Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Running aground in mid-lake

kw: musings, observations, geography

When I was living in Ohio, almost right on Lake Erie, one of my high school teachers told this tale: He was an avid SCUBA diver, and went to tropical oceans whenever he could afford it. He practiced in various locations in western Lake Erie, usually west of the islands between Sandusky and Point Pelee, Ontario. There is a lot of small-to-medium boat traffic between the islands themselves, but little where he usually goes.

One day, he was no more than twenty feet down (about as deep as one can go in the area) when he heard quite a crunch. He surfaced quickly, to find a rather impressive yacht no more than two hundred yards away, not far from where his own boat was anchored. It was stuck on a "reef", actually a shallow rock outcrop. He swam over to offer help. It didn't take long to rock the boat off the reef.

He showed us a newspaper article that appeared a couple days later, in which the president of the Rocky River Yacht Club (RR is a little West of Cleveland) thanked an unnamed diver for helping him "after his yacht struck an underwater object". "If he'd looked at a chart, he'd have seen that the area was full of shallow reefs, no more than four feet down. The 'underwater object' was the bottom of Lake Erie!" he told us.

I happened to remember this story recently when using Google Maps to look for aerial views of places I've lived. In this view of western Lake Erie, you can see the shallow section, all of the lake west of Point Pelee (the "thorn" of the north shore). The average depth in the greenish area is six feet (less than 2m). A few areas (more bluish) go as deep as twenty feet; the orangey colored area is the "reef" complex where the yacht ran aground.

I have fond memories of living near Lake Erie. I worked a few summers at Cedar Point (almost invisible at this scale, but due south of the largest island shown). In the early-to-mid 1960s it was just getting safe to swim in the lake, after the old sewer outlets were replaced by 2- and 3-stage sewer systems starting about 1960. Raw sewage was formerly "disposed" directly into the lake five miles offshore, particularly by Cleveland. The lake is in much better shape now.

But the water is still too shallow to go yachting in much of western Lake Erie!

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