Thursday, August 22, 2013

An interview with Ross Richardson, discoverer of the Westmoreland

I recently spoke by phone with Ross Richardson, a diver who, in 2010, located the wreckage of the Westmoreland, a ship that sank in Lake Michigan in December 1854 during its final run of the year between Chicago and Buffalo. After the Westmoreland left Milwaukee on December 6, a winter storm battered the ship, causing it to plunge into the icy waters near the Manitou Islands, off the Lower Peninsula’s northwest coast. Only half of the 34 people on board survived.

For nearly 150 years, explorers searched for the wreck, and not simply out of curiosity. Rumors swirled that, along with its cargo of winter provisions for residents of Mackinac Island, the Westmoreland had contained a fortune in gold coins, as well as a couple hundred barrels of whiskey. Beginning in 1872 and continuing through the 21st century, dozens of divers plied the waters near the Manitou Islands, searching for the ship and its legendary treasure. (One of those divers was a man named Jim Sawtelle, who searched for the Westmoreland in 1957, and who would play a small role in Richardson's discovery over 50 years later.) Though some claimed to have found the Westmoreland, no one could provide proof...until Richardson began his search in 2010.

Ross Richardson

Richardson, a Lake Ann resident who had long been interested in shipwrecks and had even learned to dive so that he could explore them, first read about the Westmoreland in a book called "Shipwreck!" by David Swayze. "I thought it would be a really interesting ship to find," Richardson said. "It's uncommon to have a cargo of treasure in the Great Lakes." Richardson began researching the ship while taking part in other shipwreck-related projects and discoveries. In the summer of 2010, equipped with a boat and a side-scan sonar that gave him a search range of 360 feet to each side, Richardson hit the lake to begin his hunt. What he found led him to create a website ( and to write a book ("The Search for the Westmoreland") about his discovery. Our interview starts near the beginning of Richardson's search on July 7, 2010.
How did you search for the wreck?
"Shipwreck hunting is very slow and methodical; we call it 'mowing the lawn.' You set up a search grid and travel down it at about four miles an hour. Then you come back at a parallel line. It's very tedious; you can spend years looking before you even find a shipwreck. It's not everybody’s cup of tea."
Tell us about how you found the Westmoreland.
“I found it at the beginning of the third square mile I looked at after starting the search. It’s really remarkable to find a shipwreck that quickly. I’ve been involved in searches for airplanes and other ships, and sometimes we looked at over 100 square miles before we found anything.
"It was a nice summer day, and it was pretty calm. I was by myself; I do most of my searching by myself. I had just started another run when I ran over this unmistakable shape. I knew immediately it was a ship. It was in 200 feet of water, and I was kind of stunned.

Sonar image of the Westmoreland (bottom), with comparison photograph of a similar ship above
(no known photographs exist of the Westmoreland)

“I grabbed my phone and called Jim Sawtelle. We’d become friends over the past few years, and I said, ‘Jim, I got this target.’ He said, ‘When you get back to that area again, run it over a few more times.’ The images ended up being pretty stunning. They showed a large ship with hogging arches, which are basically suspension bridges built over the hull of a ship to give it strength. I called Jim back and said, ‘This looks really good.’ I knew I had to dive it and film it.” 
Image of the Westmoreland, with its hogging arches (located in the center of the picture)
At that point, what did you do?
“I went back on July 10 with an underwater video camera that I had bought on eBay for 99 bucks. It was just me and my brother on the boat. He can barely swim, so at this point, I’m about as ‘by myself’ as I can get in the water. We dropped down the grapple, which is a metal hook that snagged the ship. I geared up and got the camera ready to go.
“The big thing was that I didn’t know what I was going to see when I was down there. I didn’t know where we’d snagged into the wreck. I went down the line, close to 200 feet deep, and looked below. My first sight was of the bow of this giant ship, and I was like, ‘Oh, man.’ I stopped for a minute and caught my breath. I wanted to go back toward the stern and film the hogging arches. If I could film them, I could prove the wreck was the Westmoreland. After about a minute, I could see the hogging arches, upright in this great ship.
“The 1874 explorers said they had salvaged the engine and boiler, but I had my doubts about [whether they had done so] because the wreck was so deep; at that point in time, divers had only a 130-foot depth range. I went back farther, and toward the stern I saw the engine, the engine cylinder head, the boiler, and the four lifeboat cranes still on the back, standing upright.

