Home Dive Site Reviews Shallow and Deep: Milwaukee Wreck Diving

Shallow and Deep: Milwaukee Wreck Diving

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Article by Selene Muldowney and John Tapley; photos by Cal Kothrade

Straddling western Lake Michigan, Milwaukee is a beloved scuba diver’s destination, both for the plethora of shipwrecks found right off the coast, and for its devotion to preserving maritime history for future generations. With this dual focus, shipwreck explorers dip into history spanning centuries, and in turn, form their own unique memories of pristinely kept vessels unveiled by peak visibility. Wrecks both shallow and wide make up this watery world of the Midwest, encouraging a wide swath of divers to check out what waits beneath.

Jerry Otte, experienced diver and owner of Aquatic Adventures International in Brookfield, Wisconsin, strongly encourages divers to have advanced certification, or to be enrolled in an advanced class before trying Milwaukee’s mighty wrecks. His dive center unveils these top dive sites with clients, and also provides scuba, snorkeling, and underwater photography sales, and a plethora of training options for the local dive community.

A series of well-preserved wrecks, coupled with good visibility, are signatures of Lake Michigan diving, as Otte explains:

“We’re primarily known for the wrecks on Lake Michigan, and uniquely, many of these wrecks are historic because they were not intentionally sunk – it’s a bit different compared to, say, the Florida Keys. On a number of the most significant shipwrecks, lives were lost: they carry an interest almost like museum pieces; the oldest schooners, some from the 1800s, are in incredible shape. And conditions are relatively clear in comparison to inland lakes: we enjoy visibility from 20 to 100 feet depending on the time of year, depth, and other weather-related factors.”

For award-winning underwater photographer, marine historian, and experienced diver Cal Kothrade, Milwaukee’s sheer variety of wrecks offers a swath of opportunities for divers of varying interests.

“Milwaukee has a really nice variety of different types of wreck diving: from the Prins Willem to 19thcentury schooners and wooden sailing vessels like the to the steel car ferry at 120 feet deep,” he explains. “There’s something for everyone out here. You like to crawl through wrecks? You want to stay outside and take pictures? You can do it.”

These are just a few favored shipwrecks and stories found and forged off Milwaukee’s coast. Other favorites, while not mentioned in this article include the Milwaukee Car Ferry, Dredge No. 6, Schooner Lumberman, and neighboring vessels Steamer St. Albans and The EMBA. The Christmas Tree Ship Rouse Simmons, while located closer to Port Washington than Milwaukee, is another favorite.

Edward E. Gillen Tug

Gillen Tug full side view

The remains of the former 56-foot-long steel tug Edward E. Gillen is a less well-known wreck compared to its neighbors. Located about two-and-a-half miles east of Milwaukee’s harbor, the vessel rests upright and fairly intact in about 65 feet of water. A relatively younger shipwreck, it capsized in 1981 while conducting tow-winch tests with the U.S. Coast Guard – all four crew members survived, but the Gillen was a total loss.

According to Kothrade, the Gillen Tug isn’t the most popular wreck in the area due to its length, and accessing it can be a challenge: owing more to a lack of desirability than difficulty:

“I’d been diving in Milwaukee for years but hadn’t been on it. It’s not visited a lot by local charter operators because it’s hard to put six divers on it – you can’t possibly spend an entire tank of air on it. I hired a local six-pac to take and my buddies there. It wasn’t buoyed, so he’s looking for it on his sonar, and we were pretty sure we were going to bomb it like paratroopers coming out of a plane. We got down there and the visibility was great: about 40, 50 feet! But there was no wreck – nothing – maybe a rock.”

He returned to the Gillen Tug later: this time, with better results.

“We went out to the Gillen early in the year because the visibility is always better in the spring,” he explains. “The water was so clear – and this rarely happens in Lake Michigan – you could see the wreck from the surface. We had a great dive, and I ended up getting 12 photos of it in one frame.”

Northerner

Several miles southeast of Port Washington (about a two-hour drive from Milwaukee) lies a wooden, two-masted schooner in excellent condition: Northerner. One of the older vessels to inhabit Lake Michigan, it caught bad weather while being towed for repairs, and sank 130 feet below the choppy waters. Divers interested in seeing 19thcentury ship construction will enjoy features, which include: a full and intact railing, rudder and transom, bilge pump, windlass with anchor chain, forward mast (fallen over but still in place), a bowsprit with a rams head figure head, and cordwood still stuffed in the hold, clear up to the deck. 

