Is the SS Norisle Sinking? The Uncertain Fate of the Chi-Cheemaun Ferry’s Predecessor

Now a rusting shell, the SS Norisle once sailed the same route as the MS Chi-Cheemaun, ferrying tourists and their vehicles between Tobermory and Manitoulin Island. Built by the Collingwood Shipyards and launched in 1946, the 215 ft. Norisle was replaced by the new and much larger Chi-Cheemaun in 1974. Since then, the ferry has sat berthed in the harbour at Manitowaning, Manitoulin Island, operating as a floating museum until about 10 years ago when its degraded condition forced its closure. Around that time a citizens group, SS Norisle Steamship Society (NSS), formed with an ambitious plan to restore and reinstate it as a day-cruise ship on Georgian Bay and Lake Huron. Then in 2015 the Township of Assiginack, who assumed ownership of the Norisle in 1975, announced their intention to sell the ferry to the Tobermory Maritime Association, who planned to sink it in Georgian Bay as a scuba diving site.

 

A gradation of rust carries across the Norisle’s bridge, punctuated by a sort of barnacle-like pockmarking that is telling of the ship’s age.

Intro: Ned Morgan      Photos & Captions: Will Skol

As reported late last year on cbc.ca, according to court documents, the NSS raised over $1 million in funding since 2008 and claimed to have struck an agreement with the Township to take over ownership of the vessel. For this reason, the NSS filed a lawsuit against the Township in late 2016, seeking millions in damages, an order preventing the ship’s scuttling, and an official transfer of ownership. At press time, a court date for the lawsuit has not been set. In October 2017, the Manitoulin Expositor reported that the NSS’s legal action against the Township could cost local taxpayers $775,000. In response, John Coulter, Director of Restoration for the NSS, told the Expositor: “We made the claim because of the actions of the Township. If the Township hadn’t taken action [to sell the Norisle], the ship would be dry docked and on its way to being restored.”

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Unlike on the Norisle’s port side — which has seen extensive repainting — the vessel’s name is a ghostly presence on its starboard bow, obscured beneath aging white primer.

 

Certain areas of the Norisle’s hull are what I call “instant compositions,” meaning that in those sections, the qualities of the surface, and arrangement of elements, are so alluring, that very little time is needed to “get the shot.” In terms of a photograph, it’s all there. What is seen in this image is merely a sliver of the old ship’s body, just above the waterline.

And so the ferry continues to rust, serving neither scuba divers nor sightseers. Will Skol’s tightly focused portraits capture an exposed, forlorn hulk that is not yet beyond hope or repair, but may be at that point soon. This piece of Great Lakes heritage stretching back to the Second World War—her engines were originally built for a Royal Canadian Navy corvette—desperately needs the intervention of caring hands.

 

Standing beside the Norisle at 11 p.m. is like having a one-on-one conversation with a sleeping giant. Nobody else is around this marina after dusk. And as the night tide rolls in, the vessel’s hull gently rubs against its moorings, releasing a flurry of staccato creaks that echo off the buildings nearby.

 

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