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LOVE & WRECKAGE: Michigan newlyweds discover, identify shipwrecks during honeymoon

Soon after putting away their wedding day attire, the newlyweds got in a boat and started making their way to Mackinac Island in search of these long-lost vessels.

SOUTH HAVEN, Mich. — There's over 6,000 combined shipwrecks in the Great Lakes. You can cross two more of the undiscovered ones off the list, thanks to a newly-married South Haven, Mich. couple who opted not to spend their honeymoon relaxing on a tropical island.

Instead, their first few days of wedded bliss were spent shipwreck hunting.

Kevin and Amy Ailes got married on May 30, 2020, which happened to coincide with the time when COVID-19 was ravaging Michigan, resulting in the statewide shutdown.

"Amy and I are both divers and I'm obsessed with shipwrecks so rather than go on some extravagant vacation, we decided to spend a few days on Mackinac Island and go wreck-hunting," said Kevin, who is the president of the Southwest Michigan Underwater Preserve and an avid maritime historian. "Investigating two shipwrecks made it on our honeymoon list."

The two wrecks they hoped to find were the Dolphin, which was a 120-foot wooden schooner that sank after colliding with another ship (Badger State) during poor visibility on July 6, 1869, and the other wreck was the Peshtigo, which was a 198-foot wooden steamer that ran aground during a bad storm near Mission Point on Mackinac Island.

So, soon after putting away their wedding day attire, the newlyweds got in a boat and started making their way out into the Straits of Mackinac in search of these long-lost vessels.

"In 1970 Jim Ryerse, a local salvage diver, found the Dolphin on the bottom of the harbor," Kevin said. "Then a decade later, a gentleman by the name of Dr. Charles Feltner came across the shipwreck.

Credit: C. Patrick Labadie Collection
This is an image of the Dolphin schooner taken prior to its sinking in 1869.
Credit: Kevin Ailes
Kevin Ailes says The Dolphin shipwreck is 'turtling' (upside down) on the lake's bottom. It's completely intact, except for the collision hole near the bow.
Credit: Kevin Ailes
This is a side-scan sonar image Kevin & Amy Ailes captured of the Dolphin laying on the lake bottom.

"If Feltner had access to measurements taken by Ryerse a decade earlier the mystery of the ship's identity would have ended there."

That's why Kevin and Amy wanted to confirm the near 50-year-old data was the truth.

The couple reached the wreck site. Kevin got his diving gear on and started making his way 55 feet down to the bottom.

"It's upside down," Kevin said, referring to the condition of the wreck. "But it's completely intact for having sunk over 140 years ago.

"There were many identifiable features, including the collision hole from where she got hit."

Kevin videotaped his entire expedition, and after reviewing and cross-referencing his video, pictures and measurements with the research he had done, he was comfortable confirming that wreck was the Dolphin.

The couple then started to make their way toward the area where the Peshtigo sank.

"We came across a 1992 report that the bow of a boat has been seen in the harbor, but the information was vague about where exactly it was," Kevin said. "We knew it was somewhere off the west breakwater near Mission Pointe."

Credit: Brian Jaeschke: Mackinac State Historic Parks
The Peshtigo steamship lay abandoned along the shoreline of Mackinac Island soon after it ran aground in 1908. Rough waters broke it apart over time.
Credit: Kevin Ailes
This is a screen-capture of Kevin Ailes' dive footage of the Peshtigo shipwreck, which is considered a disarticulated shipwreck.

Kevin began running his side-scan sonar over the area, and eventually a sizable bump appeared on the screen.

"Sure enough, there's a boat down there," Kevin said. 

Once again, Kevin got in the water and descended. This particular shipwreck is only 15 feet deep.

"It was all in pieces," Kevin said. "The biggest piece of it today measures about 55 feet long.

"It wouldn't surprise me if it's been pulled apart over the years because the Shepler's Ferries that transport people to and from Mackinac Island, travel right over the Peshtigo wreck site."

Kevin says the "smoking gun" that led to him identifying this site as the final resting place of the Peshtigo was that there was evidence of an engine cradle.

"There was no loss of life on either of these ships," Kevin said. "Even though others have put eyeballs on them, nobody ever took the time to do the research to be certain that these were in fact the Dolphin and Peshtigo, until Amy and I did it."

Unfortunately, some people's marriages end up "wrecked." Kevin and Amy's started out "wrecked," and the only way the two can live happily ever after is if it stays "wrecked."

Credit: Kevin Ailes
Kevin and Amy Ailes got married on May 30, 2020. The two decided to go shipwreck hunting in the Great Lakes for their honymoon.

"This was one of the highlights of our honeymoon, that's for sure," Kevin said.

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