The legends live on…
Photos by Kat Jacobs
It’s a warm dusk, and the SV Mai Tai, a handsome catamaran, is cruising away from the harbor. With Milwaukee’s silhouette behind us, Captain Rick Hake is steering us into the streaks of a storm.
We are less than a mile and a half from the dock. Captain Rick – a lanky, youthful man with an exuberant mop of hair – assures me that the boat can handle a spate of pretty bad, even vicious, weather. This is a good thing to hear, as in a matter of minutes the wind has kicked up from four knots to 22. The boat is dipping and rolling, and the water is capped white.
The sturdy, luxurious craft is Rick’s second home. It’s also home to Adventure Charter Boats, Rick’s dive charter business, and several times a week it ferries divers out on Lake Michigan to see the bones of less fortunate crafts.
Milwaukee is a city of well-kept secrets, and the diving that draws in-the-know dive tourists from around the world is one of them. Few realize just how many sunken ships are pinned down in the Great Lakes; thousands have slipped under since the very first ship to sail them, Rene La Salle’s Griffin, sank after leaving the Door Peninsula piled with furs in 1679.
Some divers have dedicated their lives to finding the wreck of the Griffin. Others seek less tangible prizes – adventure, mystery, serenity – in Lake Michigan, a body of water the size of Croatia with a fickle and very cold heart.
The lake, it is said, never gives up her dead
Lake wrecks are incomparable. The water lacks the corrosive properties of salt and destructive saltwater organisms, and the near-freezing temperatures refrigerate everything, slowing down the process of rust and decay. Milwaukee, in particular, has a higher concentration of wreckage than other shores, and conditions are ideal for divers –unlike, for instance, Chicago which, despite a number of spectacular wrecks, is too shallow and heavily trafficked.
Jerry Guyer, with a white beard and a grizzled manner, is something of a freshwater cowboy. He started diving out of casual curiosity after a high school classmate told him about a scuba class he was taking. Forty years later, after decades of marine salvage, training dive rescue teams and running charters, Jerry knows the bottom of Lake Michigan better than anyone. He’s discovered more than 20 vanished wrecks in the Great Lakes. Diving is about pushing frontiers for him.
“What’s beyond the next rock?” he asks. “What can I find out there that no one else has seen?”
He shows me a map of the shoreline with Xs on the wrecks and several tiny ultrasounds that make the boats look like creatures growing in the womb of the water.
“Every one of these wrecks is something different,” Jerry explains, and points to each as he tells their stories – unsophisticated navigation technology, bad lighting, old boats, freak accidents. The Hiran Bond was run over by another boat while it was docked; the Eastlander, a crowded pleasure cruiser, rolled over when too many people congregated on one side; the Appomatox, a mere 70 feet off of Atwater Beach, rammed aground at top speed because its view was obscured by smoke from a city fire.
Like most divers, Jerry has dived around the world. But nothing holds the same allure as the lake for the Milwaukee native.
“There’s no excitement for me (elsewhere),” he says. “Everyone can go there and see the same fish, the same reefs. I like to say I’ve been somewhere no one else has been.”
Jerry’s favorite wreck to dive used to be the Niagra, a side-wheel steamer that caught on fire and sank in 1856, taking 60 of its passengers with – most of them Scandinavian immigrants. It remains one of the worst-ever Great Lakes disasters in terms of loss of life.
Today, the Niagra is covered in zebra mussels, obscuring its features. Still, it’s an example of the way a wreck can tell a story that illuminates the past – immigration, industry and trade – that made the Midwest.
“I like to explore,” he says. “The history of the city is buried under the water.”
Old Michigan steams like a young man’s dreams
A female mannequin in full dive gear is posed flirtatiously outside the Deep Blue dive shop in Franklin. Inside, I am watching clips from recent dive trips – to Bonnair, Cozumel, the Galapagos Islands. A shot of a wiggling school of fish cuts to a bikini-clad woman spinning fire poles with a studly partner.
