Port Deco Divers to offer full service to those drawn to cold water exploration
Port Washington’s proximity to shimmering Lake Michigan drew Joseph “TJ” Frank and Letitia “Tish” Hase to it as the site to open Port Deco Divers.
Once open for business, they hope the dive shop itself becomes an attraction.
A grand opening is planned for Saturday, April 9.
“The goal is for the shop to become a destination that people want to see,” Frank said this week while taking a break from some serious cleaning and restoration work.
Located in the Harbor Square Building, 110 S. Wisconsin St., Suite 1, Frank said he hopes the shop soon becomes a haven for scuba divers as well as people who just love living near one of the largest bodies of fresh water in the world.
The retail shop will have an assortment of quirky touches and works of art that will appeal to people who have never even tried on a wetsuit.
Reclaimed barn wood is being utilized in any number of ways in the shop’s decor, as are a pair of sliding doors with stained-glass inlay salvaged from an old barn.
A century-old bathtub has been repurposed into a wash tank for diving equipment.
The centerpiece of the store may be a huge hand-painted map of Lake Michigan’s western shoreline highlighting many of the more well-known shipwrecks that lurk under the water’s surface.
The map hangs in the training room, which sports a large barn-wood table and a magnificent view of the marina.
“We are in an area of one of the greatest concentration of shipwrecks in the world,” Frank said, pointing to the large map.
“Most of the wrecks were made of wood and are perfectly preserved in the cold, salt-free water. The water is amazingly clear, in part because of the zebra mussels. Whenever I dive at the site of the schooner Northerner, I can’t help but feel like being in a scene from ‘Pirates of the Caribbean.’”
That tropical locale is something Frank is especially familiar with, have spent several years in the region as a diving instructor.
He grew up in Richfield, but a friend’s father said he would pay for a tropical diving trip if Frank became a certified diver.
“That’s when I fell in love with scuba diving. I sold my house in Menomonee Falls and moved to Mexico,” he said.
Frank delighted in being able to dive into the warm, inviting waters while working as an instructor for a host of resorts.
He also got to do some cave diving, including discovering a large underwater cavern in Tulum, Mexico, that was used by the Mayans for human sacrifices.
When health concerns beset his parents, Frank gave up the idyllic life on the Caribbean and returned to Wisconsin in 2011.
“Family has to come first,” he said.
Frank became a diving instructor at Underwater Connection in Menomonee Falls, as well as a member of the Richfield Fire Department and Washington County dive team.
All along, he said, he dreamed of opening his own dive shop. That dream was shared by fellow instructor Hase, and the quest for the perfect location began.
The search ended when they found the Port setting.
“There is a lot of dive activity out of Milwaukee, but nothing north all the way to Two Rivers,” Frank said.
Their vision extends well beyond a retail outlet where diving supplies like drysuits, wetsuits, regulators, masks and diving fins are sold.
“You can do that out of your house. We want to bring the whole dive experience here,” Frank said.
Port Deco Divers will be a certified tank refilling station. The shop will also have a boat to ferry divers to local wreck sites.
Arrangements have been made with the nearby Holiday Inn Harborside to accommodate divers looking to explore the depths of the big lake through the shop.
In addition, the shop will offer introductory classes at the Port Washington outdoor pool and advance training for divers who want to become more proficient in the sport.
After two or three hours of classroom training and an hour in the pool, Frank said, students will be ready to take guided dives to some of the shallower wreck sites in Lake Michigan, such as the final resting spot of the Toledo.
A lounge and open-air deck are also planned where diving fans will be welcomed to simply hangout and swap stories.
Long-range plans call for the addition of a dock on the harbor’s west slip, and possibly the sponsorship of an “iron diver’s” competition in 2018.
The shop owners have already been in touch with representatives from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which is in the process of considering much of the region as the site for a marine sanctuary.
“We are anxious to become involved in the community and help in preserving the area’s maritime heritage,” Frank said.
TOUCHES OF WHIMSY will make Port Deco Divers a tourist destination, even if visitors have no interest in scuba diving. Co-owner TJ Frank posed with a scuba tank at the Port Washington shop. Photo by Mark Jaeger