20 years later, correspondent Jason Heaton rediscovers the Francisco Morazan
72 Hours in South Manitou Island
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The wreck of the Francisco Morazan lies 300 yards off the southeast coast of Michigan’s South Manitou Island. Most of her torn bulk rises out of Lake Michigan, home to a loud and smelly community of gulls and cormorants. From the beach, the wreck looks tantalizingly close until your bare feet touch the icy water and you see the waves pummeling her seaward side. On a calm day, the swim takes only a few minutes, but to get here requires a bit more — a 90 minute ferry ride from the mainland, another hour of hiking across the uninhabited island and a scramble down a steep, sandy slope.
When I was first here, 20 years ago, it was with my best friend, Chris. For us both, swimming to the Morazan represented the height of adventure, a rite of passage at a time when we were just embarking on adulthood. We returned this past summer to relive the adventure — and while so much had changed in both of our lives, I still felt the trepidation well up inside of me just as it had done 20 years before.
Our story continues after the jump.
Barely past 20 years of age in 1992, I was finishing college in Minneapolis and trying to figure out if writing poetry and roasting coffee qualified as a viable career choice. A friend from high school, Chris, was a kindred spirit, both of us romantics and dreamers with a shared a love for tales of polar exploration, astronauts and Jack Kerouac. Chris was a bit of a shipwreck nut and had read about this half-submerged wreck off the coast of an island in Michigan. His proposal of a road trip seemed like the perfect adventure to stave off adulthood just a little longer. We set off in August of that year, dressed in matching photojournalist’s vests, my Honda Civic loaded down with camping gear.
After picking up Chris in Milwaukee, we drove through the Chicago snarl, around the bottom of the lake and then due north up the forested west coast of Michigan’s mitten. We reached Sleeping Bear Dunes by dusk, set up our tent in a state forest campground and slept, the real adventure to start early the next morning. By 7 o’clock, after coffee, we aimed the Civic still farther north, to the tiny town of Leland, a freshwater version of so many old fishing villages in New England.
The diesels of the ferry, Mishe Mokwe, rumbled to life as Chris and I boarded for the choppy crossing to South Manitou Island. We joked and posed for photos on deck, my smiles hiding my growing apprehension. This was the pre-Google era and I didn’t know what to expect, nor had I even seen a photograph of this shipwreck. I wasn’t a strong swimmer and I knew that the water was cold. If the lake was powerful enough to wreck a 234-foot ship, it wouldn’t take much to drown me.
South Manitou Island, and its sibling, North Manitou, form what is known as the Manitou Passage, a narrow thoroughfare for the huge cargo ships that ply the Great Lakes. The islands are part of Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, an unexpected stretch of sand dunes that rise spectacularly hundreds of feet out of Lake Michigan. Now uninhabited other than by transient backpackers, the islands were once the site of a farmstead, a lifesaving station and a lighthouse, all of which are now tourist attractions. But having only a few hours before the ferry headed back, we skipped the lighthouse tour and headed off across the island with our backpacks to find the wreck.
The first view of the Francisco Morazan is dramatic. A weedy trail dies out on a high bluff above the crashing waves. The wreck juts out of the water, upright but in pieces, right where she ran aground in November of 1960. The story goes that she was steaming upbound on the lake, heading for ports in Europe via the St. Lawrence Seaway, when a snowstorm blew up. The captain sought shelter by passing close to the island, but soon the ship ran aground just 300 yards from shore. All passengers were rescued but the cargo was abandoned, later salvaged by locals and professional salvagers. After being cut up and emptied, the Morazan was left there, broken, for 32 years before we came upon her.
Chris and I recklessly scrambled down the bluff to the beach and quickly stripped down to our swim trunks. From ground level, the wreck looked huge — the first shipwreck I’d ever seen, and this one loomed forebodingly out of the water, even from 300 yards away. The gulls wheeled and screamed. It was a hysterical cacophony that unsettled me further as we started to wade into the lake. The water was shallow and we could walk halfway out to the wreck before it dropped off and we had to swim.
