The David Swayze
Great Lakes Shipwreck Database

Usage Guidelines & Hints

The Dave Swayze Shipwreck Database uses a single table in a mySQL database and a custom-programmed PHP search engine to provide much more powerful and useful data searches than most other resources for Great Lakes vessel research. Historians, maritime archeologists and boatnerds will find the ability to make combined data field searches particularly useful.

An important fact about this database is Mr. Swayze's initial vision that it only contain VERIFIABLE total loss shipwecks. This means that accidents from which a vessel was recovered are generally not included, even if it was not used in a commerical capacity again. Likewise, dive sites that we refer to as shipwrecks but were the result of an intentional scuttling or abandonment are currently not included. Accidents to small modern pleasure craft are only included if there was a significant loss of life. Still, it is believed that a significant number of total losses to Great Lakes commercial vessels have yet to be included in the database. If you would like to report a total loss Great Lakes shipwreck that is not in the database, please email me at

The following are some caveats for use that people should be aware of:

1. The search fields are additive in nature. The more search criteria you add, the fewer your results will be. If you're having trouble finding a wreck that should be in the database, try entering just the name or a portion of the name in the search.

2. The database is very useful for geographic searches. Try searching by a port name or geographical location, but keep in mind that there may be historical limitations. For example, a vessel may be listed as "off Chicago" when it was in fact, closer to Kenosha. As such, you need to think both critically and creatively when constructing your searches.

3. This is the only database to allow true dimension range searches. This functionality currently has some known bugs. Because vessel length, beam and depth are stored as a string in the same field, a beam of 23 ft. will also return vessels that had a length of 123 ft. and so forth. I will be fixing this in the future, but for now, I'd suggest limiting dimensional searches by vessel type, location or time period.

4. There were around 50,000 commercial vessels on the Lakes between 1800 and 1960. Only about 10% of these are in this database. If you would like to research a vessel that is not in the database, I'd suggest trying the Metzler, Labadie or BGSU databases. If you believe a vessel was lost on the Lakes through shipwreck and is not in the database, please report it to me at:


The following are the fields that are available in the database and the search caveats for each:

Vessel Name - This is the vessel's name as it appeared on official documents. Many vessel names used only first and middle initials. I is consequently useful to begin by searching with only the last name if you suspect the full first name wasn't used. In the case of most vessels the use of full first and last names such as 'Edmund Fitzgerald' will result in the vessel being found but it is best to enter a subset of the name. A minimum of three letters is required.

Vessel Type at Loss - This is the vessel's type at the time of her loss, not at the time of her build. The vessel types in the database are NOT standardized. They are entered as they appeared in references of the day, along with hull material, number of masts and other particulars. A typical field might contain 'schooner, wood, 3 masts'. In general the vessel types can be searched by common Lake vessel types such as schooner, scow, barge, propeller, sidewheel, etc. As such, I have put these in a drop down list for simplicity.

Year Built - This is the year the vessel was built according to enrollments or vessel registers.

Builder - This is usually the last name of the builder of record on enrollments. It may also include first name or initials. I'd recommend entering only a last name if you know or suspect a builder. Not all records list a builder, but most do.

Offical Number - This is the official number as it appears in MVUS or on enrollments. It will only be present for vessels enrolled after about 1867. It may be US or Canadian and will be indicated as such.

Hull Material - This will be either wood, iron, steel or composite.

Place Built - This will list the place of build of record for the vessel. It may include state or province, but is generally the name of the port of build. For example, entering Wisconsin in this field returns no rows, but entering Milwaukee returns a large number of records.

Gross Tonnage - This field will give the Gross Tonnage at the time of the vessel's loss. If before 1864, it will be listed in the BOM (Builders Old Measure) system. After 1864 it will use the Moorsom system. It will be given with decimal units in most cases where the decimal represents 95th, as was common on enrollment certificates. The search uses a range of +/- 10 tons.

Net Tonnage - This field will give the net tonnage at time of loss. Net tonnage generally expresses the carrying capacity of a vessel while Gross tonnage includes non-cargo spaces. The search uses a range of +/- 10 tons.

Length - This will be the length given on enrollment documents or in vessel registers. It may be expressed as feet and inches or as feet and decimal feet as was standard in the 1800s on enrollment certificates. The database generally does not distinguish. This search uses a range of +/- 5 ft. This was done to assist in identifying hulls of discovered wrecks, which are seldom measurable close to their original measure.

Beam - Same as length for considerations. The search is +/- 2 ft. for the reasons outlined in length

Depth - The depth of hull as given on enrollment certificates or vessel registers.

Place of Loss - This field gives the nearest geographical point to the vessel's place of loss. It may be a port or a geographical feature. This field is fairly non-standard. I'd recommend searching by port town or by nearest geographical feature, such as rivers, islands, points, canals or straits.

Wreck Lake - This is generally standardized across the five Great Lakes. I have implemented it as a drop down list for this reason. Keep in mind that there are a few wrecks where the Lake is unknown, so this item should only be used if you're sure of the Lake.

Year of Loss - The four digit year of loss. 99% of the vessels in this database have this field filled, but a few don't or are guesses. This is true of very early vessels.

Month of Loss - The month of loss. I have implemented this in a drop down list. Not all vessels have data for this but most do. It is best used if you're doing studies of wrecks in a given time period.

Loss of Life - This field is non-standard and troublesome. Some fields state 'none' while others state a number. I have generally coded to detect only fields where a non zero number is expressed but there may be a bug or two. I implemented this as a dropdown a values Yes, No and Unknown.

Cargo - This field may prove useful for archeological researchers. It generally lists one or a few cargo items, such as coal, lumber, iron ore, etc. It is not always filled so it should be used sparingly.

Detail - This field is not searchable as it is used to contain the narrative description of the wreck.

Sources - This field is not searchable, as it contains the abbreviations for the record sources.


The Great Lakes Shipwreck Database contains over 5000 records of verified total losses of Great Lakes commercial vessels. It is also currently available as a flat file listing at David Swayze's website which is no longer maintained or updated. This online database version is updated regularly with new research that is vetted by experienced researchers and historians.