Photo: Erik Foreman examines the stern auxiliary wheel at 350 FFW
By ADM Staff Photojournalist Mel Clark

The Carl Bradley was the largest steel freighter on the great lakes in 1957 at a length of 639 feet. Ironically enough, the year she sank, 1958, was the same year the Edmund Fitzgerald (729 feet) was put into service and took the largest freighter of record from the Bradley. The Bradley was a self-loading bulk freighter. Her home port was the small town of Rogers City, and most of her 35 man crew hailed from there. She was starting to show her age at 31 years, and was to be laid up for extensive repairs. The ship owner, U.S. Steel, claimed the Bradley was still seaworthy and ordered one last voyage before she would be docked for 800,000 worth of work. This arrogance, coupled with the choice of Captain Roland Bryan who was known as a “heavy weather man”, sealed the great freighter’s and crew’s fate. At 5:30pm on November 18th, 1958, near Beaver Island, the Carl Bradley broke up and sank.

Watchman Frank Mays survived the shipwreck along with first mate Elmer Flemming. Mayes reported that at 5:30 pm, he heard a loud bang and looked back to see the stern swinging in the waves. The two managed to get into a life raft after being flung into the frigid waters. After spending almost 15hrs in a tossing and capsizing raft they were rescued by the Coast Guard. The life rafts of the day were just that -- a raft -- not the nice new-age ocean going life vessels mariners have today.
Above: Curt McNamee and Tom Kean watch a movie to pass the long hours of deco after a dive to 380 FFW.

Below: Mel squeezes into the wheel house to get some pictures.

Second Below: Curt looking at the commemorative bell and spotlight on top of the wheel house

Over the ensuing days, only 18 bodies were recovered out of a crew of 35. To this day, there are still 15 souls missing. After diving this wreck, it is easy to imagine that some of these men may still be entombed inside. In fact, this question crossed my mind many times when we were on the wreck: How would I handle running into a dead body? I was lucky I never had to find the answer to this question during my exploration on the Bradley.

During the investigations after the sinking, in an attempt to limit their liability, the insurance company and ship owners claimed the ship was simply overcome by the storm and did not break up. Others theorized that the Carl Bradley had split in two on the surface, due to her weakened structure, and then sunk. This theory is supported by watchman Frank Mays’ eyewitness accounts of the sinking, and has been the accepted theory for over 51 years. Some articles even say the two sections are separated by 90 feet on the bottom. Armed with this information, my CCR and a Dive-Xtras scooter, I was ready to prove or disprove this theory.

The CB offers many challenges for the technical diver, and this is what intrigued me to dive her. She is a very deep wreck, sitting at 310 to 380 FFW, and to top this off she is in Lake Michigan, which is not a tropical lake. The temperature at depth was around 39 F, persisting all the way up to about 60 FFW, where the thermocline brought the temperature up to 58F.
Above: Captain’s Jitka Hanakova and Ron Benson escape boat tending duties all-be-it briefly for a dive. Here they admire the bell on top of the wheel house. The names of all the lost sailors are inscribed on the bell.
When you have over 4 hrs of decompression ahead of you, the 60 FFW mark taunts you as you slowly claw your way up to it. When you finally arrive, it is almost like entering a warm bath. This warm feeling lasts for a while, but then the reality of the 58F temperature sets in, and you realize that it is still going to be a long few hours. The other large challenge with diving the CB is that she lies 23 miles offshore, resulting in a long ride out to her resting site. The great lakes are like inland oceans with a moody temperament. There is a reason the CB and many other great freighters lie at the bottom -- the lakes can change from glassy calm to an evil tempest in a matter of hours. It is not uncommon to start your dive on a beautiful morning, and then spend hours riding a bucking decompression line. After you survive the decompression, you then have to attempt to get back on the boat with an aluminum ladder that is clearing the water with each passing wave. Finally, to add insult to injuries, after getting on the boat, you then have to spend hours fighting the weather as you return to port -- and hope to not become the next wreck on the lake! All of these challenges make the CB a wreck for the hearty technical diver. But if you should manage to surmount all of these challenges, the CB is one of the best wrecks I have been on. She is simply magnificent, and absolutely worth the risk and effort.

We met our boat Captains Jitka Hanakova, Ron Benson and first mate Lubo Valuch in Manistique Michigan and headed out to the wreck. Erik Foreman, Curt McNamee, Tom Kean and I would be the first team in. Captain Jitka and Ron would be our surface support and safety divers for today’s dive. The mooring line is attached to the port side superstructure behind the bridge and right before the loading crane. We stop to check the mooring line’s integrity before we start out to our targets. The first stop is the ship’s bell and spotlight. This wreck is now encrusted with zebra muscles. When diving it, keep this in mind, as visibility for your pictures or video can be quickly destroyed by a poorly placed fin kick. The ship’s bell was removed in 2007 by divers, and replaced by an honorary bell with the names of the 33 sailors who were lost that day. The new bell has no zebra mussels on it, and looks a bit out of place. On top of the bridge, along with the bell, you will see a huge spotlight and a radio communication antenna. On each side of the bridge roof section is a wooden plaque with the ship’s name on it. The names used to be legible, but are now completely obscured by zebra muscles. Under the name you can still make out the words, “pilot house”.
Since we are at an average depth of 340 FFW and my decompression obligation is exponentially rising, I quickly make my way back to the ship’s loading crane. The crane and its rigging are still in place as if waiting to work on the next load. If you swim under the walkway, you will see two huge spotlights with their lenses still in place on each side of the structure. Be careful when moving around this section, as there are a lot of loose cables and lines waiting to grab the unsuspecting diver.

