Sarah Ellen

This shipwreck broadcast takes you deep under the cold dark waters of Lake Champlain to the wreck of the Sarah Ellen. Hear the tragic story of the schooner’s sinking in the winter of 1860. Then meet our nautical archaeologists who tell of her underwater discovery in 1989. See footage captured by a remotely operated vehicle (ROV), over 300 feet below the surface.

GREAT for all ages. Families, teachers, students, and entire classrooms. Check out our Educator Resources for follow-up information, lesson plans, and curricula.

This hour-long program was broadcast live at LCMM in Vergennes, VT on November 5, 2009. Many thanks to Vimeo.

THANK YOU to all the students and viewers who wrote us questions. We didn’t have time to answer all of them on the program, but below are the answers to some of the top questions.

Frequently Asked Questions:

Why did you choose to investigate the Sarah Ellen? This vessel was one of many shipwrecks discovered with side scan sonar. Because of its high quality of preservation, and the fact that the wreck has not been frequently shown to the public, we wanted to share this unique wreck site for our first webcast.

Were there any animals on the boat? No animals that we know of.

Are there any other sunken ships like the Sarah Ellen that you have explored? Yes! We know of over 300 shipwrecks in Lake Champlain. Some are military vessels, some are commercial boats like the Sarah Ellen, and others are more modern. Many of these shipwrecks are as exciting and well-preserved as the Sarah Ellen. We’ve written about some of Lake Champlain’s shipwrecks here.

Have any “treasures/gold” been found? No gold has been found within the shipwrecks in Lake Champlain. Many of the lake’s boats were used to carry heavy cargoes like stone, iron ore, bricks and lumber.

How many levels does the Sarah Ellen have? There is main or upper deck, with a raised aft (back) section, and a lower deck. Down below the lower deck was probably divided into three compartments. There was a cargo hold in the middle of the boat, a cabin – living quarters – in the stern, and although buried, it’s likely the boat had a small storage area in the bow section known as the forecastle, or fo’c’sle .

What speeds could the ship reach? Although it was greatly influenced by wind and other conditions, the Sarah Ellen could probably sail as fast as 8 knots (that’s 9.2 miles per hour). (One knot is 1.15 miles per hour.)

How long do the air tanks last? There are many variables that affect how long tanks of air will last underwater. Pressure increases as you go deeper, which means that you consume more air the deeper you dive. Another factor is how much work you are doing underwater. A diver that is working hard underwater, or is very cold, will consume more air than someone who is relaxed. But to give you an example, a standard tank which holds 80 cubic feet of air would last approximately 40 minutes in 40 feet of water (such as on the shipwreck General Butler) but would only last 26 minutes on a dive to 80 feet (such as the shipwreck Water Witch).

How far was the boat from land? The wreck is somewhere in the middle of the lake between Willsboro, NY and Burlington, VT.

Why were the fish glowing on the video? The fish are silvery colored, so the light from the remotely operated vehicle (ROV) reflects off their shiny skin.

Was the boat a house or just for business? Both. The crew members lived on board while using the boat to deliver heavy cargoes from one port to another on Lake Champlain.

Were there weapons on the ship? No weapons that we know of.

How did people keep warm on the ship? These boats were usually equipped with wood or coal-burning stoves. This kept them warm, but also allowed them to cook on board.

If they knew there was going to be a storm, would they have kept going? They probably didn’t know in advance that there was a storm approaching. In 1860, the technology did not exist to have an accurate weather forecast. Also, this was a working boat; the crew depended upon these deliveries for their livelihood. If they didn’t take any risks with the weather, they probably would not have had enough money to get through the long winter.

How much has the Sarah Ellen changed since the video was shot in 1989? This wreck was examined again with a remotely operated vehicle (ROV) in 1992, and little had changed during those three years. It has not been examined since then.

If the ROV were able to go inside the ship, would it find bottles, dishes or anything else? Most certainly. This boat sank in a hurry, so the crew had no time to remove any items. Everything would be left on board: the cargo of stone, dishes, lamps, bottles, tools, perhaps even clothing and bedding. It’s likely that most of these small personal affects are buried in the soft silt (mud).

How big is Lake Champlain? Lake Champlain is 120 miles long. It is 12 miles wide at its widest point in the Burlington, VT – Plattsburgh, NY area, although much narrower in most places. The Lake Champlain Basin Program has great information, data, and maps about Lake Champlain in their Lake Champlain Basin Atlas – online and free.


This program is made possible by the generous support of the Institute of Museum and Library Services, and the guidance of Jan Crocker, LLC.