Underwater Photo of Great Lakes sloop Washington starboard side

Watch A Group Retirees Turned Shipwreck Explorers Find The Oldest Intact Commercial Sailing Vessel

John Konrad
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August 25, 2016

On November 6th, 1803 the merchant sloop Washington was sailing Lake Ontario enroute from Kingston to Niagara, Canada with a full cargo when it foundered during a gale. Last week she was found by a team of, self-proclaimed, retired shipwreck explorers.

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The Washington was the first sloop built on Lake Erie and the first to sail in both Lakes Erie and Ontario. Sloops only existed for a limited time on the Great Lakes as they were replaced by schooners which had two or more masts and were more efficient. 

The discovery is important because, as the team notes on their website, it’s the oldest intact commercial sailing vessel to be found on the Great Lakes, representing an unusual and poorly studied model that was soon replaced by schooners. While many ships sailed across the Great Lakes between the Revolutionary War and the War of 1812, very few artifacts from this time period remain.

“It gives us a better understanding of what life on the Great Lakes was like at such an early time,” Carrie Sowden, a director at the National Museum of the Great Lakes told the Wall Street Journal. Thousands of ships are believed to have sank on the Great Lakes but only a few, like the Edmund Fitzgerald, are well known. 

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