A Wreck Dive Gone Awry

By Michael Bratonja

I've been diving for 34 years. I have spent much of that time exploring the Great Lakes. This story takes place on one of those days when Lake Michigan was very calm; the air temperature was right around 85°F; the water was 43°F and the visibility, 15 feet. It's not exactly the Florida Keys but we like it and our wrecks are in better shape.

I sat at the back of the boat getting the last of my gear in order. With a nod, my partner and I hit the water and began our descent into the dark, lonely, cold world below. We arrived on the stern deck of the Grand Trunk Western Railroad's Milwau- kee at 90 feet. My favorite wreck, the Milwaukee is the second largest ship ever to sink in Lake Michigan. Below us were multitudes of decks going down 45 feet; her bow was 318 feet away. She remains pretty much the same as when she sank. From the bent sea gate to the twisted hull, there is clear evidence that Lake Michigan was in a real evil mood when she swatted down the Milwaukee in October of 1929.

This was a great dive for me. It was only my third dive with my new drysuit but I was smitten with it.

My problems occurred on our second dive. I entered the water with 2,000 psi remaining in my twin 80s. We found a large rip in the hull and swam in very slowly to avoid stirring up the sediment. I clipped a line to the entrance of the rip. The beams from our lights reflected off the chunks of white porcelain that had spilled from the railroad cars full of Kohler toilets and sinks. We were about 50 feet inside when we ran into a wall that shouldn't have been there. My buddy signaled he was going to try to go around it and I signaled I would descend and look for a way under it. I glanced at my gauges and noted that I still had 1,200 psi with another 1,000 in reserve.

As I reached the bottom I found what appeared to be very large wheels. I was almost 120 feet down and my mind was a little slow but I finally realized I was looking at a railroad car that had come loose.

I was having trouble maintaining my depth-I was too buoyant-so I stopped to let some air out of my suit. I even tried crouching up to squeeze air out but I was still positively buoyant. I started reeling in line as I headed for the gap. I was no longer concerned about my discoveries, I just wanted out of this overgrown steel coffin.

As I emerged into open water I felt a little better. My greatest fear has always been being trapped in a ship with nothing to do but watch my gauges go to zero. I looked around but didn't see my partner. I started for the ascent line. It was a good 100 feet ahead of me and I was really pumping those fins to stay down. I grabbed the railing that goes around the ship but since it didn't intersect with the ascent line reaching it would be a struggle.

I was breathing too fast. Halfway to the ascent line my air ran out. I yanked on my reserve but discovered it was empty. I looked at my gauge. It said Z-E-R-O! I couldn't believe it. It was a hard pill to swallow but with all my experience I had messed up.

During the next five seconds my mind processed all the facts and rushed the outcome to me. You're going to die! And on your favorite wreck, too! I spent the next 10 seconds occupied by reasons why I didn't want to go.

I tried to get my line around the rail so I could make a controlled ascent but my hands were shaking so badly I couldn't tie the line. I was sure I would have air if I ascended, since air in scuba tanks expands as ambient pressure decreases. My starving lungs interrupted this thought to explain there was no more time. Forget the line-get out! I held the rail and allowed my body to float. I wanted to be inverted so I could use my fins to slow my ascent. I let go and floated toward the surface. As I passed 80 feet I got my first good breath. I couldn't dump air from my suit in this position so I watched my gauges intently. When I hit 20 feet I quickly turned around to dump air while spreading my legs for drag. I broke the surface three feet from the line, right next to my buddy. Turning to him I asked, "Have you enough air for the two of us to do four minutes at 20 feet and four at 10?" He said, "Yes" and we started down, although I found I had plenty of air in my tanks in water this shallow.

Waiting on the line gave me time to think about my mistakes. I had never emptied my tanks before so I had no idea how buoyant they were. I had checked my buoyancy with the new suit but my tanks had been half full. My second mistake was losing track of my buddy. During the last 10 years, I had considered buddies a nuisance. I never thought I might actually need one. I also should have checked my reserve; something I used to do regularly.

Since that dive I have added six pounds to my belt and, on second dives, I strap six more onto the tanks. In hindsight, I should have passed my safety line through the rail and held it in my hand for a controlled ascent but hindsight is always 20/20.

What I had done right was not panic. I was scared but I took a second to think things through. I trusted in my training and took rational steps to get out of a dangerous situation.

Maybe some day I'll see you out there on my favorite shipwreck. I'll be the guy with the twin 120s.


Mistake number one: I hadn't accounted for the buoyancy of my tanks when empty.

Mistake number two: I lost my buddy.

Mistake number three: I didn't check the amount of air in my reserve tank.