Our time on this dive is rapidly expiring, so Erik and I hit high gear on our scooters to get a quick glimpse of the bow. It is amazing to me how these huge ships can have such a narrow, pointy bow. I get a shot of Erik at the bow and it looks as though he is in a large row boat, not a 639 foot freighter! Erik and I head back to the upline with over three hours of decompression ahead of us. As I pass over the front superstructure, I can’t help but notice all the portholes and wonder how nice they would look in my front room. Of course there is no time for such vandalism (and it is not allowed, either).

We were relatively lucky on this trip as the waters were mostly calm and we were only blown out one day. The next day we dived the stern. The mooring line had sunk over the winter, so we had to grapple the wreck, or what we thought was the wreck. We descended down the line to a barren lake floor. Determined not to be beaten, we started a search for the wreck in 380 FFW. It was an amazing sight, after our 10 minute search, to see the huge propeller and rudder towering over us. I must say the coolest effect was the shadow that the ship threw as we approached it. The stern section of the ship is suspended about 10 feet above the bottom. We would use this discovery on our next dive to prove or disprove the theory that she broke up on the surface and sank.

Above 3: A shot of Captain Jitka looking into the wheel house.
The telegraph can be seen to her right.
Above 2: Curt is dwarfed by the Carl Bradley’s massive propeller blades.
Above 1: Captain’s Jitka and Ron swim along the port side of the main deck right. The red paint and red port lantern can be still seen under all the zebra muscles.
Below: Erik posses at the bow. Even though the ship is over 639 feet in length the narrow shape of her bow in this picture make it look like a small boat!
After a quick look at the rudder and massive propeller, we moved up the stern to explore the superstructure. “Carl Bradley”, and her registered port of New York, can still be seen on the stern. There is an absolutely stunning double wheel rear steerage station on the stern. Further forward of the wheel are the engine room vents and the rear ship’s mast. I would have loved to get a chance to go into the engine room, but as we wasted over 10 minutes at 380 FFW trying to find the wreck, we needed to get back to the upline fast. Erik and Tom took off on their scooters, and Curt and I were left to swim. The irony here is that we did not hook the wreck, but we hooked the rear mooring line that had sunk. So now we were swimming and pulling along this line in a horizontal fashion for around 300 feet! After we intersected our grapple, hooked on the sunken mooring line, and released the securing carabiner, we started our 4 hour ascent.

The weather gods were still shining on us for day three, and we decided to do the bow section again. I wanted to get into the pilot house and also to determine if the wreck was separated or not. I realized this was not a realistic single dive goal, so we split the team in two. Ron, Jitka, Curt and I would get some more images of the bridge and superstructure. Erik and Tom would use their scooters and head to the break section. I was able to shimmy my way sideways into the pilot house. This was one of my most thrilling experiences, mainly due to the fact that I was packed inside a tiny space at 310 FFW. I knew if I got stuck that my time would be limited, and my life would be in grave danger. Also I knew not many (if any) people had been inside this pilot house since she sank, and this added to my excitement. Sometimes it’s great to be small! Everything was in place just as it was left that stormy night. I quickly moved around the circumference of the bridge, imaging everything in sight.

Tom and Erik, armed with their scooters, headed aft towards the break. The mystery of the CB sinking was finally solved. The ship definitely broke on the surface, but she did not split in two and sink. Instead, she split on the bottom of her keel, and the two ends of the ship stayed attached by the top deck. This can be proven by the two sections being right next to each other on the bottom. If she did split in two on the surface, the two sections would not be in line and so close together on the bottom. This also explains why the stern is lifted at the back, and not lying directly on the bottom. The ship broke on the surface and went down in a shape of a hinge on a door, with the center break section leading the way. When she hit the bottom the center break hit first and buried itself deep in the silt, resulting in the stern section being held up at a slight angle.
Below: Captain Jitka returns elated after a successful dive on the Carl Bradley.
The enormous single screw of the Carl Bradley preserved in the dark and cold depths of Lake Michigan.
Frank Mays did see the stern flopping around in the rough seas that night, but the ship was still in one piece. The ship owners and insurance company were incorrect in saying the ship was simply overcome by the storm. The CB had a weakened structure which most likely resulted in the keel breaking. I am not an official shipwreck investigator -- my conclusions are my own personal beliefs after exploring this shipwreck.

This expedition was an exceptional experience. I would recommend this dive to anyone who has the necessary experience and is hardy enough to do it. Jitka of Shipwreck Explorers runs trips out to the CB every year. Her rock solid seamanship skills will allow your dive team to enjoy this wreck with confidence. I want to thank Ron Benson for all his help and support to make this expedition happen.

Captain Jitka
Ron Benson
Below: Mel prepares to abandon ship if necessary as the weather takes a nasty turn.
Below Left: Captain Jitka and Mel
Below Middle: First mate Lubo Valuch on the back deck waiting to help the divers out.
Below Right: Ron gets ready to be dragged on the surface to find the “sub-float” that supports the stern line on it.