrecks I’ve dived, relatively academic and abstract. Ten men died that night in 1965, men whose stories I didn’t know or never really gave much thought. That is, until I saw the comment on my Instagram post. It was from a person named Zachariah Haske, and this is what he wrote:
Reading this raised goosebumps. I’ve dived dozens of shipwrecks over the years, many that are grave sites where lives were tragically lost, some with bodies that remain entombed within, or became lost martyrs to Neptune. The Daniel J. Morrell in Lake Huron took 28 souls. 12 were lost on the Emperor off of Isle Royale. 307 sailors went down with HMS Hermes in the Indian Ocean. But aside from the occasional famous tale or anecdote about a lost crew member—or survivor—I didn’t pay much attention to the individual stories. Shame on me, viewing shipwrecks merely as dive sites, photo ops, or artificial reefs. But with Zachariah’s comment, the abstract became personal. It was the first time I’d known a surviving family member of someone who died on a shipwreck I’d dived.
I immediately responded to Zachariah and we exchanged private messages over the course of the subsequent days. He was moved by the photos I had posted, and I by his own personal connection. “It’s incredible to see the very windows he would have looked out to do his job,” he wrote, seeing the haunting upturned pilothouse, backlit by my dive torch in one of the photos. It turns out that his grandfather, Stan Haske, was a wheelsman on the Cedarville and one of the ten sailors who perished on that awful night. Zachariah’s grandmother, Stan’s widow, is still alive today, as it happens, aged 93. Together, Stan and Elizabeth Haske had five children before he died. Zachariah got married on the anniversary of the Cedarville’s sinking. He has a tattoo of a ship’s helm (wheel) on his left arm in remembrance; his grandfather, you see, was a southpaw.
Zachariah is a cinematographer, and told me that he’s in the early stages of producing a documentary film about the Cedarville, and his grandfather. He expressed interest in any visual assets or stories I might be able to share with him as he works on his film. This was my cue to contact my friend, Chris, who, besides being a talented photographer, is also a renowned Great Lakes maritime historian and author. What followed brought this story to an even more astonishing depth.
Upon reading my message about my exchange with Zachariah, and hearing his grandfather’s name, Chris wrote back: “I met the guy who pulled his grandfather out of the water.” As the Cedarville was sinking, a German ship, the MV Weissenburg, was in the vicinity, passing through the Straits, and responded to the distress call. The captain of the Weissenburg ordered lifeboats be put in the water to rescue survivors. One of those in a lifeboat was a bosun named Peter Hahn, and he managed to pull Stan Haske from the icy lake. Sadly, Haske died of exposure not long after, on the deck of the Weissenburg. Hahn, the heroic bosun, was awarded a US visa for his efforts, and went on to work in Cleveland, supervising stevedores. Chris met him back in the late ‘90s during one of his many trips to Great Lakes port cities for his research.
If you need more evidence of how small our world is, I’m sorry. I can’t help you. Just consider this: a series of photos taken almost a decade ago by my oldest friend and dive buddy, on the wreck of a ship that sank before I was born, connected me to a stranger a generation or two younger than me, living in another state, whose grandfather died in that ship’s tragic end. And my friend happened to meet one of the last people to see Stan Haske alive. Say what you will about the evils of social media, but I’m a believer in its power to connect, now more than ever.
Some people fear shipwrecks, the empty, massive hulks lying unseen from the sunny surface, quietly menacing in the depths. They simply don’t belong there, these sturdy vessels, some made of steel, the older ones of wood, many of them split open as if frozen in their agonized death throes. This fear of sunken manmade objects is a condition known as “submechanophobia.” Fortunately, it is a fear easily avoided as long as you don’t dive. And though I don’t suffer from submechanophobia, there is always a sense of dread that rises when you pull down a mooring line and the dark shape of a wreck looms out of the darkness. They’re eerily lonely places, not for humans. And they’re always much, much bigger than you imagine them to be, like the monsters in your nightmares. Especially a leviathan like the Cedarville, the fourth largest wreck in all the Great Lakes.
As big wrecks go, the Cedarville is surprisingly accessible, not far from the marina at St. Ignace, Michigan. The top of the wreck is only 40 feet underwater, but drops to the muddy bottom at around 110. At nearly two football fields long, there is a lot to explore. Though some divers like to penetrate further astern and visit the engine room, the logical place to start is at the bow, and that’s what we did back in 2015. I still remember stepping off the transom of our dive boat and descending the line. It was a calm, sunny summer day and the hull was visible immediately as I went down. When the ship sank, it twisted so that most of its length lies on its starboard flank, but the bow end is upside down, the pilothouse resting impossibly balanced on its antenna mast. To swim underneath it is humbling and slightly unnerving.
Now I’m ashamed to admit, I didn’t give a thought to those who perished trying to escape the sinking ship. I was just enthralled by the immensity of the wreck, and the drama of the scene. And of course, it was cold, dark and deep and my time there was limited. But in 1965, terrified young men would have been looking out those same windows I was swimming under, and seen the shadow of the freighter, Topdalsfjord, bearing down on them before the terrible collision that sent her to the bottom. As the ship began to list, the captain tried to beach her, but they never made it. Most of the crew managed to escape into the water and survived. Ten didn’t, including wheelsman, Stan Haske. As I write this, it occurs to me that our dives back in 2015 was in the 50th anniversary year of the sinking.
If “submechanophobia” is the fear of submerged manmade objects, then what is its opposite? A few years ago, I made up a word for this: “submechanophilia,” the love of shipwrecks. Seen in a new light, inspired by my conversations with Zachariah Haske, that term seems a bit insensitive now. Are there people who love car crashes, airplane disasters, earthquake rubble, bloody battlefields? What is it about shipwrecks that sets them apart? Wrecks are evidence of mankind’s ambition, his bravery, and sometimes, yes, his hubris. They are also time capsules, almost in a literal sense, especially those in the cold, fresh water of the Great Lakes, where they hardly decay. Train wrecks, car crashes, building collapses are cleaned up and swept away. But shipwrecks remain where they came to rest, for anyone brave enough to visit. And that makes them unique. As another friend of mine said about my conversation with Zachariah Haske, “you’re talking to the same DNA that walked the deck of the very object you’ve swum around underwater.”
People haven’t died on every shipwreck. But this recent experience has lent me new perspective on those where they did. And as I look back on the wrecks I’ve dived, and those I still plan to dive, I now consider the humanity of them. There is something poignant about donning an air tank and tempting fate to visit a place not meant for the living even for an hour. It is a visit to the fragile edge of mortality itself, and from now on, I pledge to remember those for whom that edge was a little bit closer.
Thank you to Zachariah Haske for sharing his family’s story.