Leith-built luxury vessel lies at bottom of Ontario lake in 'spectacular' condition

Once described by the Cousteau Society as the “best-preserved, most prestigious shipwreck in the world”, it resembles the Titanic in miniature, frozen in time at the bottom of an icy cold North American lake.

Leith-built Gunilda lies at the bottom of Lake Superior, Ontario.
Leith-built Gunilda lies at the bottom of Lake Superior, Ontario.

Built in Leith at the turn of the 20th century, the Gunilda was considered one of the finest luxury yachts of its era until it ran aground in Lake Superior in 1911.

An edition of the Evening News records the steam steel yacht was launched by Messrs Ramage & Ferguson of Leith on April 1, 1897 – the date an omen for its eventual fate.

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In 1903, the 500-tonne yacht was purchased by oil magnate William L. Harkness, a member of the New York Yacht Club. The Leith-built boat soon became the club’s flagship and would sail extensively around the Atlantic and Caribbean.

Fast forward to the summer of 1911, and the Harkness family were sailing the yacht around the Great Lakes and heading for the town of Rossport, Ontario, when disaster struck - the ship had run aground. Contemporary photos show her half submerged and sticking out of the water.

While Harkness and his team salvagers did manage to pull the ship free, her buoyancy proved to be temporary. The yacht keeled over, filled with water, and plunged towards the icy depths never to be seen by Harkness again.

In the years that followed, a legend began to develop that the Gunilda was packed to the gunnels with untold riches that had been left behind by its wealthy Edwardian owners.

But, stuck at a depth of more than 80 metres below one of the world’s coldest, darkest and deepest fresh water lakes, many divers would perish in their attempts to reach the fabled yacht.

The Gunilda ran aground in 1911.

That all changed in 1967, when a diving team successfully rediscovered the Gunilda in all its remarkably-intact glory. Attempts to raise the 500-ton ship, however, would prove to be a step too far.

In 1980, the great French marine explorer Jacques Cousteau visited the wreck with his Cousteau Society research vessel Calypso and diving saucer SP-350 Denise to dive and record footage. The Cousteau Society branded Gunilda the "best-preserved, most prestigious shipwreck in the world" and "the most beautiful shipwreck in the world".

Recent visit

Three years ago, a series of astonishing photographs and video footage of the Gunilda wreckage was released by professional underwater photographer Becky Kagan Schott.

The Gunilda became the flagship of the New York Yacht Club after being purchased by oil baron Mr William L. Harkness.

Ms Kagan Schott said at the time that she could hardly believe that items on the yacht, such as clocks, chairs, gilded china, and even a piano, were all very much intact.

The American diver said: 'Visiting it was really like going back in time and it had a very haunting feel to it.

“I've never seen anything like it in all my years of shipwreck diving. For me it was almost surreal being there. I'd dreamed of seeing this shipwreck and it took years of experience both in diving and photography to be able to safely capture the images I saw in my mind.

“Peering inside windows to see a piano still in place or a card table and chairs next to a fireplace with a clock hanging above it and the galley with gold rimmed china still sitting on the shelf is pretty spectacular.”

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