View Full Version : A Tale of Two Wrecks

08-28-2007, 12:35
A Tale of Two Wrecks: The Prins Willem V, and The John D. Gill

This has been a busy month for my wife and I. We have driven more then 3,500 miles, set foot in seven different states, and made more than two dozen dives in three different bodies of water. In the course of our wanderings, we had the opportunity to dive two very good shipwrecks: "The Willie" in Lake Michigan, near Milwaukee, and The John D. Gill, in the Atlantic Ocean off Cape Fear.

The Willie was a Trans-Atlantic package freighter built in Amsterdam in 1940. She has ties to WWII because she was sunk on purpose before being completed in order to prevent her capture by the invading Nazis. Because of this, whe has the unlikely distinction of sinking both before and after the Gill. She was later raised from the channel and completed to serve as a cargo carrier between Europe and the Great Lakes. The cause of her demise was its collision with the towed barge Sinclair XII. She was 258' long, and lies on her side in about 90' of water 3.5 miles outside of the Milwaukee breakwater.

The Gill was an oil tanker transporting fuel oil to Philadelphia when she was torpedoed and sunk in 1942 by the German U-Boat U-158. The 523' long boat caught fire when a spark from one of the life boats ignited the spilled fuel oil. The buring ship remained floating for nearly two weeks, 25 miles offshore from Wilmington, NC. The buring ship illuminated the entire sky with an eerie glow while coastal residents looked on from their blacked out windows. Life was rough for the Gill even after it was sunk, as the large vessel was an excellent place for German U-Boats to hide from US ships during their patrols. This drew several rounds of depth charges from US ships trying to flush out the hiding German subs. Like the Willie, the Gill also lies in about 90' of water, but is nearly 25 miles from the Wrightsville Beach Inlet due to the very gradual slope of the continental shelf around North Carolina.

Diving these two ships was a lesson in diversity between the wrecks of the Great Lakes, and the wrecks of the Atlantic. Diving the Willie was almost like navigating through a functional ship. The boat was easily made out, and almost completely intact. The Radio Masts still standing above the deck at the same angle the ship is lying. The deck railling and staircases are still intact, and you can easily imagine yourself climbing them yourself underwater if you would just take your fins off. The Gill was barely even recognizable as a ship anymore. The decking plates were almost all caved in. The superstructure of the boat is nearly all in ruins, and what is still there is twisted and rusting in the warm saltwater. Despite being a much larger ship than the Willie, and sitting upright, the relief off the sand is only about 20', compared to about 40' for Willie, which sits on its side.

The environment was also different. Whereas the Willie was a surreal dive, with the Dim light filtering down to the wreck casting a gauzy glow everywhere you looked, making you think you might be the only person in the world right then; the Gill was absolutely teeming with life. The schools of baitfish which made the Gill their home during the last 60 years were ever present, and also attracted schools of large barracuda, and a host of sharks. Whereas on the Willie, we spent the entire dive investigating the wreck, and peering into all the different holds, passageways, and swim-throughs; on the Gill, we were constantly looking past the wreck to the marine life that surrounded it. On the Gill's bow wreckage, we looked out into the haze to see the shadowy outlines of half a dozen Sand Tigers, and were escorted by one or two at several points along our swim. On the Willie, we only had our bubbles to escort us as we made our way aft imagining what it was like for the crew to walk these same passageways on their daily activities, finally making our way to the stern to see the ships name still proudly displayed on the hull.

We were lucky to dive these two ships that both sailed the sea during the same era, but are now so different due to the environments they lay in. I don't think I can choose a favorite between the two. They were both excellent dives, but for different reasons. I just feel lucky that I had the opportunity to dive on them both, and it makes me recognize the great diversity there is in diving for anyone adventurous enough to explore the possibilities that our sport offers us. I have been diving for ten years, and I still have yet to scratch the surface!


08-28-2007, 12:39
That sounds so awesome Tom!
I'm jealous...I wanna wreck dive :(

08-28-2007, 14:49
damn that is awesome, I was just talking to my wife last night about wanting to get to NC to check out some of the wrecks. What outfit did you dive with in NC and how long was the boat ride?


08-28-2007, 15:52
We dove out of Wrightsville Beach (Wilmington) with a operation called Aquatic Safaris. They had the best dive boat I have ever been on. 18 divers on a large boat with nice ladders. The boat did 20-25kts, and the rides were about an hour each way.

We also dove the Hyde, which is an excellent, intact, artificial reef sunk a few years ago, and sitting at even keel.

The Markham is only a few hunnerd yards from the Hyde. It is lying on its side. Also intentionally sunk, and is the home to about three dozen sandtigers this year. We went to the sand to look for some teeth, and we got surrounded by seven of them. I had to watch my head going up so I didn't run into any. The surge was so strong at the top of the wreck that the water pressure made my reg freeflow.

Our last dive was a ledge at 100' which kinda stunk because the vis was horrible. (~12')

No Misses
08-28-2007, 16:13
b1gcountry, that was a great write up. Thanks

08-28-2007, 17:58
when you were on the willie, did you enjoy the veiw of "ground zero" at the bottom of the mooring? A nice 20 ft dia. white circle where no marine life (aka zebra muscles) grow fromc areless divers plopping down onto the wreck with uncontrolled descents.

08-28-2007, 18:07
Actually, I kinda did enjoy that. It was about the only part of the wreck NOT covered in Zebra Mussels. I even went so far as to rub off a couple extra square feel at the end of both of my dives to make it a little bigger.

01-14-2008, 11:45
That sounds like a great trip!!

01-14-2008, 12:19
wow....great story!!!, to date the only wreck i have dove is the lady of the lake in Lake Winnipesaukee New Hampshire, its a great wreck, 150' carriage boat, loaded with large and small mouth bass

BouzoukiJoe A.K.A. wrecker130 AKA Chuck Norris AKA joeforbroke (banned)
01-14-2008, 13:05
Cool. I'd love to checkout some of the wrecks in the Great Lakes someday. Have an old friend in Chicago... hmm.

There are a lot of good wrecks here in NC. Discovery and Olympus out of Morehead City are good places to book an NC wreck diving charter.

Out of Wilmingtom, I've heard that Aquatic Safaris is a good shop. Can't speak from personal experience though. I'm 0 for 2 due to the "volatile weather conditions of the open ocean." I tried to go to the Gill and Hyde and got blown out. I also tried to go to the Normania and Markham which also got blown out.

Another operator out of that area is Cape Fear Divers. If you want megaladon teeth, I hear they know exactly where to go.

Aquatic Safaris is headed to the "City of Houston" on Feb 2nd. I'd like to go but I don't have a buddy and don't want to instabuddy with someone while I am still learning my dry suit. I haven't yet been below 60 feet in my drysuit.

If you're ever headed to the area and need a buddy, send me a p.m. and if our schedules line up perhaps we can splash together.