“I was heading toward the stern and about to turn around, when slowly this big ship’s wheel appeared. Man, it was just beautiful. It was fully attached, no spokes were missing. I knew then that this ship was a virgin [i.e., had never been explored], because if anyone had been down there, they would have cut that wheel off and put it in their living room so fast.
“At that point, I looked down at my computer and saw that two-thirds of my breathing gas was gone. I was only halfway through my dive, and two-thirds of my life support was gone, so I hauled it back to the upline. It was one of the most scary things I’ve ever been through in my life.
“These shipwrecks, they’re like underwater haunted houses. They’re very creepy. You’re down there by yourself, everything’s dark, you’re so far away from everything else. If something happens, there’s nothing you can do.”
What was running through your mind once you realized you’d found the Westmoreland?
“That was probably one of the most amazing times in my life. I love shipwrecks, so to do something like that was like landing on the moon. It would be like, if baseball was your passion, hitting a grand-slam home run to win the World Series.”
How did you reveal your news about having found the wreck?
“It opened up an interesting dilemma. I had found a virgin wreck, which I wasn’t expecting, and it was one that might contain ten to twenty million dollars in gold coins. My worst nightmare would be to hear that another diver had found it and was now a millionaire, living in the Cayman Islands. I was very nervous that other people might be looking for it, so I did a press release to claim the shipwreck as ‘mine.’ I also created a website because, being a history buff, I wanted to share the wreck’s history with people.”
What else did you do after you found the Westmoreland?
“I teamed up with a dive buddy who was a very skilled diver, and we explored the shipwreck, looking for the safe. We were ‘going for the gold.’ I wanted to document the wreck, but I also wanted to go over every surface of it to make sure there wasn’t a chest of gold there. If there was, I think we both would have faded into the sunset with it.”
So, you didn’t find any gold?
“We didn’t find any gold.”
What’s going on now with the Westmoreland? Has anyone else been diving it?
“Only close friends of mine have dived it. I’m keeping the location [of the wreck] to myself. When I wrote the book, I originally included the [global positioning] numbers so that other people could dive it, but everybody told me, ‘No, don’t give the numbers out.’ The night before the publisher sent the book to the printers, I called them up and said, ‘Pull the numbers out,’ and they did.

“Very few people are interested in diving that wreck, anyway. It’s a decompression dive. To me, the most significant thing about the wreck is its history, and that’s why I wrote a book about it.”

Richardson's book, "The Search for the Westmoreland"
What’s next for you?
“I’m writing my second book, which is going to be along the lines of my website. It’ll deal with missing people, planes, and ships in the Michigan region. I have a friend who’s a retired Traverse City detective, and in the 1970s his parents disappeared in a plane somewhere over Michigan. They haven’t been found yet, and it’s the craziest thing. This plane probably crashed in the woods somewhere, and you wouldn’t think that there’s a place in the Lower Peninsula where people could be in a plane for thirty years and not be found. It fascinates me that there are still things out there in Michigan that haven’t been discovered.”
I probably know the answer to this question already, but what is your favorite place to visit, or your favorite thing to do, in Michigan?
“I would say exploring. There’s so much to explore, so much to see on land, so much diversity. Then, when you get out in the water, there’s another entire planet that’s been unexplored. For me, Michigan is the perfect place because you can explore right outside your door. You can find something that no one else has found before. It’s really quite a place.”

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For more information:

Richardson has posted his footage of the Westmoreland on YouTube. It's AMAZING... I got shivers down my spine watching it. Here it is:

Richardson has also posted other videos on his YouTube channel, nmiwrecks. Be sure to check them out!

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