The Wreck Of The Francisco Morazan
Of the 50 known shipwrecks discovered at the bottom of the Manitou Passage, none is more visible than the Francisco Morazan. Located just 300 yards of the southern coast of South Manitou Island, the wreck of the Liberian cargo ship can actually be seen from the beach at The Homestead. For anyone who’s ever wondered about this unique piece of maritime history, we offer this brief history.
A bustling bottleneck of Great Lakes commerce throughout the nineteenth and early twentieth century, the Manitou Passage also had a reputation among maritime sailors as a graveyard of sunken ships. Before the age of satellite guidance systems and high-tech weather radar, ship captains surprised by raging storms often sought shelter in the lee of the islands where countless vessels both known and unknown ended up crashed upon the rocks.
Today, the shallow water of the passage provides a unique opportunity for divers. (For a list and map of the best known shipwreck dives, check out the website of the Manitou Passage Underwater Preserve.) Some of these wrecks are located in water so shallow—five to 12 feet—that a mask, fins and snorkel is all you would really need to get a good look. But what makes the Francisco Morazan so unique is that it’s the only one in the preserve that the curious can see without even getting their feet wet.
Bound For Rotterdam
Departing Chicago on November 27, 1960, the caption of the Francisco Morazan (accompanied by his pregnant wife) and the 12-man crew of the 234-foot, Liberian freighter raced north on their way to St. Lawrence Seaway and, eventually, Rotterdam before the Great Lakes canal system closed to traffic on December 3rd.
According to historians at the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, Captain Eduardo Trivizas was 24-years-old, had five years of sailing experience and was a graduate of the Greek Navy School. The Francisco Morazan was his first command.
Loaded with over 1,000 tons of general cargo—everything from scrap metal and aluminum to canned chicken and toys—the ship motored north and began encountering high winds and rough waves that same evening. By the next day, the weather only worsened, eventually turning into a driving snow.
Its decks awash and hammered by rough waves, the Francisco Morazan passed the Point Betsie Lighthouse in the afternoon on November 28th. It wasn’t long after that Captain Trivizas, blinded by the unrelenting, wind-driven snow, ran the ship aground just 300 feet off the rocky, southern coast of South Manitou Island.
No one on board was hurt. But the ship was inexorably stuck. Two Coast Guardsmen stationed at the North Manitou Island Lighthouse—along with a state forester stationed on South Manitou Island who, reportedly, flashed light signals to the stranded ship—called on rescue vessels that arrived the next morning.
“The lake was wild all day,” according to lakeshore record, “but the ship did not seem to be in immediate danger; [yet] the Captain was worried that some of the big waves might lift the ship off the shoal and carry it into deeper water. He arranged to have his wife lifted from the ship by helicopter on Friday, December 2nd. By Sunday, Dec 4th, the crew abandoned ship and was taken by the ice-breaker Mackinaw to Traverse City.”
Insurers flown out to the ship deemed it unsalvageable. But arrangements were made to remove the cargo. The weather failed to cooperate over the coming days and weeks, however, so that only five tons of Blue Star brand canned chicken and “some hides” were removed before the salvage effort was abandoned.
A Drowning, Lawsuit And Unexplained Fire
The owner of the Francisco Morazan could never be found. So over the intervening years, islanders helped themselves to what cargo was left. Balsa wood model aircraft kits made by Monogram of Chicago were reportedly popular with local boys; one of whom drown in 1967 while exploring the wreck.
On the grounds that the rotting cargo proved a health hazard and the over 6,000 pounds of fuel still onboard constituted an environmental risk, a lawsuit to have the wreck removed was filed in 1968 by Michigan’s then attorney general. But the very next day, the ship mysteriously caught fire. With cargo and fuel totally destroyed, the Francisco Morazan became the property of the State of Michigan.