BLOG: Scuba Diving: Exploring Door County's Shipwrecks
As I finished my campground duties I glanced up at the tree tops. “Finally, a calm day,” I thought to myself. This August was a windy one in Northern Door and it was tough to get on the water for any extended period of time. Today was different and my wife, Kathy, and I were going to advantage of it. We loaded our dive gear into the back of the truck and headed to Gills Rock for a quick shore dive on the wreck of the Fleetwing.
The Fleetwing is a 135’ schooner that ran aground during a storm in October of 1888. It is broken apart and its remains lie in water that is only 15-30 feet deep less than 100 yards from shore. It is a perfect spot for a shore dive in Northern Door County because there is a small public park and kayak launch located at the site of the wreck. The Fleetwing is part of the Wisconsin Historical Society’s Maritime Trail and there is usually a sign at the launch with more information of the wreck.
We unloaded our gear and set up for the dive. The lake was calm and the sun was high and bright. It was a perfect day to dive. I was hoping for good water clarity but wasn’t sure what we were going to find because of all the wind and waves we had over the previous few days. Kathy and I walked our gear out past the rocky shore, did our pre-dive checks, swam out over the wreck and dropped below the surface.
The water wasn’t as clear as we would have liked with only about 15 feet of visibility due to the algae and debris that had been washed in by the recent wind. Most of the debris was on the bottom moving gently back and forth. We were careful not to get too close and kick up any more debris that would further obstruct our view of the Fleetwing. We concentrated on controlling our buoyancy and staying a few feet off the bottom.
There were plenty of fish to see as soon as we neared the bottom. Gobies darted in and out of the rocks and debris all around us. They seemed to come and investigate the unusual creatures (us humans) swimming around. When we got too close they would dart back into their hiding spots only to come back out a few seconds later and watch us again. Smallmouth bass made slow circles around us in the water column. They would hug the bottom and rocky ledge and then swim out to meet us in the open water as we explored.
When we turned our attention away from the fish we began to notice the pieces of the wreck. We could see what was left of the wooden ship below us. Flat boards and the thick ribs of the hull were protruding from the bottom. Many years of sandy deposits and rock from the wave action and erosion had partially buried the parts of the ship. Every hard surface on and around it was encrusted with zebra mussels and their shells littered the bottom. The wreck most likely looked a lot better prior to the zebra mussel invasion.
We swam out deeper slowly scanning for the other parts of the wreck. Eventually we found them and spent some time looking them over. The cold waters of Lake Michigan do an amazing job preserving these old ships, but unfortunately people don’t do a very good job. Due to the proximity of this wreck, much of it has been taken away by divers that came before us looking for souvenirs. Now, all shipwrecks around the peninsula are protected from salvaging and looting under stiff penalty of law. The only things you can take from these sites are memories and pictures.
After about 40 minutes of bottom time we made our way back toward the shore but not before attempting to snap an underwater selfie to remember the dive. Not too bad of a shot!
The Fleetwing is one of the easiest shore dives in Door County. There is minimal boat traffic in the area and little to no current to contend with. If you don’t have dive gear, it is in shallow enough water to be able to snorkel or kayak over on a day with calm winds and good water clarity. It was one of the first wrecks we explored when we first moved to this area and one we bring friends and family to if they want to take a paddle or swim to see some history.
With over 275 shipwrecks in Door County alone, and many of those in less than 60 feet of water, this area is the ideal spot for a diving destination vacation. In fact, the Door County and Green Bay area is the largest of the Wisconsin Maritime Trails regions. Living in this area surrounded by dive sites, I know Kathy and I will be spending many more hours together beneath waters surrounding Door County.