Leelanau News and Events

On This Day In 1960, A Storm Stranded This Freighter Off South Manitou's Shore Forever

By Emily Tyra | Nov. 29, 2021

November 29, 1960 brought blinding snow squalls and wicked high winds to the Great Lakes causing the Francisco Morazan to veer off course and run aground off the coast of South Manitou Island. Today, the 234-foot ocean freighter looms large on the sandbars and reefs of the island, where parts of its hulking steel body still jut out of Lake Michigan.

At the time of the shipwreck, the Morazan’s captain was 24-year-old Eduardo Trivizas, of Greece, accompanied by an international crew of 12 and his pregnant wife. They were trying — at the bitter end of the Great Lakes shipping season — to get their vessel and its cargo through the St. Lawrence Seaway before it closed. Unbelievably, there was another shipwreck called the Walter L. Frost, wrecked on the exact spot 57 years earlier, which was crushed as the Morazan slammed into the shallows. The brutal storm meant the tugs and salvage barge coming to help the stranded ship had to turn back to Wisconsin, and the crew was brought to the mainland by local rescuers. The ship was just abandoned there — forever.  

The Francisco Morazan has the distinction of being the most recent shipwreck in the Manitou Passage, shares Kerry Kelly, a board member with the Friends of Sleeping Bear Dunes, which helps educate visitors to the park about its many shipwrecks. Moreover, says shipwreck diver Chris Roxburgh, “it’s one of the only steel shipwrecks in the Great Lakes that still is above water. This shipwreck can be viewed from a couple miles away…and it also has a terrible smell from the birds.”  

Laura Quackenbush, a Great Lakes history expert, and former curator and historian at Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore (SBDNL) corroborates the odor, and has heard the eerie, deafening chorus of the birds — including gulls and cormorants — who have made the Morazan their offshore hangout.

She also distinctly remembers the first time she saw the shipwreck: At age 14 on a 1964 trip to South Manitou. “I was with my family, walking the beach. We came around the corner and this massive boat was there. I was just shocked.”

Quackenbush notes, “The Morazan and other shoreline shipwrecks allow us to experience authentic real-time history.”

In contrast to this young, 1960-era shipwreck, “Most of the ships that went down here went down in the mid-1800’s to early 1900’s,” says Kelly. “One of the oldest Manitou Passage shipwrecks is the Westmoreland, which encountered 20-foot waves and went down on December 7, 1854 on its way from Chicago to Mackinac Island. She was thought to be carrying $100,000 in gold coins and 280 barrels of whiskey to the garrison on Fort Mackinac.”

On a blue-sky day on the Manitou Passage, it’s hard to imagine the perfect storm that would take down a giant like the Morazan. “I have sailed the passage many times with good visibility and sea conditions,” says Quackenbush. “It is only dangerous when the winds and waves make it so — since there are limits to the navigable water for large vessels. It can be a narrow slot to go through, and if any weather places you out of control, it is so treacherous.”

Quackenbush, filmmaker Rich Brauer, and SBDNL Interpretive Ranger Matt Mohrman detailed what went wrong for the Greek captain and international crew of the Morazan in a video that includes Quackenbush’s research and Mohrman’s input after reading the USCG reports of the incident. 

The Morazan’s final perch still bears the brunt of 200 miles of open Lake Michigan weather. The wreck is slowly breaking up and sliding to the lake bottom. Says Kelly, “The waves and ice do take a toll on the shipwreck. The hull used to be visible, but ice accumulation over several winters caused it to sink. The stern broke off during a winter storm in 2014.”

Because of this degradation, Kelly notes that the Morazan is a dangerous place to explore. “There are lots of jagged metal fragments that can cut you or snag your diving equipment. It is large and close to shore, so it is fun to explore with binoculars from [South Manitou’s] shore.”

He adds, “The best time to get pictures is on a cloudy, windy day with waves crashing against the ship and on the shore. It gives you a real sense of the dangers of being a crew member in the November storms.”

Quackenbush shares that before 1995, when the wreck was officially protected as part of the state's Manitou Passage Underwater Preserve, many Leelanau locals would dive the Morazan and retrieve abandoned cargo.

Among the treasure? Balsa wood airplanes and LOTS of canned chicken.

Today, whether or not shipwrecks are part of Michigan’s official underwater preserves (Leelanau County has two: the Manitou Passage Underwater Preserve, and the Grand Traverse Bay Underwater Preserve) all artifacts and related fragments both washed ashore and in the water are owned by the State of Michigan and are protected under state law.

“The shipwrecks within 1/4 mile of shore are also protected by federal law,” notes Kelly. “I have seen examples of historic shipwreck fragments that were partially burned in beach fires. Look, imagine the past, but do not take or damage anything.”

For those with curiosity about what’s lurking under the lake surface, Roxburgh offers perspective. “I have visited the Morazan over 30 times. The points of interest below the water are the bow laying in the sand on its side, the stern — now submerged since 2014 — and inside the engine room with its boilers and engine components.”

Roxburgh, a local diver who started free diving at age four and whose Facebook page documenting his scuba adventures now has over 20,000 followers shares images of the Morazan and other Manitou Passage shipwrecks in the book Leelanau Underwater (available at local book stores including Horizon Books, Bay Books, Leelanau Books, and Cottage Book Shop). Roxburgh also takes viewers on an up-close exploration of the Morazan in this underwater video footage.

Editor's Note: A previous version of this story mentioned mergansers in association with the wreck; pictured are cormorants and gulls. Photo by Chris Roxburgh.

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