Thursday, September 12, 2013

Michigan-made ship makes "Titanic" history

As of September 1, 1985, oceanographer Robert Ballard had spent about a decade of his life trying to discover where RMS Titanic---history's most famous sunken ship---had plunged to the bottom of the North Atlantic. The location of the vessel, which struck an iceberg and sank on the morning of April 15, 1912 during its maiden voyage from Southampton, U.K. to New York City, had confounded investigators for over seventy years. Ballard himself had made a previous attempt to locate the ship with no success, and was now nearing the end of another expedition that he hoped would reveal the Titanic's final resting place. Ballard had started working with a French ship, Le Suroit, in August of 1985, but that ship had been reassigned, so on that fateful September day, the scientist was aboard the Knorr, a research vessel owned by the United States Navy.

As the Knorr plied the North Atlantic's frigid waters, it dragged behind it a remote-controlled deep-sea vehicle known as "Argo," which was equipped with cameras and sonar technology. The ship traveled methodically over the ocean's surface until, suddenly, Argo's camera showed something strange---crater-like pockmarks that were likely formed by objects hitting the ocean floor. As scientists watched on screens aboard the Knorr, Argo next projected images of a boiler and, to everyone's elation, the hull of a huge ship that could only be the Titanic  Ballard and his crew had made history---and had done so on the Knorr, a ship built in Michigan.

Research Vessel (R/V) Knorr

R/V Knorr was the product of Bay City-based Defoe Shipbuilding Company, which from 1905 to 1976 created watercraft for a variety of purposes. When Harry Defoe started the business, it built boats primarily for business and pleasure use. As World War II approached, the company won a number of Navy contracts, and also built a few Great Lakes freighters. (Ed. note: The Escanaba, which I've written about in a previous post, "Grand Haven's Fallen Ship, the Escanaba," was built by the Defoe Shipbuilding Company.) Eventually, the Navy contracts stopped coming, and the company went out of business. Its former location is now a scrapyard.

The Knorr was launched in 1968 and, though owned by the Navy, eventually went to the Massachusetts-based Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI), which operates vessels for research purposes. It traveled the Atlantic, assisting in various scientific explorations, until 1985, when Ballard stepped aboard to search for---and ultimately find---the Titanic.

The search team aboard the Knorr, after locating the Titanic

The Knorr's post-Titanic career has been an active one. From 1989 through 1991, the ship underwent a complete overhaul. Then, from 2005 to 2006, the Knorr was fitted with a long coring system that lets it extract sediment from deep below the ocean's surface. The ship maintains an active schedule of research projects on both sides of the Atlantic. As of this writing, the ship is assisting with research on Greenland's southwest coast. Not bad for a little ship from Bay City, Michigan.

More information:

The Knorr was named after Ernest R. Knorr, who in 1860 was the chief engineer cartographer in the U.S. Navy Hydrographic Office. (Try saying that three times, fast.)

In addition to the Knorr and the Escanaba, the Defoe Shipbuilding Company created a number of notable vessels. These include:
*The Knorr's sister ship, the Melville, which was featured in the 1976 film, "King Kong"
*The USS Rich, which was sunk by mines on June 8, 1944 while assisting in the invasion of Normandy
*The USS PC-1129, which was sunk by a Japanese suicide boat in the China Sea on January 31, 1945
*The Lenore, a yacht built for retail magnate Montgomery Ward in 1931; the boat was later pulled into military use during World War II, and in 1956 became a Presidential yacht

The WHOI offers real-time information regarding the Knorr's current location. Check out this link to learn where the Knorr is currently assisting with scientific research: Where is Knorr now?

Here's a video taken at the exact moment the Titanic was discovered on September 1, 1985 (to find the link, scroll to the bottom of the page, then look on the right side): Titanic: The Moment of Discovery

Want to see what life on the Knorr is like? Check out this YouTube clip:

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