Otte shares his expertise on diving the Northerner:

“It’s one of our favorite dive sites for reliably good visibility (consistently 80 feet), and we our divers are eager: we do it once a year because it is a bit of a trip to Port Washington. It’s definitely a deeper dive, and on the edge of recreational diving because the deck is at about 120 feet.

“Some of the most fun I’ve had on the Northerner is doing it as a technical dive, which is probably the correct way of doing it. People should be aware there is potential for narcosis, and I usually recommend against using enriched air because of depth; and being able to make a decompression stop is a skill you should have if you want to spend any time on it.”

Prins Willem V

Milwaukee’s premiere dive site is the Prins Willem V: a modern 258-foot steel-hulled packet freighter resting about three miles from Milwaukee’s harbor in 80 feet of water. Affectionally known as “Willie”, this World War II-era wreck is so beloved, Otte often reports guests coming from all over the world.

Kothrade shares one of his defining moments as an underwater photographer: when conditions on the Prins Willie were just right, he achieved greatness:

“Nobody ever got a full mosaic of the shipwreck, which was a goal of mine as an underwater photographer: to image it in a series of still shots and be the first person to do it. It was earlier in the season and I was diving with my club. We had good visibility and bright sunlight at 85 feet. I was getting good pictures, swimming 50 feet off the wreck, and shooting a couple hundred [stills]. It was a taxing process, but I covered 98 percent of it except for one small part.

“To finish the project, I needed to get back to the wreck, and it took me about four to five months. At the end of the season, I hired a buddy of mine on a boat, and dove by myself. The whole time I was worried someone would beat me to the punch! The mosaic is one of the things I’m most proud of as an underwater photographer.”

Prins Willem V’s underwater playground offers big adventures, and unsurprisingly, a mighty history behind it. Seasoned diver and historian Captain Jerry Guyer, owner of scuba center Pirates Cove Inc. and charter operation Len-Der Charters, frequently takes guests to the Willie, and shares the freighter’s journey.

From Captain Guyer’s writings at www.len-der.com:

“A Dutch motorship built in 1948 at Neder-Hardinxveld, Netherlands… On May 10, 1940, when she was only two-thirds completed, she was scuttled by the Netherlands army on the New Waterway River at Rotterdam to block use of the waterway by invading Germans. Raised in 1945 by the Oranje Line. Cleaned, reconditioned and completed. Made her maiden voyage in Jan. 1949. 

“[She] was a St. Lawrence canal size vessel engaged in regular trade between Northern European ports and the Great Lakes. On October 14, 1954, she collided with the oil barge Sinclair XII, which was being towed by the tug Sinclair Chicago about 1.7 miles east of the Milwaukee breakwater light. Two collisions – the first a glancing blow to the starboard side of the Willem’s bow, then a heavier one amidships, tearing a 20 by eight foot section of plate from the starboard side. Electrical and communications systems knocked out. Sailed eastward another two miles and sank, bow first, at 8:30 P.M. All 30 crew members rescued by the Coast Guard cutter Hollyhock. The Sinclair XII and Sinclair Chicago made port safely. A Coast Guard board of inquiry found both captains to blame.

“Ownership of the Willem was transferred gratis to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. The Corps decided it was a possible navigation hazard. Max Gene Nohl, a diver from Milwaukee, placed the winning bid to clear the wreckage to 40 feet below the surface in 180 days. The first major attempt to raise her in 1958 failed. Another attempt in 1961 also failed. 1965 the wreck sold at an auction to Charles K. Huthsing, chairman of the board of Fire Guard Co., Northbrook, Ill., to be used as a floating salesroom for his extinguisher firm. But, after four seasons of work, the Willem was not raised.”

These are just three dive sites, which convey the sheer diversity of scuba diving destinations found right off Milwaukee; three vessels, which not only signify yesteryear, but carry stories into the future – shaping history in motion. And with a variety of shipwrecks deep and shallow, many divers of different skill levels have something to look forward to.