By James Gibson
(WINDSOR, ON) – When friends and family travel the 401 to visit from afar, I usually head south to Colchester, or what used to be called Hackett’s Landing. There we indulge in tasting the fermented grapes from the surrounding wine country.
Other visitors, divers to be specific, are more interested in what lies offshore and are likely to contact my friend, Mike Drexler for equipment and advice, or for a short morning lesson. But, of course, later, if I know divers, they also taste the wine.
No stranger to water, Mike spent his youth in his parents’ backyard pool, on the family and an uncle’s boat, and at his grandparent’s cottage in Oxley. He is now involved with the operation of the Colchester Guardian Rescue boat.
With this water background such a big part of his life it was only natural for him to also explore beneath the surface. He started diving in 1992 and his first shipwreck dive was on the M.I. Wilcox.
His experience and training progressed rapidly to include deep mixed gas decompression diving and more recently he became an instructor for the International Association of Nitrox and Technical Divers (IANTD). Some of his early diving education included a marine archaeology survey course with a seminar on wooden ship construction.
After becoming a Dive master in 1996 and an Instructor in 2011, he decided to turn his attention to the need for diving equipment, services and instruction in Colchester. Thus, Drexler Diving Systems was started with its mission to fill the need and promote local diving in Western Lake Erie.
Since its inception, many individuals, all the local Colchester businesses, and the town council have been very supportive. Virtually everyone Mike has spoken to believes that the business is a good idea, good for local tourism, and good for the local economy. Mike’s plans are to expand the business through the development and promotion of safe SCUBA and snorkelling in the area.
In the 1800s, water was the highway of commerce- coal, produce- and of travel- general travellers, runaway slaves. On this surface, of course, accidents occurred and became ship wrecks.
Today there are nearly 50 publicly known wrecks in the Canadian waters of Western Lake Erie and the Pelee Passage. The closest to Colchester is the site of a new find, second is the aforementioned M.I. Wilcox located 1/2 mile from the harbour, followed by the Manhattan, the Grand Traverse, the Oxley Wreck, and the George Worthington. On Saturday, July 23, 1887, for instance, the George Worthington, a two-masted schooner delivering coal, sank after a collision and now lies off the Colchester reef and its light in 38 feet of water. On Monday, October 19, 1896 the Grand Traverse, while delivering apples had a collision and now lies in 40 feet of water. Then on Tuesday, May 8, 1906, a third vessel, the M.I. Wilcox, the closest at less than a mile from shore, sprung a leak while anchored in a gale.
Mike Drexler, however, discovered and photographed a new find and named it Jana’s Wreck. At less than ten feet below the surface, this newly discovered wreck is within snorkelling distance. But if you stand on the Colchester Harbour pier and look west and offshore a short distance, you’ll see an old bleach bottle marking the spot. It is only 7-8 feet above the top of the ship’s unusually sized 7 X 24 foot boiler.
The true nature of this wreck was not always evident. Many years ago, while diving, Mike sighted what seemed like a pile of junk. As the years passed, and low water levels and nearly ice free winters over the past few years allowed wave action to scour the protective sand from the bottom, it became recognizable as a full 200 foot steam-powered, side-paddle-wheeler vessel.
Since then, Mike has more fully explored and photographed the wreck using traditional photography plus side-scan sonar. One interesting discovery was a manufacturer’s name plate- Tallcot & Underhill of Oswego NY– on the capstan, a vertical-axled rotating machine developed for use on ships to apply force to ropes, cables, and hawsers.
Mike believes the boat was once run up on the beach where it was salvaged, probably by the Hackett brothers, a local salvage company, as evidenced by the missing steam engine, paddle wheels, and a large section of the hull. A lot of the machinery was also dismantled and a number of the boat’s pieces disconnected.
I interviewed Mike at his shop and at Colchester Harbour on the subject of his fledging business and its relation to his discovery of Jana’s Wreck.
James Gibson: What were your early goals?
Mike Drexler: In diving: So many wrecks, so little time. In business: Top quality combined with good old fashioned small town service. Deep down, it’s the details that count.
JG: Did you have any hobbies that influenced your venture?
MD: Fishing, boating and swimming got me into diving. Diving got me into the dive business.
JG: Is there any competition now? Was there any before?
MD: While there are other dive shops in Windsor and Essex County, most are a significant distance away, do not maintain significant inventories, are operated as hobbies with irregular business hours, lack knowledgeable staff or do not offer the equipment, services and/or instruction that Drexler Diving Systems does.
JG: What have been the highs and some lows in your venture?
MD: It’s always exciting to bring in the next shipment of new gear, see happy customers come back smiling like kids in a candy store, hear the laughter from divers just having fun diving and seeing the smiles on students faces when they have accomplished something they thought they could never do.
Like any business, slow days are no fun.
JG: How does the discovery of Jana’s wreck work into your business?
MD: It’s not only a very interesting dive that is good for hours of exploration but also makes a great site for training and snorkelling. Furthermore, the shop is less than 2 blocks from the harbour and the wreck site.