Sodus Point, New York
- The 152-year-old Canadian built schooner, Etta Belle, has been discovered in deep water off the southern shore of Lake Ontario near Sodus Point, New York. Shipwreck enthusiasts, Jim Kennard and Dan Scoville, located the schooner utilizing side scan sonar equipment.
The oak-hulled schooner, Etta Belle, foundered suddenly during calm weather in the early evening of September 3, 1873. The ship was on route from Little Sodus to Toronto, Canada, and was loaded with a full cargo of coal. The crew took to a small yawl and rowed over 8 miles to shore.
Schooner founders during a calm sea
The Etta Belle departed Little Sodus for Toronto mid afternoon in early September 1873, heading out into Lake Ontario in relatively calm weather. Underway only a few hours, it was discovered that the ship was taking on water. The captain found a substantial leak coming from an opening somewhere in the area of the port bow and below the water line of the schooner. The crew immediately manned the pumps in a desperate effort to save the ship and themselves. However, the flow of water into the schooner was much greater than the pumps could handle and the Etta Belle sank lower into the water as every minute passed. After an hour of continuously pumping water out of the hold by the crew, the captain conceded that the schooner was going down very soon and gave the order to abandon the sinking ship. The captain and crew took to the small yawl. They rowed for the next several hours to the safety of the nearest shore, landing at Sodus Point, a distance of about 8 miles. Since their quick departure from the sinking ship did not allow any time to gather their belongings, the crew arrived on land with only the clothes they were wearing.
The captain of the Etta Belle stated the he believed that the cause of the leak may have happened while the cargo was being loaded causing the butt end of one of the narrow boards that make up the side of the schooner to come loose. He speculated that this situation probably became progressively worse as the schooner headed out and into the swells that existed on the lake at the time of her departure.
Built as a Canadian schooner
The Etta Belle was constructed from the hull of the schooner "Champion" that had wrecked at Port Hope, Canada in 1870. The Champion was built at Oakville, Canada in 1852. In 1871 she was rebuilt as the schooner Etta Belle. This new vessel was 93 feet in length, with a beam of 19 feet, and contained two masts. The bow had a semicircular shape, almost barge like in appearance, which allowed more space for cargo at the expense of slightly reducing the speed of the ship. Typically ships during this period were transporting bulk cargo such as coal or grain to ports on Lake Ontario and the St Lawrence River. The town of Cape Vincent, New York, became the new homeport for the renamed schooner Etta Belle.
Shipwreck Research and Discovery
The Etta Belle was unexpectedly discovered in the late Fall of 2003, while Kennard and Scoville were conducting a bottom survey in Lake Ontario. The schooner was found in approximately 200 feet of water, beyond the safe limits (135 feet) for recreational SCUBA divers. During the 2004 diving season, the schooner was extensively video documented, measurements collected, and the cargo within its holds inspected. An intense research effort was also conducted to determine the identity of the shipwreck. The enrollment papers for the Etta Belle confirmed the exact dimensions of the sunken vessel and some additional details relating to owners and vessel registration.
Exploring the sunken remains of the Schooner Etta Belle
Dan Scoville made his first dive to the schooner in November 2003. Along with extra tanks of air, he carried an underwater video camera to document the remains of the shipwreck below. The visibility of the water at that time of year was exceptional, allowing him to see the faint outline of almost the entire length of the ship as he descended to the bottom. The video camera began to record his descent. The railings and deck of the ship first appeared followed by a view of the ships’ holds, and a spare mast lying on the deck. Next, came a view of the winch, a length of chain, and two large anchors. THEN, the camera jammed and stopped working. The video recording of the schooner, at that point, had amounted to less than one minute, but the first images of the shipwreck were absolutely spectacular. It would be another six months before Dan was able to return for his next look at this fine example of a fresh water shipwreck.
During the 2004 season, the condition of the schooner was video recorded several times. The ship sits evenly on the bottom with the bow slightly raised upward. Both of the ships’ anchors are still firmly in place on deck at the bow. The holds are filled to capacity with coal. This schooner had two masts, both of which fell away and off of the ship to lay on the port side of the stern. The sails, have long since disintegrated. A small cabin existed at one time that was about 10 ft long and stretched across the starboard to port side of the ship. A four by six inch hole was discovered on the port side of the schooner just one foot under the water line and four feet from the bow. The cause of the leak was most likely caused by a puncture to the side of the ship. The schooner appears to have gone down stern first, as there is extensive damage in the stern area. The cabin roof has since collapsed down into the area of the cabin floor. The ships’ rudder broke loose and lies just under the ships’ wheel along with portions of the stern railing and other debris. The entire ship is encrusted with zebra mussels, but the 152-year-old wooden shipwreck, the schooner Etta Belle, is still a beautiful sight to see.
A unique shipwreck discovery for this area of Lake Ontario
The Etta Belle may be the oldest commercial cargo-carrying schooner discovered in this area. There have been only a few notable shipwreck discoveries off the southern shore of Lake Ontario. The lake depths often exceed several hundred feet only a few miles from the southern shoreline. Shipwrecks located in these depths are beyond the range of recreational divers and require costly search and support equipment. The last schooner discovered in this area was the St. Peter, located in 1971 by SCUBA divers Bob Bristol and Tom Mulhall near Pultneyville, NY.
About the exploration team
Jim Kennard has found over 200 shipwrecks during the past 30 years and explored the Great Lakes, Lake Champlain, NY Finger Lakes, and the Inland Waterways. Using his experience as an electronics engineer, he built the side scan sonar system used to locate many of the undiscovered ships that sank in those waters. His discovery in 1983, with partner Scott Hill, of a unique horse powered ferryboat in Lake Champlain was featured the October 1989 issue of National Geographic magazine.
Dan Scoville is an experienced cave and "technical" diver. He utilizes custom gas mixtures of oxygen, helium, and nitrogen to dive to depths of over 300 feet. Scoville is the owner of StealthDive, a Rochester New York based company, specializing in the manufacture of underwater lighting and SCUBA diving accessories.