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Explorers Go Deep To Discover Lake Ontario's History

Dec 26, 2015

Left to right, Roland Stevens, Jim Kennard, and Roger Pawlowski hold up the official flag of the Explorer's Club.
Credit Provided Photo

For many years, shipwrecks were forgotten by a society that lacked a way to search for them. Today, armed with technology and experience, explorers are bringing up the rich history from waters such as Lake Ontario.

For the past 40 years, Jim Kennard of Fairport has been searching for shipwrecks around the United States, including the Great Lakes, the Finger Lakes, Lake Champlain and the Mississippi River. His latest discovery is a 19th century steamship called “The Bay State” in Lake Ontario, which he started braving only 12 years ago.

Painted by Roland Stevens, the watercolor painting of The Bay State as a whole at the bottom of Lake Ontario
Credit Roland Stevens

“We started looking in (Ontario) about 2003,” said Kennard, who has documented much of his work at www.shipwreckworld.com.  “One of the problems of why we didn’t look before is because when you get out about one or two miles, it gets pretty deep. I was a recreational diver. 135 feet is kind of the limit of a recreational diver. Around 2003, I met Dan Scoville. He was a technical diver. He could dive 300 feet, so we decided to look in the areas of Lake Ontario that were divable.”

According to Kennard, Scoville later built a remote operated vehicle, or ROV, in order to take pictures and videos of shipwrecks that were beyond their diving capabilities. The two continued searching for shipwrecks together until 2010, when Scoville moved to Texas.

That’s how the partnership between Kennard and Roger Pawlowski of Rochester started. Pawlowski became involved with shipwreck discovery in 2008.

“I always enjoyed swimming,” he said. “I was on the swim team from grade school until the end of college. I got into scuba diving and shipwrecks interested me. Jim was out of a partner and I knew him through work, so I talked to him about that and became his partner.”

According to Pawlowski, they have discovered “16 or so” wrecks together, all with complete pictures and documentation, such as a 175-year-old schooner named “Atlas” that was sunk by gale-force winds while transporting cargo to Oswego. They even have located an Air Force cargo plane that went down in the lake in 1952.

The season for hunting shipwrecks, Pawlowski said, is usually between June and September. In the fall season, inclement weather brings rough waves to the lakes - especially for infamously rough Lake Ontario.

During Kennard and Pawlowski’s runs, the ROV is a priceless tool in order to examine shipwrecks and develop video and images that they can research further. According to Pawlowski, his ROV is a submarine-like remote controlled tool that can descend about 1,000 feet and send video signals up to a computer that is on Pawlowski’s boat. Through the video recordings, the men can make still pictures and mosaics in order to help piece the ship together.

An additional piece of technology vital in the search and observations of shipwrecks is a side scan sonar. According to Kennard, the sonar can give a complete photograph of the bottom of the lake in order to help them search for wrecks or other discoveries that they might be missing.

“They were very expensive,” said Kennard. “In the ‘70s, it cost about $35,000 to $40,000.”

Luckily, Kennard is an engineer and was able to build his own sonar with surplus parts that he purchased. That machine, which lasted him about 35 years, printed out images and readings onto a piece of paper. In recent years, sonars have been developed that process the images onto a computer screen that can be easily saved. Now, Kennard has a relationship with the Swedish company Deep Vision, which supplies him with his technology.

An ROV image of the front of The Bay State as it sits in Lake Ontario.
Credit Photo Provided

From there, as with the case with “The Bay State,” they search a historical database in order to put the pieces together and find out how the ship sank in the first place. According to Kennard, he and Pawlowski have pieced together that the ship, built in Buffalo in 1862, sank in a historical gale in November of that year during a voyage from Oswego to Cleveland.

None of the ships are brought up from the bottom of the lake. According to Pawlowski, the remnants of the ships would deteriorate if exposed to the fluctuating temperatures and oxygen above water.

Even after a ship is identified and the cause of sinking is determined, the work isn’t finished. From there, Roland ‘Chip’ Stevens of Pultneyville, a watercolor artist who has been working with Pawlowski and Kennard for the past four years, will piece together sonar images and ROV videos to create a painting of what the ships look like as a whole. Stevens attended the University of Rochester and Syracuse University for architecture, but he has been painting as a hobby for about 60 years.

“I retired from being an architect 13 years ago,” said Stevens. “I was looking for something more interesting to do.”

After underwater images and video are gathered by Pawlowski and Kennard’s equipment, Stevens makes a sketch and composite of the entire ship based on what he sees from the sonar scans and ROV images. Stevens is self-taught in “plein air” painting, or painting that is done outdoors rather than in a studio.

“Chip will take some of our videos because a lot of times you can’t video the whole ship,” said Kennard. “He’ll take pieces of the video and put them together in his mind and draw the ship and how it looks entirely.”

“I love to do it,” said Stevens. “It’s a passion. It’s a hobby. Jim and Roger look for hours.”

After Stevens is finished painting, which usually takes him one to two days, the paintings are hung in his at-home studio. Stevens’ paintings, which include shipwrecks, historical paintings and landscapes, can also be found in the Artisan’s Loft of Pultneyville and the Williamson Free Public Library.

“When you’re trying to write the final chapter on what the ship looks like now, I think it adds a lot to the story,” said Kennard.

In addition to preserving the history in the form of Stevens’ paintings, Kennard also writes reports and submits them to the Explorer’s Club, to which he belongs. Based in New York City, the Explorer’s Club celebrates all discoveries and inventions in the various fields of science, history and anthropology.

“The top explorers of the world are in there,” said Kennard. “Sylvia Earle, Bob Ballard… It’s kind of fun to be associated with a group like that. I think what I do is a mini-expedition of what these people are doing and it’s fun to be associated with them.”

According to executive director Will Roseman, the Explorer’s Club was started in 1904 by early Arctic explorers. It quickly expanded to accept any man or woman involved in exploration and field sciences as a member. Today, there are approximately 3,500 members.

The work of Pawlowski, Kennard and Stevens  “really is extraordinarily important,” Roseman said. “It gives insight to what happened or what went wrong. It could lead to areas to protect men and women on the seas today. Finding them (shipwrecks) is important because it gives insight into the past and helps us plan for the future.”

“It’s a passion and a hobby,” said Pawlowski. “We have a good time out there.”

This story by Caitlin Murphy is part of a journalism collaboration between WXXI and St. John Fisher College, giving aspiring student journalists the opportunity to report on and create stories for WXXI listeners, viewers, readers.