Meet David VanZandt, a literal rocket scientist who founded Cleveland Underwater Explorers, a group of archaeologists who discover and dive shipwrecks in Lake Erie.
VanZandt and his friend Kevin Magee, both contractors for NASA, created the group they call CLUE more than 15 years ago. They research shipwrecks, pare down their locations and use side-scan sonar and magnetometers to find remnants of schooners and steamers that crisscrossed the Great Lakes centuries ago.
Lake Erie is the most treacherous of the Great Lakes because of its unpredictable weather, shallow depth and sandbars. No one knows exactly how many shipwrecks are hidden beneath the surface, but experts guess Erie might cover about 2,000 of about 8,000 wrecks in the Great Lakes.
Only 375 wrecks have been found. They are schooners, freighters, steamships, tugs and fishing boats, and thanks to the cold, fresh water, many of them are perfectly preserved.
CLUE has discovered 35 wrecks, including the steambarge Margaret Olwill in July off the coast of Lorain, after searching 60 square miles of the lake, according to the museum. The group thinks it has found the Lake Serpent lost in 1829, as well.
“It’s cool, it’s history,” said VanZandt, 64, of Lakewood. “That’s the heritage of anyone who lives near the lake. You either trekked over the ground by yourself with wagons and horses. Or you sailed. If you wanted to move a lot of stuff, and big stuff fast, you did it by sail.”
VanZandt was interested in archaeology as a kid. He earned a bachelor’s degree in nuclear engineering at Purdue University in 1981and started scuba diving when he was working for NASA in Cape Canaveral, Florida, in the mid-1990s.
When he came home, he dove in Lake Erie to see some “busted up” wrecks. He wanted to find the intact wrecks next.
Now he holds three archaeology degrees, including a master’s of maritime archaeology. He is a member of the Ohio Archaeological Council, the Association of Great Lakes Maritime History, the Great Lakes Historical Society and the Society for Historical Archaeology and regularly gives presentations on shipwrecks.
“I’m just that kind of a personality,” VanZandt said. “Once I start something it kind of spirals out of control. My wife tells me she doesn’t want me to start any projects because I have to be an expert. I used to bowl; I became a professional bowler.”
For now he’s concentrating on the wrecks.
“Each year they degrade because they’re under water,” he said. “In 10 or 15 years they might be buried. They might deteriorate more. It’s like an old building. If no one’s doing any maintenance on it, it’s going to fall apart.”
Hear why the cabins blow off shipwrecks and why you won’t find much of value underwater.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
What’s it like when you discover a shipwreck?
A lot of times it’s pure joy. You go down and dive it for the first time. It’s the feeling like when you’ve lost something around your house for a couple of years and then you finally find it. We’ve had some we found right off the bat and some that takes seven years to find and some we still haven’t found yet.
Do you have a target list?
We’ve always got a target list. We’re going after the same ships we went after last year. I’d like to tell you what they are, but I’m not. We’ll announce them when we’re done.
You do a lot of research before you actually go on the water, right?
That’s the whole secret, looking for shipwrecks. Everyone thinks we just go out the lake and look. The lake’s a big place. We just drive back and forth at the same speed, hoping we find something. It takes about two hours to search a square mile. If you’ve got a 5-by-5 mile box, that’s 50 hours of on water time.
Sometimes we research wrecks for years before we ever go out and search. It’s all digging in the libraries, digging in the archives, digging in the old newspapers. We try to lay out the charts and do all the ground work we do before we ever leave the dock. We search grids. If we don’t find anything, then we figure out where to move the area to. Or sometimes we go back and reevaluate the information, see if it’s really valid.
But there are boats for which there are no records. How do you find those?
There are boats that have sunk that we have no records on. There are boats that we’ve found that we have no records on. We name them: Ken’s Wreck, the Buried Schooner, the 5:15 Barge. We named that because we found it at 5:15 in the afternoon. We have absolutely no idea what these wrecks are. Some of them are so busted up or buried we probably won’t ever know. We won’t put a name on a shipwreck unless we’re pretty sure.
How do you document the wrecks?
We can take pictures of them, detailed side scans. We’re not allowed to take anything because of 1985 shipwreck law. We did get a permit from the state to bring up the bell of the Cortland. We work closely with the National Museum of the Great Lakes in Toledo. They have the bell on display.
Is there anything valuable left on the ships?
Unfortunately the Spanish weren’t nice enough to sail their galleons up here.
People knew that ships sank. Especially on Lake Erie, when a storm blew up. So it was mostly bulk cargo and passengers that went back and forth. There was no gold laden ships. No platinum, no anything of value to salvage. It was iron ore, grain, lumber, stone for construction.
It won’t be around for much longer. Each year they degrade because they’re under water. In 10 or 15 years they might be buried. They might deteriorate more. It’s like an old building. If no one’s doing any maintenance on it, it’s going to fall apart.
Do you actually go in the ships, open the doors to the cabins?
Most of the time when the ships sank, the cabins blew off. The cabins are like a balloon. They’re only nailed in on the bottom of the deck. They’re not part of the structure. When the ship sinks, the bubble of air, most of time, it rips the cabin right off, and the cabin floats. Most of the time when you hear of people surviving, they’re hanging on to the debris. They’re hanging on to the cabin.
How cold will you dive in?
The lowest temperature will get in the lake is probably 38 degrees. Then it freezes. In the eastern basin, with a drysuit on, I’ve dove in 38 degrees. That was in summer. Most of the stuff that stops us from diving isn’t the temperature. It’s being able to get safely out to the dive site and back. We won’t get the boats back out until probably June.