Diving the EMBA

By Duane Johnson, Precision Diving

As October approached, I knew that our days to dive Lake Michigan were numbered. My dive buddies, Rob Zwissler and Dave Lent, wanted to have one more big dive in Lake Michigan before the weather completely shut it down for the year. I hadn’t had a chance to dive with Rob and Dave much this year—all of us had had the usual stuff creep up in our lives and our schedules would never line up. We looked at a couple charters still going out this time of the year and saw that Shipwreck Explorers, operated by Captain Jitka Hanakova, had an opening for us. We booked it.

The Dive Day Begins
Our departing port was in Milwaukee, WI. Coming from the Chicago (and suburbs) area is a drive, even very early in the morning. I got there 10 minutes late, but as usual, Dave had a hard time getting out of bed and Rob had to stop for his Grande Mocha Frap-Espresso-Latte. So they were 15 minutes behind me. Fortunately, we had the entire boat to ourselves, but it put Jitka on a tight schedule as she had another charter later that day. The plan was to do one dive on the EMBA and another on the St. Albans.

Once I got to the parking lot, I quickly unloaded all of Rob and Dave’s tanks (which they had gotten to me earlier in the week to fill) and started analyzing and setting up my gear. After we got our stuff analyzed, put together, and loaded on the boat, we were only 30 minutes behind schedule.

The conditions on the lake weren’t as bad as the forecast. We had 2- to 3-foot rollers instead of the normal chop. Jitka had put a lot of modifications on her boat, the Molly V, since last year. Most noticeable was the increase in speed; it didn’t take us long to get to the EMBA, but it was still a little bumpy and I got a free spinal adjustment out of it.

Into the Darkness
As usual, I was the first one to get dressed and geared up. Rob and Dave gear up at the same pace as mating turtles. So I waited until they started getting into their rigs before I got into mine—and I was still the first one to get into the water. We pulled our way to the mooring line and started our descent into the darkness.

Diving the EMBA
The EMBA was formerly known as the A.C. Tuxbury and sits upright in 170 feet of water about seven miles offshore from Milwaukee. The EMBA is a three-masted wooden schooner barge that sank in December 1932, when it was scuttled. One of the cool features of the EMBA is its tower and elevator system, which were used to load cargo onto the ship.

Thanks to a mostly cloudy day, it started getting dark at around 60 feet. The water temperature was an unseasonably warm 52°F from top to bottom. The mooring was tied into the wreck at the top of the tower, which is at 140 feet, and we barely saw it before almost crashing into it. We left the line and sank to the floor to view the rudder. The view of the stern is impressive. With its flat deck and large rudder, the EMBA has a unique look when compared to the other shipwrecks in the area.

After looking at the rudder for a couple of minutes, we swam up and along the ship towards the bow. While swimming along the hull, we could see the holes that were put there to sink the ship. From the bow we looked around on the deck. The decking is gone and only the support frame is showing. This allowed us to drop below the deck and swim through the cargo hold. At the time of its sinking, the EMBA was carrying rocks, which were used accelerate the sinking of the ship. Fifteen minutes into the dive, Rob and I switched off the bottom stages to back gas for the remaining five minutes. We swam back towards the mid-ship and looked around the base of the tower. There are winches, with chains still intact on the wreck’s deck and are pretty cool to see. At 20 minutes, we thumbed the dive and looked forward to the 30 minutes of deco to get us to the surface. We ascended up the tower. The tower structure is very unique and is still intact. On this tower, there is an elevator system that was used to load and unload its cargo. Its support structure is still whole with a ladder running the full height of the tower. Having this type of structure to ascend made our deep stops much more interesting than just staring at each other.

After the Dive
Our deco was uneventful. The wave action on the surface didn’t feel like much, but underwater it sure moved us around a bit. At 20 feet, you could still feel the surge of ups and downs. So I chose to do my last stop around 22 feet where it was more comfortable. After clearing deco, we slowly made our way to the surface at the back of the boat where Jitka was waiting to take our bottles and help us get back onto the boat. Due to the cloudy day, visibility wasn’t very good at depth and I wasn’t able to get any good video. There’s always next time.

All of us had a little bit of water in our suits. For Rob and Dave, it was enough to scrap the next dive. Being the hardcore Great Lakes diver that I am, I was willing to do the second dive. But not having anyone to dive with, I reluctantly agreed to scrap the second dive. Instead, we hit the Brat Stop on the way home for lunch, where I was able to pick up some Spotted Cow beer, and Jitka was able to get back on schedule for her day. All of us had a great time diving the EMBA to close out the 2009 Lake Michigan diving season. Thanks to Jitka for running a great boat. I’m looking forward to next year.

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