N45° 23.011 W83° 26.115
MAX DEPTH: 185ft / 56m
LENGTH: 115ft / 35m
On October 20, 1854, the schooner Defiance was sailing through a foggy Lake Huron night south to Buffalo, New York. Just after one o’clock in the morning, the wooden two-master crashed into the brig J.J. Audubon. Both vessels were fatally injured and sank within a few miles of one another, halfway between Presque Isle & Thunder Bay Island.
Today, the Defiance is remarkably preserved with its two masts still standing and little damage to the hull. Built in 1848, the schooner is a rare and intact example of mid-nineteenth century ship construction. The relatively small size and bluff “apple cheeked” bow are hallmarks of early schooners on the Great Lakes.
The story of the Defiance and Audubon capture a dramatic moment during the 1850s when the push for speed on the Great Lakes led to more wrecks than ever before. In the fall of 1854, ship owners and sailors were reeling from the most costly season to date: 119 lives, 70 ships and 2 million dollars in property losses.
In the 1800s, Lake Huron’s 'upbound' and 'downbound' sailing routes converged as they passed Thunder Bay. Ships passed dangerously close to each other as they tried to shave valuable time off their voyages. The drive for greater profit also resulted in faster vessels, like the brig John J. Audubon. In 1854, the brand-new ship sailed from Chicago to Buffalo in an impressive five days. Before the year was over, however, Lake Huron’s tight sailing lanes and the Audubon’s own speed would prove a tragic combination.
Built in 1848, the Defiance hauled corn and wheat for six years before meeting its tragic demise in Thunder Bay. At 115 feet, the two-masted schooner had a gross tonnage of 253 tons and was relatively small for a cargo vessel of the time. The press for speed and profit encouraged risk-taking, such as sailing blind on a foggy night.
On October 20, 1854, the Audubon sailed north to Chicago with a load of iron railroad track. At 1:30 a.m., the southbound Defiance emerged from the darkness and fog, striking the Audubon’s mid-section. In spite of the speed with which both vessels sank, lifeboats were deployed and both crews survived.
Today, the Defiance rests intact in 185 feet of water, quite literally frozen in time. The Audubon lies only a few miles away. World-renowned explorers Dr. Robert Ballard and Jean-Michel Cousteau have studied the pair of wrecks, helping to bring national attention to these underwater historical treasures.
Rising nearly 90 feet above the deck, the foremast cross-trees make for a convenient and exciting first decompression stop after diving the schooner Defiance. Resting in 180 feet of water, the schooner is one several dozen “technical depth” shipwrecks sites in the Thunder Bay area.
With a small, poorly ventilated cabin entirely below decks, the Defiance crew did their cooking on deck. Remnants of an enclosure can be seen collapsed around the cook stove.
This simple companionway led to the Defiance’s small cabin, which is entirely below decks. The schooner’s capstan can be seen just forward of the companionway.
This view of Defiance’s aft deck reveals the amazing state of preservation possible in the Lake Huron’s cold, fresh water.
This small skylight allowed for some ventilation and light to the cabin below. Notably, in 2005 the fragile skylight cover was in place, but it has since been removed. To safeguard the recreational, archeological and historical value of historic shipwrecks, Michigan state law prohibits altering the wreck or removing artifacts. Shipwrecks within the Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary are also protected by federal regulations.
In 2010, NOAA archaeologists documented the schooner Defiance using hand drawn maps and photomosaics. The products from that survey contributed to the creation of this 3D model and established baseline data from which future changes at the site can be monitored.
Built in 1848, the Defiance has a bluff 'apple cheek' bow, typical of early Great Lakes schooners.