“The sea has never been friendly to man. At most it has been the accomplice of human restlessness.”
â€• Joseph Conrad, novelist
The least friendly portion of Lake Superior is “Shipwreck Coast.” Also known as “the graveyard of ships,” Shipwreck Coast has a century’s long record of ruining hundreds of ships and thousands of lives - especially in the month of November.
November is when polar Alberta Clipper winds blow south over the vast low pressure areas of the largest body of fresh water in the world: the Great Lakes. The intense low pressure pulls polar winds and southern Gulf air together. The mixture is as explosive as it is unpredictable, creating tornados, blizzards, Category Two hurricane winds, and waves over thirty feet high. Sailors who have survived simply call it “the Witch of November.”
The SS Edmund Fitzgerald
In 1958 the largest ship of its kind was built to travel the Great Lakes. It was named after the President and Chairman of the Board of Northwestern Mutual Life Insurance Company, the agency that funded the construction of the SS (Steam Ship) Edmund Fitzgerald.
The Fitzgerald had a wealth of titles: Queen of the Lakes, Mighty Fitz, Big Fitz, or just plain Fitz. For seventeen years the Edmund Fitzgerald carried massive loads of iron ore from Duluth to various ports around the Great Lakes. The Fitzgerald broke numerous records – often it’s own - for cargo carried during a shipping season. It was the pride of Great Lakes shipping.
The Fitzgerald was as elegant as it was durable. Part of the interior of the ship featured expensive carpeting, tiled bathrooms, and leather chairs. Passenger and crew quarters enjoyed air conditioning. Other amenities included a large galley and food pantry. The freighter was almost as long as the Titanic, yet could be maintained by less than thirty crew members, including the captain.
In 1972 Captain Ernest McSorley took the helm of the Edmund Fitzgerald. The Canadian born skipper had sailed the Great Lakes (and oceans) for more than forty years. He treated his crew as the professionals they were, and they returned his respect. His disregard of the Witch of November was less professional.
McSorley had a reputation as a “rough weather” captain. His tendency was to battle the elements, and the Edmund Fitzgerald was his ablest weapon. “Rough water didn’t really scare him,” noted a researcher. “McSorley believed in his boat and he didn’t like to waste time. He was famous for saying, ‘We don’t get paid for sitting here.’”
So it was with little anxiety that McSorley took the news of a storm coming across Lake Superior on the afternoon of November 9, 1975. He was sixty three years old and had seen it all. He was planning to retire at the end of the shipping season, which was very near. In Superior, Wisconsin, the Fitzgerald was loaded with over 26,000 tons of taconite pellets.
Their destination was Zug Island on the Detroit River. McSorley aimed the Fitz in a straight line towards the target and sailed away.
November 10, 1975
Soon after the Fitz left port the National Weather Service issued gale warnings for the area the Fitzgerald was sailing in. Winds stiffened. Waves grew over ten feet high. The Fitz carried on.
The next day, November 10, brought worse weather. At 3:30 pm McSorley radioed Captain Jesse Cooper of the Arthur Anderson, a cargo ship sailing about fifteen miles behind the Fitzgerald:
"Anderson, this is the Fitzgerald. I have sustained some topside damage. I have a fence rail laid down, two vents lost or damaged, and a list. I'm checking down. Will you stay by me til I get to Whitefish?"
That the Fitzgerald was listing (tilting) to one side was a sign of significant structural damage. Whitefish Bay provided shelter from the storm. It was a haven for battered boats. McSorley’s plan was an admission there was no more ‘business as usual’ for the Edmund Fitzgerald. McSorley was seeking safe harbor.
Cooper agreed to keep the Anderson near the Fitzgerald until it reached Whitefish Bay. He asked McSorley if he had his pumps going. McSorley replied, “Yes, both of them.” Somewhere between 5:30 and 6:00 pm the Fitzgerald radioed again: “I have a bad list, lost both radars, and am taking heavy seas over the deck. One of the worst seas I’ve ever been in.” McSorley asked Cooper to help guide him to Whitefish Bay. Cooper obliged.
It got worse. By late afternoon the Anderson reported winds of 67 miles an hour and waves 25 feet high. Gusts of wind were recorded as high as 87 miles per hour. Then the Anderson was nearly sunk by rogue waves thirty five feet high. The Witch of November had fully arrived.
Captain Cooper radioed the Fitzgerald at 7:10 pm, and asked McSorley how things were. “We are holding are own,” he replied. Fifteen minutes later the SS Edmund Fitzgerald disappeared from the Anderson’s radar screen.
There was no SOS signal. The Fitz simply disappeared, and to this very day no one knows exactly what happened. We are left with an abiding feeling that it wasn’t supposed to end this way. The SS Edmund Fitzgerald, the mighty Fitz, the great ship elegant enough to host the rich and famous, and durable enough to break so many records hauling cargo across the Great Lakes. What caused the wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald?
There was no one to answer the question. The twenty nine men on the Edmund Fitzgerald, ranging in age from twenty-one to Captain McSorley’s sixty-three, would never be able to explain exactly what happened. One can only imagine their last moments, when the sky and sea became a blinding blackness that surrounded them. They felt the roll and pitch of the ship, heard the groaning of metal tortured by nature. How much did they know before ship succumbed to sea, and sank slowly to the bottom of the great lake?
The Anderson radioed the Coast Guard with the news, and was ordered to search for the Fitz. The search continued the next day, November 11. Debris, lifeboats, and rafts were found. Several months later Navy divers found the Edmund Fitzgerald in two pieces in water 530 feet deep. The initial speculation was that the Fitz broke on the surface in the middle, where all the tons of taconite were loaded.
The wreck was investigated by the National Transportation Safety Board. The Board concluded that hatch covers on the deck of the Fitzgerald collapsed, resulting in a sudden and massive flooding of the cargo hold, which caused the ship to sink. This conclusion was unconvincing to many experienced mariners
In 1995 a dive down to the wreck found a body wearing a life jacket, proving that at least one crew member was aware of danger. By now another theory of how the Fitz sank developed. Cooper had reported two (possibly three) rogue waves that battered the Anderson, then headed in the direction of the Fitzgerald. Known as “three sisters,” the rogue waves crash onto a ship’s deck in shattering succession, each wave leaving tons of water on the deck. