The lady in the lake—and the man who must have her
The lady in the lake—and the man who must have her
If she were raised tomorrow, those who have seen her say she wouldn’t even need a new coat of paint. The icy waters of Lake Superior have protected her so well that for 66 years the luxury yacht Gunilda has not seen the light of day nor allowed anyone to claim her treasure. She lies silent at a depth of 300 feet, pitted between a range of underwater mountains, guarded by treacherous undercurrents, refusing to yield a cargo that has caused one man’s death while tormenting and frustrating others. When she sank in the summer of 1911, the Gunilda was a white-painted copper-fitted beauty carrying, they say, $300,000 in English china and silver, $500,000 in money and jewels, and cases of rare wines and liquors. Today she’s valued at $2.5 million.
For 66 years she has beckoned those who heard tales of her riches and her illfated voyage, but attempts to raise her 196foot hulk have produced little except the conviction that she and her secrets are unreachable. Some say the wreck is too deep for divers to reach safely. Others say it’s just too expensive to try to refloat the yacht. Always, though, there have been people undaunted by risk or expense, people who dreamed and schemed and dared. Through the years dozens of them have died in disastrous salvage expeditions all over the Great Lakes. Still, they keep trying. And now one of them is on the verge of taking the Gunilda and her treasure for his own.
Constructed in Scotland in 1897 at a cost of $200,000, the luxury yacht came to rest in Nipigon Bay near Copper Island, 90 miles from Thunder Bay in northern Ontario. It was during a holiday cruise in 1911 that the owner, oil multimillionaire William Lamont Harkness of Cleveland, Ohio, asserted his independence and lost his ship. He refused to pay a guide the “exorbitant” fee of $15 to steer the Gunilda through some of Lake Superior’s more hazardous sections. That was his first mistake. Then he ran aground on McGarvey Shoal. Spurning the advice of an expert salvager he hired one small tugboat to pull him free. But McGarvey Shoal is not just a shallow reef; it is the peak of an underwater mountain (local fishermen call it Old Man’s Hump), and when the tug pulled the yacht free she promptly rolled over on her side and began gulping down hundreds of gallons of water. Harkness had been so confident of an easy rescue he had not closed the hatches, portholes and companionways. Water gushed skyward, and within seconds the Gunilda was gone.
At the time, unsophisticated salvaging methods made any attempt to reach and rescue the craft impossible and, in later decades, efforts amounted to little more than a series of quick dives and even quicker trips home. It was 1967 before a dive met with some success. Two Thunder Bay brothers, Ed and Harold Flatt, managed to hook onto the Gunilda with cranes and a barge. They pulled a portion of the mast to the surface, but their equipment was far from capable of lifting the whole ship, which weighs 700 tons. The Flatts tried again the following year, but awoke one day from a stormy night ashore to find their barge smashed and most of their equipment washed overboard. The barge was repaired but the equipment was never recovered.
By 1970, interest in the Gunilda had
spread to Fred Broennle, an electrician and diving authority trained by the National Association of Underwater Instructors. He and Charles King Hague, also a top scuba expert, prepared themselves for an assault on the craft. On August 5, Broennle, his wife, Ruth, and son, Mark, along with Hague and his wife, Maria, all headed for McGarvey Shoal. For the next few days they spent long hours in unsuccessful dragging operations. Then, on the morning of August 11, Hague hooked onto something at 130 feet just as Broennle latched onto something, only much deeper.
Hague suited up immediately and, without waiting for Broennle, dove into the water. The water was rough, and the others soon lost sight of the bubbles from his air tank. Then Hague’s dive light bobbed to the surface. Broennle, panic-stricken, jumped in after him. “I really didn’t have time to think,” he says. At the 180-foot mark he stopped on a ledge and inflated his life vest to reduce the dangerous speed of his descent. But while blowing air into the vest he slipped off the ledge and tumbled downward. “I fell so fast I hit bottom in seconds,” says Broennle. “I checked my
depth gauge; it read 260. When I finally looked around the Gunilda was not more than 25 feet away.” But there was no sign of Hague. Knowing that his air was running out, Broennle tried to resurface. When he stopped at 60 feet to decompress, his air tanks had run dry. “With my tanks empty and my vest inflated I shot to the surface too fast and blacked out,” he says. Still, he tried once more to rescue his 23year-old friend. “I got down to 80 feet but my entire body ached and I couldn’t go any further.” With blood oozing from burst blood vessels in his left eye he was forced to resurface.
“My husband said he would like to die diving on a wreck and that he wouldn’t want to be recovered,” recalls Hague’s wife, Maria. “He got his wish.”
Within the next few days, says Broennle, he resolved to return to the Gunilda one day—with more deep-water knowledge and more sophisticated equipment. “I felt that the Gunilda owed me something, or maybe I felt I owed her something.” Giving up his electrical contracting business, he formed his own salvage company, Deep Diving Systems Ltd., backed by Thunder Bay businessmen Cecil Eade and Dave McBlain. Since then his company has worked steadily, developing and refining deep-water salvaging equipment for use around the world.
Finally, on July 13, 1976, six years after Hague’s death, Broennle found his body. He was patroling the Gunilda site with underwater viewing cameras when he spotted the body—right on the yacht. And now, this year, his quest for the Gunilda may be nearing its conclusion. In April he paid Lloyd’s of London (the original insurance agents) an undisclosed amount to make him owner of the Gunilda—if he can bring her to the surface. In September he will officially launch a vessel that he believes is equal to the task. It is a unique submarine, called the D.D.S. Constructor, that his company has spent $1.5 million designing and building. When submerged, it is tethered to the surface by a lifeline 3.5 inches wide and 1,800 feet long. That means it can stay underwater indefinitely and yet have freedom of movement comparable to other submarines. Already he has contracts for the Constructor on salvage operations around the world, but he has not forgotten the Gunilda. Since the sub’s umbilical cord enables it to work under ice, Broennle hopes to undertake salvage operations this winter and record the whole event on film and videotape.
Of course when his task is accomplished Broennle may well find that the Gunilda’s treasure is no more than shipwreck lore told and retold until it gained a force of its own. But he says that doesn’t matter. All he really wants is to do what he set out to do: raise a certain tonnage from a certain depth up to the surface. Without the loss of lives. “That’s very important to me,” he says. “To me that would be worth 10 treasures.” ALLAN MAKI
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