GILLS ROCK, Wis. — Jim Robinson was at the wheel while deckhand Carson Orrick stood watch as their boat, The Shoreline, slowly floated into Garrett Bay on the north end of Door County. "How we doing, Carson?" Robinson asked just a second or two before Orrick, his teenage grandson, told him to cut the power.
"This is real shallow over here, and I don't want to hit (bottom)," Robinson told his dozen passengers.
In broad daylight, the skipper avoided running aground. But on an autumn evening in 1888, ran aground was just what happened to the Fleetwing, an ill-fated schooner loaded with lumber. To the delight of his guests, Robinson idled just above the ship's skeletal remains.
"When I knock the propeller down, the water is clear as glass," he said, pointing to the wooden "ribs" clearly visible just below the surface."The ribs were like the fingers that held the hull together," he explained. "Over here is a piece of that hull."
As the tourists leaned over the railings on both sides of the boat to snap pictures, the skipper pointed to various bits and pieces of the wooden ship, the most accessible of an estimated 250 wrecks along the Door County peninsula, about 245 miles north of Chicago in Lake Michigan.
The Maritime Museum at Gills Rock, not far from where the Fleetwing rests, shares the stories of the ill-fated vessels that have sunk through the centuries. The shipwreck sagas are also told on roughly 20 markers that form part of the Wisconsin State Historical Society's Maritime Trails.
The tales, however, are most vividly told by Robinson, a veteran scuba diver who has visited many of the wrecks repeatedly.
One of those tales is that of the Frank O'Connor, a steamer that in 1919 caught fire about 21/2 miles out into Lake Michigan from the Cana Island lighthouse, a popular tourist attraction. Buoys mark the site where the large coal freighter sits submerged in 65 feet of water.
"It's a really neat wreck," Robinson noted. "The steam engine is 30 feet tall. Each boiler is about the size of this boat. There's a 12-foot propeller."
"You could easily do two dives on that and not see it all," he continued.
While several charter-boat captains, Robinson included, arrange dives to various wrecks, landlubbers appreciate the above-the-waterline experience they get as The Shoreline motors through the chop in the channel connecting Green Bay and Lake Michigan. The early French explorers and trappers called it Porte des Morts, or Death's Door, from which the county gets its name. The passage separates Washington Island from the mainland.
"Death's Door has a cross current that can be pretty tricky to navigate," said Jon Paul Van Harpen, a marine archaeologist from Sturgeon Bay and author of the book "Door County Shipwrecks." But he thinks the French may have named it that as a ruse.
"For all the notoriety, there's not a lot of fatalities associated with it (with a few exceptions)," he observed. "A lot of historians now think that was the French trying to make the place scarier, to keep other European (explorers) away. The French liked this place for its fur."
It was, in fact, a French ship that became Door County's first recorded shipwreck more than three centuries ago. Le Griffon was loaded with pelts when it sank in 1679. Despite several searches in recent years, divers have failed to conclusively pinpoint the ship's resting place.
"It's somewhere out here off Washington Island," Robinson told his passengers.
Cruising through Death's Door — past towering bluffs, the Pilot Island lighthouse and an abandoned Coast Guard station on Plum Island — Robinson shared some hair-raising history, such as that of the great storm of November 1913. For four days, massive waves were whipped by hurricanelike winds. When the water finally calmed, 20 ships had sunk and 248 sailors were dead.
Dinnerware from the Louisiana, a freighter claimed by that storm, is displayed in the informative shipwreck exhibit at the Gills Rock museum, a branch of Sturgeon Bay's larger Door County Maritime Museum. Just inside the front door sits the still-working brass bell from the Sardinia. The bell was recovered 60 years after the schooner went down near Death's Door in 1900.
Just west of Gills Rock in Garrett Bay, parts of the Fleetwing can be accessed only by snorkelers and scuba divers. Other chunks of wreckage lie on the sandy bottom just a few feet from a township boat ramp, however. The shallow water there was good news for the men onboard the 19th-century schooner.
"They just walked to shore," Robinson said.
If you go
Boat tour: Jim Robinson's Shoreline Charters (920-421-0922, shorelinecharters.net) operates seasonal, 90-minute tours departing from the Gills Rock marina. He charges $39 for adults and $19.50 for children 4-12.
Museum: The Gills Rock Museum is open daily through Oct. 13. Admission is $5 for adults and $2 for youths 5-17.
Watch it: A sign at the museum urges divers to "Take only pictures, leave only bubbles." Bright yellow placards posted by the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources warn divers that it's a crime to remove items from, or to deface, any shipwreck.
The trail: A list of locations for the Maritime Trails markers in Door County is available online (maritimetrails.org/green_bay_door_county_region.php).Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun