Sunday, December 10, 2006


Pursuit of history drives exploration of shipwrecks


Democrat & Chronicle
By Gary Fallesen
December 10, 2006

They are not high-profile, raise-the-Titanic types. Just two Monroe County electrical engineers who scuba dive and have a passion for discovering the many shipwrecks outside their doors in Lake Ontario.

"It's not something you're going to make any money on. It's a hobby," says Jim Kennard, who counts among his more than 200 finds an 1800s schooner offshore from Oak Orchard, Orleans County.

The discovery of the boat — Kennard and diving partner Dan Scoville think it might be the two-masted, 93-foot-long Milan, which sank in 1849 — was announced last week. The pair, along with diving teammate Roland "Chip" Stevens, claim this could be the oldest commercial vessel found off the southern shore of Lake Ontario.

"It is a rather unusual and much older ship than is usually found," Kennard says, pointing out how rare it is to find an old ship with both of its nearly 20-foot-high masts still in place.

The discovery was made in June and these two "shipwreck detectives" have been busy doing additional research before announcing the find.

Kennard, 63, of Perinton, and Scoville, 33, of Greece, videotaped the ship using a remote operated vehicle (or ROV) that Scoville built as a senior project at Rochester Institute of Technology last winter. This was the first open-water use for the 17-by-15-by-13-inch ROV.

The ROV went where Scoville would normally go as a technical diver — a person equipped to go deeper than a recreational diver like Kennard.

"I'd probably get about 10 minutes on the wreck," Scoville says, describing a deep-water dive and the time it takes to get down and then ascending in 10-foot intervals to decompress.

In addition to the inherent danger of surfacing too quickly, there is the cold (Lake Ontario water at 200 feet is about 40 degrees), and the threat of something happening on the surface.

"A storm could come up or a tanker could come along," Kennard explains. "It's risky."

"With the ROV, we can videotape for 1½ hours," says Scoville. "There's no decompression. No risk. I can sit in the cabin on the deck all toasty warm."

The "Milan" is located in 200 feet of water, beyond the 135-foot limits of recreational diving.

While shipwrecks in the Caribbean might yield monetary riches, the boatloads resting on the bottom of lakes on the nation's north shore often consist of wheat, corn, coal and, Kennard jokes, "lots of silt." The "Milan" was said to have been carrying barrels of salt, according to Kennard.

Its value is historical. It is part of the Great Lakes' rich maritime history.

But, Scoville acknowledges, "most people don't even know they (shipwrecks such as the "Milan") exist."

More than 30 years had passed between the discoveries of historic wrecks in waters around Rochester. The St. Peter had been found in 1917 and then a few years ago Kennard and Scoville found both the Canadian bulk freighter Homer Warren off Pultneyville, Wayne County, and the 152-year-old Canadian-built schooner Etta Belle off Sodus Point.

Now they have added the "Milan" to their list.

Kennard says they have identified about a dozen wrecks between the Niagara River and the St. Lawrence that are worth pursuing. "There are probably 200 (undiscovered) wrecks in Lake Ontario," he says, noting that many are in the middle of the lake in even deeper waters.

Kennard took up scuba diving in 1970, after a co-worker started "spinning all these tales of diving in Lake Michigan." It sounds to him like Sea Hunt, the 1960s Lloyd Bridges television show. He took a class at the YMCA and was hooked.

He later used his electrical engineering skills to build sonar, used to find wrecks on the bottom of the lake.

Scoville took scuba diving as a physical education class at RIT in 1997.

"I always wanted to do it," says Scoville, who has several college degrees. "It looked adventurous."

Once he got into recreational diving he had a desire to go deeper, especially when he realized there were wrecked ships waiting on the bottom of the lake for him to see.

Neither Scoville nor Kennard dove to the "Milan," however. They didn't need to with the ROV.

"It's not as good as being there, but, man, it's close," Kennard says.

"It's almost as good as being there," Scoville agrees.

Kennard says the data retrieved by the mechanical device is better than anything he could bring back. He recalls diving with three others on a wreck in Lake Champlain. When the group returned to the surface "we had four different stories about what we'd seen.

"With the ROV we're bringing back video. You can spend time looking at it this way and that way."

The three cameras on the ROV were used to shoot videotape of the "Milan" from several angles. The device is controlled through Scoville's laptop with a joystick. He steers it while watching the picture on his computer screen.

The ROV also has lights to allow the wreck to be photographed in the murky water. The video it has shot is breathtaking.

Kennard and Scoville plan to share that, as they have past discoveries, in presentations to historical societies and libraries.

Occasionally, they will be recognized for their efforts.

In 1989, National Geographic featured a horse-powered ferryboat that Kennard and his diving partner, Scott Hill, had found in 1983 in Lake Champlain.

But mostly these shipwreck detectives work in anonymity in their spare time.

"It's really about being able to find something that hasn't been found, and to do it locally," says Kennard, who was introduced to Scoville in a dive shop that has since gone out of business. "We can't go to Florida all the time to dive on wrecks. We can afford to do this."

The two men, both of whom are married, can wake up on a Saturday morning and decide to go diving. There is treasure in their back yards.

It doesn't matter that there are no chests of gold to be found. "You can't take it anyway — the government claims it all," Scoville says.

The lake water preserves ships better than salt water in the oceans.

"There's not a lot left that you can discover in the world," Kennard says. "We get to do that."

They rediscover maritime history. They dive into Lake Ontario's past and find relics that time has forgotten.


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