I tentatively stroked towards the ship, as if I expected to be suddenly pulled under by suction. Chris and I swam alongside the massive bulk, first in the shade and then around to the lake-facing side, which dipped into deeper water. Here it was possible to grab the ship’s gunwale and hoist oneself up onto the rusting steel deck. Chris was up first and I followed, shimmying awkwardly over the side onto the solid surface, which was warm from the sun but slippery from the gull guano. We carefully walked forward towards the pilothouse. The birds screamed and dived at us. From here, the beach looked a mile away and the giant dunes across the channel on the mainland might as well have been the moon. It was a triumphant moment, but there wasn’t time to linger. We had a ferry to catch.
The swim back was powered by adrenaline and we ran up onto the beach with newfound bravado. Chris set up his camera on a tripod and we struck hero poses in the surf. At that moment, I swear my beard grew, my chest expanded and my voice deepened. My fear was gone. I could do anything.
After college, I drifted away from all of my old high school friends. The ‘90s saw my failed first marriage and an end to poetry writing, in favor of a mortgage and a job writing packaging machinery manuals. I made new friends, got married again and hopped from job to job while fitting in adventures on long weekends — peak bagging in Colorado, swimming from Alcatraz. I hadn’t seen Chris since we returned from that life-changing trip, and it wasn’t until 2007 that I managed to track him down. In the intervening years, he had fought his own battles and had his own adventures, working as an actor, a short order cook and a dive shop employee. His love for ships and shipwrecks never abated, and he became a professional photographer, author and maritime historian. It seemed as though our paths, though divergent, were the same as they always had been.
This past summer, Chris got engaged, and it seemed a fitting final bachelor weekend to retrace our steps and revisit the Francisco Morazan. Twenty years later to the day, I again picked up Chris in Milwaukee and we headed for Michigan. This time, instead of going through Chicago, we drove north to Manitowoc and hopped the coal-fired ferry, S.S. Badger, for a four-hour cruise across Lake Michigan.
While most modes of transportation put us in a frenzied rush, boat travel is still largely unchanged. A few miles out on the lake, cell phone coverage evaporates. A member of the crew leads a game of bingo on the upper deck. The smell of coal smoke wafts in the open windows. While a faster ferry is now in service from Milwaukee, it lacks the charm of the Badger; as we lost sight of land, I settled into a chair out on the open deck to feel the warmth of the sun.
The theme of our 72 hours on South Manitou Island was clearly “ferries”. Not only did we cross the big lake on one, and would take the Mishe Mokwe across to South Manitou, but we wound up sleeping on a retired car ferry that first night. The giant S.S. City of Milwaukee is permanently docked in the sleepy little town of Manistee, towering over the modern apartment complex on shore, its sea gate open to reveal a single boxcar within. Volunteers at a maritime history museum run the City of Milwaukee as a “boat-el,” charging $25 a night for the privilege of sleeping in the old passenger or crew quarters, which are eerily left in the state they were when the boat left service in the 1980s. Small, creaky bunks and musty corridors have their charm once you stroll through the galley, where plates are still stacked in racks, and an engine room still housing huge triple-expansion steam boilers.
The next morning, the sky was ominously steely and the wind was whipping up big seas on the lake as we banged our way over to the island on the same Mishe Mokwe we had ridden two decades ago. But as we approached the dock on South Manitou, the sun broke through, somewhat easing my old familiar anxiety. Though Chris and I had both become experienced wreck divers in the intervening years, a surface swim in four-foot waves gave me pause. Once again, we hiked past the lighthouse and turned across the island. After an hour, the trail ended abruptly: there was the Francisco Morazan, looking much as she did 20 years earlier, perhaps a little more faded and settled, like us.
Unlike 1992 though, the lake was angry, and it wasn’t until we were on the beach in our wetsuits that we decided to make the swim. The nauseating smell of guano wafted over us, and I was happy to have a dive mask with which to cover my nose. As we got close to the wreck, we found the seas too big to swim the unprotected side and climb aboard. The swim was tiring, and I could feel every bit of my 42 years as I trod water while avoiding being thrown against the steel plating. Older, wiser, we decided that discretion was the better part of valor and after nosing around the gash in the hull, we turned for the beach.
Back on the beach, we set the timer on my GoPro and re-enacted our hero poses, sucking in stomachs a little more than we had to in 1992. I pulled out the flask of Scotch I had carried for this moment and Chris and I drank to our adventure before scaling the bluff and hiking back. Just before we turned our backs on the wreck, we took a last look on her.
“See you in twenty years”.
Photos by Jason Heaton and Christopher Winters