The Wreck of the Francisco Morazan

Note*** Photos taken while kayaking around the wreck of the Francisco Morazan are by Jordi Lucero (my waterproof camera has met an untimely end).

Wind played with my hair as I gazed out at Lake Michigan from the bow of the ferry bound for South Manitou island.  Two years ago my brother, David and I made the same crossing.  What we found on the other side of that boat ride was an isolated island, frozen in time with remnants of its past lives scattering its shores.  It was a place where we could truly feel alone and unhindered; free to roam and explore as we pleased.  Now we were headed back with our other brother, Caleb, David’s girlfriend, Courtney, my husband, Vince, and our friends, Bonnie and Jordi.

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When we docked at South Manitou, we listened to a short orientation intended for backpackers before taking off on the trail, our backs weighed down with camping gear.  We didn’t bother to pack light for this trip since camp was less than a mile from the dock.  In fact, we had a kayak in tow for the intended highlight of the weekend:  reaching the wreck of the Francisco Morazan.

The SS Francisco Morazan was a cargo ship that ran aground 300 yards away from the south shore of South Manitou Island in November of 1960.  Everyone on board the ship was safely rescued, but the Morazan was deemed unsalvageable.  The ship can still be seen from the beach today, and is inhabited by a rather large cormorant colony.  When David and I backpacked the island in 2015, we had plans to attempt to swim out to the wreck, but failed due to uncooperative weather and frigid lake temperatures.  This time we were equipped with Jordi’s kayak, a life jacket, and some rope we could use to tow swimmers behind vessel.  We had also picked a weekend later in the summer in hopes of warmer water.

It was a challenge just to reach the wreck while portaging a kayak through three miles of forest trails.  We took turns lugging the boat along the trail, and we knew we were close when the pungent stench of the Morazan accosted our nostrils.  Even from high on the bluff overlooking the beach, one can smell the odor of hundreds of seabirds’ excreta baking in the blistering July sunlight.  Now we were at the top of a steep promontory, gazing down at the enticing yet repulsive oxymoron of a shipwreck, and wondering if swimming in this water was really something we wanted to do.

After a brief discussion, we decided that we didn’t drag the kayak three miles from camp just to stare at the Morazan from a distance, so Vince, Jordi, and I carefully began to lower the kayak down the treacherous hill.  This was, thankfully, easier than it looked, and we were soon standing on a narrow beach, planning how we would go about reaching the Morazan.  Vince and Jordi came up with a plan to split up into pairs, with one person kayaking, and one being towed behind in the water.  As they talked logistics, and began tying up a tow rope, I stared at the gray hull looming in the distance.  The excrement running down its side seemed derivative of Jackson Pollock’s work, but the odorous breeze wafting to shore took away any notion that I was staring a piece of fine art.

The more I thought about it, the more I realized I was coming dangerously close to losing my nerve.  Dangling from the side of a cliff on a rope is one thing, but swimming in a pool of cormorant feces?  Where exactly should I start drawing lines?  I knew that if I thought about it much longer I was sure to back out.  I looked at Jordi, who was gearing up to be the first kayaker and said, “Well, I guess let’s get going,” securing my place as the first swimmer before my better judgment had the opportunity to catch up with me.  I zipped on the life jacket, grabbed my diving fins, and the two of us dragged the kayak into the water.

Any worries about the temperature were completely replaced with the fear of contracting swimmer’s itch or giardia, so I didn’t balk at all once submerged in the churning water.  We made good time closing the distance between us and the wreck, and with the help of my fins, I was mostly able to keep up with Jordi.  Soon we were paddling in the shadow of the Morazan, feeling the icy glares of the sentinel shorebirds, leerily guarding their nests above us.

© Jordi Lucero

The wreck was imposing from this close.  We paddled in the fracture between the bow and the rest of the ship, gaping at the steely bowels of the once-great behemoth.  Waves rolled through the inner workings of the Morazan, smashing threateningly against the walls, and causing the stern to give a heaving shudder with every blow.  We paddled around the wreck, staying on the side nearest to shore for fear of being pummeled by waves.  We didn’t know Caleb was following us until he was practically on top of us.  Rather than wait for a kayak ride, he had opted to free swim out to join us, and he appeared suddenly, said a few words before touching the ship’s hull, then turned tail just as quickly.

© Jordi Lucero

This was when Jordi decided that he wanted to get in the water and try to look around with a snorkel mask.  We secured the kayak to the boat as best as we could with the tow rope, and Jordi hopped out into the lake.  Soon however, he realized what I already knew, which was that swimming in murky water full of bird droppings is less than ideal.  It wasn’t five minutes before he was ready to get back in his kayak.  Unfortunately for both of us, the kayak had filled with water while we had our backs turned, and all attempts to get him back on board the vessel resulted in it flooding with even more water.  It was a comical sight; Jordi finally got back into the boat, but the seat was almost completely submerged.  Try as he may to bail the water out with his snorkel mask, he could make no headway, and I realized that the only thing stopping the kayak from joining the shipwrecks at the bottom of the lake was the air in its dry compartment, which also contained all of my camera equipment.

“It’s not going to work,” I said, “We’re going to have to tow it back.”  Jordi relented that the cause was indeed lost, and hopped back into the water.  Our next problem was that the tow rope was a little more secure than we had intended.  I struggled to try to free it for a minute, but with no progress, so Jordi passed me his dive knife, and I cut the kayak free.  I grabbed what was left of the rope and started pulling.  Jordi clung to the side of the kayak, doing his best to help propel it forward, but I took the lead since I was the one with the life jacket and dive fins.

The trip back to shore was much slower, but we eventually made it, greeted by quizzical faces from the rest of the group as we filled them in on our misadventure.  Vince and Bonnie geared up, and managed to make the paddle without incident, and when they returned we hiked back up the bluff, eager to get back in the forest where we could take a deep breath without having to smell the Morazan.

We spent the rest of the weekend at a slower pace, hiking to other points of interest on the island, like the old growth cedar forest, and the abandoned farm houses scattered about the north side of the island.  We also spent some time relaxing on the beach and laughing at the antics of the bold chipmunks that terrorize the island, and I managed to fit in some birdwatching, catching sight of a piping plover and her two chicks.  It was a mellow way to wrap up all of the excitement, and it was nice to not be in a hurry for a little while.

Thanks for reading!  It will be a few weeks before my next update as my next trip is taking me to a remote area with no wifi, data, etc, but afterwards I will be back with more stories!

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