MARQUETTE - Max Winkler recently toured the Newell Eddy, a Great Lakes schooner barge first launched in 1890.
He was particularly struck when he saw the brass plate detailing the ship's history, including its port of origin, and the aged mast with a small amount of rigging still hanging on it.
And while most would expect a 121-year-old ship to be preserved, on display and off-limits to tourists, that wasn't the case. When Winkler, 20, toured the century-old vessel, he was 170 feet below the surface of Lake Huron, where the Newell Eddy has rested since sinking in a storm during the spring of 1893.
Max Winkler blows bubble rings during a dive in Bonaire. (Photo courtesy of Max Winkler)
"I would say it's more about exploring," said Winkler, who has been SCUBA diving for nearly a decade. "When you go to the Caribbean, you see a lot of pretty fish and coral, and that's great. But with ships, you can swim through the holes and actually see if they sank with anything."
The members of the Winkler family have actually become something of shipwreck connoisseurs in the last few years, surveying ships throughout the Great Lakes, and even internationally.
Recently, the group traveled to Truk Lagoon, in the central Pacific, which is advertised as a shipwreck diver's dream come true. The islands around the lagoon were heavily populated by the Japanese during WWII when, in February of 1944, dozens of Japanese ships and hundreds of airplanes were sunk in a U.S. attack.
While the ships aren't terribly deep, and the water is quite warm, Winkler said it takes skill and caution to weave in and out of the numerous shipwrecks.
One of the major issues divers must deal with is nitrogen narcosis - the name attached to nitrogen's narcotic effects, which increase with pressure.
To combat the narcosis, Winkler breathes trimix, a combination of nitrogen, helium and oxygen, while diving.
Still, it's easy to become disoriented and he referred to something informally called Martini's Law, the idea that the body reacts as though it has ingested a martini for each 50 feet it travels below the surface.
"It's mostly common sense stuff, but people die diving. Not exactly regularly, but they do," Winkler said. "When you get down there, it's dark and it's cold, and you just had three martinis."
The deepest dive he has ever done was about 200 feet, and took place near the Caribbean island of Bonaire. But what now seems like a serious hobby started in simple fashion.
"We all started in the same place," he said of the diving careers of him, his brother and his father - the family's SCUBA divers. "We went on a cruise with my grandparents and we took a discover SCUBA course."
Though participants did get to dive, Winkler said the course only concerned itself with the most basic information.
"They teach you just enough so you don't die on them," he said.
But that trip a decade ago spawned a new Winkler family activity. Winkler is now certified and has gone on dives in Florida, St. Thomas, Truk Lagoon, the Caribbean islands of Bonaire and Bequia and at numerous sites throughout the Great Lakes.
Over the years, diving has become a calming activity for Winkler, who said he has often heard athletes describe the peaceful feeling they get during long runs. Though he has no interest in running, he likens that feeling to the one he gets exploring a shipwreck.
"There's kind of a thrill to it. It's a feeling like, 'Nobody has been here.' You're down there and everything is quiet. All you can hear is your bubbles and you can't talk. It's kind of peaceful and it's an experience," Winkler said. "You just have to do it."
For small children dreaming of uncharted lands, Winkler said, SCUBA diving is the next best thing to being an astronaut.
He said the sport is fairly simple to get into initially - there is a shop in town and an introductory class at Northern Michigan University - and is something people can enjoy for a lifetime.
"I would encourage people to try it," Winkler said. "We run into people on vacation all the time and there are divers I've met in their 60s, at least. This is definitely something you can do for recreation and it's something your whole family can do."
Kyle Whitney can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 250.