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The Lillie Parsons Wreck
There are thousands of wrecks decorating the bottom of the Saint-Lawrence river, from sailboats to cargo ships, from so shallow that they poke out of the water, to so deep that it challenges even the most experienced tech divers, everything can be found in the Saint-Lawrence river. And today we will discuss the physically straining, extremely fun, and slightly wild dive that the Lillie Parsons wreck takes you on.
Context and Background
The Lillie Parsons is a two-masted american schooner which launched in September 1868. She sank in 1877, near Brockville, Ontario, after she hit a rock, took on water and sank after her cargo shifted during a squall. A squall is essentially a sudden, sharp increase in wind speed lasting minutes, contrary to a wind gust lasting seconds, and cause of many sunken wrecks.
As of now, she lays upside down, in about 20 meters of water, off the sore of Sparrow Island. Over the years, she’s been slowly shifting further away from the island, and now balances on the sloping shore, and a drop down to 30 meters. Eventually, she will sink further into the river. But until then, she is an extremely fun dive that you definitely should try!
A quick tip about diving in the Saint-Lawrence river, and particularly on this wreck: the current is very very strong. Both on the surface and at the bottom of the river. The wreck is positioned in a way that the current splits at the stern and runs along both its sides, joining back at the bow. Visibility can vary depending on the weather, but is usually rather low, so make sure to bring flashlights, even if its just to peak underneath the wreck and in the dark corners of it. And as always when diving in Canada, make sure you wear proper exposure suits, whether that is wetsuit or drysuit, make sure you stay comfortable throughout the dive!
The boat captain drops you a few meters away from the actual wreck. You start with a negative entry, to stay clear of very strong surface currents. You giant stride into the water, grabbing the mooring line, you descend. Everyone assembles at the bottom, and you let go of the line. Always facing the shore side, where an impressive wall of rocks keeps you oriented, you drift with the current, at an alarming speed. After a few minutes, the silhouette of the wreck appears.
You drift up to the stern, getting a few seconds of current-less peace. Establish proper neutral buoyancy, wait for all divers to be ready, and jump back into the current. You drift along the starboard side, peeking under the rails to look at the downturned deck. Eventually you reach the bow, and it takes a strong and determined kick to swim out of the current to the port side. Anchored in the rocks is a heavy chain, you grab it quickly. The pull starts now, one hand after the other, you haul yourself along the chain, fighting a current as high as 2 to 3 knots. You cannot kick to help your climb, it will stir up the delicate silt and lower visibility even more. You climb and climb and climb, muscles barking in protest, trying to calm your breathing. You reach the stern. You catch your breath, you jump back in the current and back around we go!
Depending on air consumption, you can go around the schooner 2 to 4 times, also depending on how painful your muscles end up after the second trip around if you want my personal opinion.
Once you’ve had enough of the merry-go-round, you return one last time to the stern, and rise above the overturned hull, catching the straight and unaltered force of the current. In a few seconds you clear the enormous ship, and be left to the will of the current. It’s important to keep the shore in sight at all times, to stay on course and to find the rope that will bring you to the correct exit point.
About that exit. A bright yellow line rests on a stairway of rocks, that is the sign to come up, do a safety stop, and ascend to the surface. The drift at the end of the dive brings you to the outer shore of the Sparrow Island, and around into the bay, where your boat captain will be waiting. If you miss it...it’s a long surface swim to the boat. Might as well ride the current :)
In conclusion, the Lillie Parsons Wreck is an incredibly fun dive, and rather accessible to all divers, although experience with drift diving and the conditions of the Saint-Lawrence is recommended for ultimate comfort and safety. Otherwise, I definitely recommend the wreck, it was exciting, a little challenging, and very rewarding given the amazing cheeseburger we were blessed with afterwards! A great thanks to our boat captain and Divemaster, our Instructor on board, and the students accompanying the trip!