“That was in Belize,” Rich Henry says.
“That doesn’t look like diving,” I say.
But Rich sets me straight. “Diving is way more than getting in the water,” he says. “Diving is a lifestyle. It’s about companionship. Travel. Adventure.”
Rich Henry is the operations manager at Deep Blue, one of the top 10 dive centers in the country. Rich thinks that anyone can dive – and that Milwaukee, while not as sexy as Honduras, is a great place to learn.
Put aside everything you expect about diving. Learning doesn’t take a ton of money and you don’t have to be in perfect health. The oldest person Deep Blue has ever certified was 76. “Now he travels the world,” Rich says.
Think it’s a man’s game? Think again. “Some of the best divers in the world are women.” Dive tourism is also increasingly tapping into the singles market, with week-long dive excursions for lonely hearts.
But lake diving is oft misunderstood.
“Why do people not dive in the Great Lakes?” he asks. “Number one: it’s cold. Well, it’s not that cold. I have been at a depth of 130 feet with a temperature of 68 degrees. Believe me – I hate the cold.”
Visibility, often assumed to be poor, can exceed 100 feet – and it’s getting better, as invasive zebra mussel populations continue to grow. The mussels act as water filters and it is easier than ever to find your way around under the surface. Still, Rich says, the conditions are not always reliable.
“You have to respect Lake Michigan as a living, breathing being.”
The stories Rich tells about divers he’s known and his own diving experiences are all about transformation – homebodies turn into jetsetters, lives get tugged in strange new directions, families come together. When asked to share his most memorable dive, Rich – a man who has dived with great white sharks and with Jacques Cousteau’s son – will tell you about the first time he saw his daughter suit up and get in the water.
The dive community is tight-knit and, Rich says, it doesn’t matter if you are a drywall installer, a chef, or a career multimillionaire. In diving, he says, “We’re all in the same boat together. We’re all just divers.”
… when the gales of November come early
The storm is over as abruptly as it begins. The Mai Tai is approaching the mooring buoy of the Prins Willem V, a freighter that sank in 1954 after a collision with an oil barge. The Willem tried to make it to shore – the crew abandoned ship, and no lives were lost – but 2.9 miles away from the harbor it slipped under, taking its cargo of jukeboxes, band instruments and printing presses down with it. Today, resting on its side in 90 feet of water, it is the most popular dive site in the lake – so popular that after a few years of lake wreck diving, some divers get “Willie’d out.”
“There’s so much there,” says Captain Hake. “There are so many people that say ‘Oh, I’ve always wanted to dive.’ But there’s this huge resource five minutes from where we live! Why wait until you’re on vacation?”
Although he has been sailing since he was a boy, Rick has only been a diver for a few years. What drew him to it?
“I was windsurfing in Baja,” he says, “and one day, there was no wind.”
“It’s an underrated wreck,” Rick says. “A lot of fish, big timber frames. There’s a lot to see there, even though it’s shallow.”
In diving, he says, “There’s a certain level of solitude, even when there are people right next to you. It’s kind of peaceful.”
The Prins Willem V’s mooring buoy is modest – an empty bottle of laundry detergent tied to some nylon rope. The other end of the rope is tied to the wreck. We see the sharp, unnatural edges of the boat on the scanner. It is almost 40 feet tall from the floor of the lake. You’d never know it’s there.
The storm line now is arcing toward the city, where the setting sun defines every edge of the clouds. Milwaukee looks unimportant from here, and the water is a smoky blue. It makes sense that a lake like this would sink our ships. As we head for the shore ahead of the rain and heavy winds that will soon sweep the coastline, there is a moment of being at one with an experience shared by so many sailors in the past, of knowing this could be our last ride and that the Lake could claim us. And though we are never truly in danger, the exhilaration of that moment ties us to our forefathers – captains of courage and ambition who gambled and lost everything, leaving the wreckage of their dreams behind for future generations to discover. VS