TRAVERSE CITY — Pardon the pun, but a rotting Bicentennial wooden replica of a 1770s sailing vessel hasn’t worn out its welcome in Grand Traverse Bay.
The Welcome, sunken in a watery grave, would be a welcome dive attraction in West Bay, local divers and underwater preserve enthusiasts say.
“One of the reasons we were formed in 2007 was to bring intentional sinkings to the bay,” said Alisa Kroupa, president of the Grand Traverse Bay Underwater Preserve.
Doug Bell, owner of Scuba North, Traverse City’s only dive shop, said he “wholeheartedly” supports the sinking of the Welcome somewhere on the bottom of West Bay.
The vessel probably would have to lie at rest on its side because it does not have a flat bottom hull, he said.
“Ideally, it would be nice if it was accessible from shore for all levels of divers,” he said.
Intentional ship sinkings in Lake Michigan have done “nothing but benefit” areas that have created dive attractions, Bell said.
Kroupa said no location has been discussed yet. Under state guidelines, the Welcome cannot be scuttled in fish spawning grounds or areas where it would become a navigation hazard. The top of the vessel also has to be at least 45 feet below water surface. Because of its mast, the sloop would have to be sunk at 90 feet if it could sit upright on the bottom, she said.
She believes it would be best to sink the Welcome on its side at least 58 feet deep, which would allow most divers certified to swim to 70-foot depths in open water to visit the boat. Only divers with advance certification are certified to go down 90 feet.
The Maritime Heritage Alliance, a Traverse City boat preservation group, decided weeks ago to seek a state permit to sink the Welcome. The request won’t be filed with the Department of Natural Resources until later this year. MHA board members said they don’t expect a decision until early 2014.
The Welcome, a replica of a 1774 fur-trading era sloop, was constructed for display during the mid-1970s in the Mackinac Straits area as part of the nation’s 1976 Bicentennial celebration. The MHA became the Welcome’s custodian in 1992 and its owners in 2006.
The Mackinac Island Commission has said that it doesn’t want the boat back, but it apparently hasn’t closed the hatch on that possibility.
“Currently, we’ve not offered to take it back, but we’re discussing it internally as an option,” Steven Brisson, deputy director of Mackinac State Historic Parks marketing and programs, said this week.
One option might be to take her back for dry dock display.
“We don’t have a plan for it, but some staff here feel it would be nice to find options other than sinking,” he said. “The Welcome was a popular display while being constructed.”
Mike Will, director of the Discovery Center – Great Lakes across the parking lot from the MHA buildings, said the Welcome’s fate has been an emotional topic this summer for historic boat preservationists.
Initially, he hoped the Welcome could become a M-22 roadside icon for the Discovery Center. He now supports sinking the vessel because of the prohibitive cost of removing it from the water, repairing and putting a roof over it.
“Shipwrecks are a great resource,” he said. “Boats reach an end of life and die, too. It’s better and more fitting to sink her than to take her to the landfill. That way we can preserve some of her history here.”