Taking a boat ride along the coast of Grand Traverse Bay, there are some sights you expect to see: Sandy beaches. Cherry orchards and wineries. Tourists enjoying the water. But what you might not expect are all the sights you could find below the water’s surface.
TRAVERSE CITY—Grand Traverse Bay is home to dozens of known shipwrecks, spanning from the early 1800s to the late 1900s. Now a popular vacation area, the bay was once a hub for commerce and maritime trade—and like most trade routes, this one has a storied past.
Every Wednesday, we’ve explored the history in our series: Shipwrecks of Grand Traverse Bay. This is the fifth and final story in the lineup—a story of a ship that tripped the tow and disappeared beneath the waves.
Built in 1906, this 93-foot-long steel tugboat began as the General G.M. Sorrel. It also had many other names over its long life. After the Sorrel came the McAllister Brothers, and then the North American. But when Captain John Selvick bought the 63-year-old boat in 1969, it became known as the Lauren Castle.
Selvick owned the ship for 11 more years. A Chicago native, he worked mainly in the Great Lakes region.
On Nov. 5, 1980, Selvick and three crew members used the ship to tow a larger tanker ship, the Amoco Wisconsin. It should have been a routine procedure—one that the Lauren Castle had done many times.
Starting from Omena Bay at the top of the Leelanau Peninsula and going south to Traverse City, it was a short trip down the Grand Traverse Bay coastline. But about halfway to Traverse City, the Amoco Wisconsin began to move independently of the tugboat. In a move known as “tripping the tow,” which similar to when a trailer jackknifes behind a truck, the Lauren Castle swerved and lost control.
The tugboat smashed into the hull of the Amoco Wisconsin. Its stern dipped below the water—just a moment, but that was all it took. The crew cut the tow cable, but they were past the point of no return. The tugboat briefly resurfaced, then dove back down, and within seconds it vanished below the waves.
Only one of the four crew members survived.
The ship sank 400 feet below the surface, seven miles north of Traverse City off the west coast of the Old Mission Peninsula. It remained undisturbed and unknown for 19 years, until it was discovered in 1999 by Thaddius Bedford—now a member of the Grand Traverse Bay Underwater Preserve Council. In 2010, a team from Northwestern Michigan College dove to the wreck and captured video of the Lauren Castle.
At 400 feet below the surface, there isn’t much light—but divers who make it there can find it mostly intact. Zebra mussels now cover the wreck. There are still glass window panes intact in the pilothouse, despite all the instruments inside having long gone under zebra mussel control. Under the mussels are layers upon layers of paint, each from a different time in the boat’s life. The cabin door is wide open.
For more information on shipwrecks in the area, the Grand Traverse Bay Underwater Preserve, which works to preserve these historic shipwrecks and promote education about them, is a great resource. Click here for information and locations of many more shipwrecks.
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