Tim Marr is no stranger to shipwrecks. He owns Advance Scuba, a dive shop in Holland Michigan, where he teaches diving, and operates a charter service that takes divers to explore the numerous shipwrecks lost off the shores of western Michigan. But Tim never expected to be shipwrecked himself!

Tim Marr

Tim Marr

In September, 2008, this burley 46-year old former Special Forces operative, boat mechanic and Captain with a 100-ton master’s license, was retained by the owner of a classic 65-foot, 1966 Chris-Craft Constellation, Pizzazz, to pilot the yacht from its new home port in Saugatuck, MI to Charlevoix, MI.

The owner intended to drive up and meet the boat for a weekend of cruising. July 23rd was a warm, the sky was dull and the seas were running 1-3 feet. It would be a bouncy, but safe run, Tim thought, particularly for a boat of that size and condition. The beautiful 42-year old motor yacht, with mahogany planking and teak decks, had been meticulously maintained by its prior owner.

Tim’s 15-year old son and namesake, Tim Marr Jr., would accompany him on the run north. Timmy is no stranger to Lake Michigan; he is a certified diver and first mate, who regularly works alongside his Dad. The father/son pair had intended to spend a few days together in Charlevoix before the owner arrived.

The three-foot chop they set out in on Tuesday morning would have more than enough to make a cruise on a smaller boat annoying and unpleasant, but the big yacht Pizzazz was taking the waves comfortably and making good headway north along Michigan’s western shore. Tim calculated they would reach Charlevoix, 220-miles distant, by late afternoon on Wednesday.

Pizzazz at sea

Pizzazz at sea

What the father/ son crew could never have anticipated was the series of rogue waves that hit them in the early afternoon. Pizzazz was about a mile off Little Sable Point when Tim saw a freak wave in the distance. “Get up here, Junior,” he called to his son who was down in the salon playing Xbox, “There’s a huge wave heading our way!”

Tim held the helm steady, steering perpendicular into the freak wave building from the north. Pizzazz reared upwards and glided nicely over the wall of water. Tim and Timmy both breathed an audible sigh of relief, but when the onslaught of water cleared from the windshield, they could see several more unusually large waves.

“My God”, Tim thought, “I’ve never been in such big waves – they’re over ten- feet high.” Tim maintained his composure and reassured his nervous son, that a boat this size could handle rough seas like they were experiencing. The boat rode over the second wave just like it did the first. When the next one hit, Tim’s confidence turned to fear when he heard a loud cracking noise.

Pizzazz helm

Pizzazz helm

Then rather than ride up the fourth rouge wave, Pizzazz plowed right through it. As Tim gripped the wheel, and tried to see through the cascading water, the boat didn’t feel right. When the water cleared, he could see the boat angling down in the water, and looking down into the salon he saw water rushing in. In a heartbeat, Tim knew the boat was sinking.

His only thought was for Timmy. With one hand on the helm, he groped around the bench seat for the bag that contained the lifejackets, and struggled to pull one out and wrap it around his terrified son. They both fumbled with the clasps, but were able to secure it. “Go out back and wait for me,” Tim directed his son when he saw water quickly filling the salon “don’t jump in yet.”

Timmy is a good swimmer, but his Dad saw the fear in his eyes. This was every parent’s nightmare—a situation he had no control over that could result in the loss of his child. The boat was angling down by the bow and water was working its way up the steps towards the pilothouse. Tim was able to radio a distress call, “May Day! May Day! Abandoning ship!” After a verbal scuffle with the coast guardsman, who thought this was a crank call, he gave his position. When water began lapping at his ankles, he grabbed another lifejacket, threw it over one shoulder and hurried aft to join his son.

Pizzazz engine room

Pizzazz engine room

As the boat sank from under them, Tim gave the go-ahead to jump. “Swim hard,” he hollered to Timmy, afraid the boat would roll over on him. Timmy hit the water hard and fought his way to the surface. The thin PFD did so little to keep his head above water and he had to tread frantically. His Dad jumped seconds later but landed in the trough of a wave. As he surfaced, and gasped for breath, he was pounded by the next breaker, taking a mouthful of water. Seeing his Dad choking and struggling with the lifejacket that was a tangled mess around his shoulders, Timmy now worried for the safety of his Dad, who had always seemed invincible to him.

Timmy managed to swim the 20-feet that separated them. By then, Tim had coughed out the water, but was still fighting the lifejacket. Timmy tried to help fasten it, but it was too tangled and every wave made it worse. They were so busy with their struggle, neither saw the boat slip beneath the waves, but a small piece of the hull bobbed to the surface.

In desperation to stay afloat, Tim grabbed onto it, ignoring the pain when twisted nails tore into his flesh.

Able to catch their breaths by holding onto the floating wood, Tim tried to calm his son by reminding him they were within site of shore, “We’re going to make it—we can swim.”

Even though the cheap lifejacket did not provide much flotation, Timmy now felt a surge of confidence that he could make it to shore, but he was now worried for his Dad. “I wasn’t willing to leave my Dad’s side,” he later recounted.

Just as they began to swim east towards shore, they crested a wave and saw their salvation appear. About a quarter mile distant, a boat was heading their way. Suddenly their hope diminished when they saw it turn the other way. A few minutes later it turned again. “Hold on Timmy, I think they’re coming around.”

Craig Cather, the captain of the 46-foot Sea Ray, UPWORDS AND ONWORDS had seen two people enter the water as the big boat sank and was trying to negotiate his way to them without the same thing happening to his boat. Finally, he got close enough to fish the twosome out of the water.

Grand Rapids, Michigan TV station WOOD-TV 8 ran a report after the event using video from a local resident capturing the moment the pizzazz slipped beneath the waves. 

A lakefront home owner, Cindy Jurik, had seen the ordeal unfolding. She had called the Coast Guard, which had already received the mayday call and dispensed a rescue vessel and chopper, but Cather’s Sea Ray reached them first. Tim and Timmy had been in the water a total of 35 minutes. Despite the relatively warm water and their proximity to shore, Timmy later recognized, “It’s a good thing the other boat picked us up, I wasn’t sure we could make it.”

Keith Pearson, a captain and salvage master of TowBoat US Chicago sees the outcome of a number of boat accidents and sinkings each year. “A captain’s job is to stay out of trouble on the water, but occasionally, like with these rouge waves, there’s things you can’t anticipate.” He reminds boaters, “more often than not, when there’s a massive hull breach, you have less than a minute before you find yourself in the water.” The Marrs had double that time, and were still not fully geared up to hit the water.

Tim Marr Sr. & Jr.

Tim Marr Sr. & Jr.

When you think that a boat sinking can only happen to someone else, think again. It can happen to even the most experienced captains. The Mars skirted death despite inadequate lifejackets because another boater happened to be at the right place at the right time. Tim lost his laptop, his mapping software, an Xbox, a GPS, hand-held radio and all the cash he had brought along for the trip, but he did not loose that which is most precious: his son.

Type 1PFD

Type 1PFD

Tim, who is confident they could have endured many hours in the water and easily made it to shore IF they had good lifejackets, feels compelled to pass on the lesson he learned to other boaters: “Spend the money necessary for a good “type one” PFD, and bring it with you when you travel on someone else’s boat, rather than trust they will be well-equipped. Stow your PFD in an accessible place near open deck; and put it on and secure it at the first sign of trouble. Your life may depend on it.”

Today, the Pizzazz has been ravaged by storms and currents. The following underwater images are by Debbie Chase in 2010.






Text by Valerie van Heest from an article for Lakeland Boating magazine

All underwater photos by Debbie Chase

Historic photos of Pizzazz by Ivan Bou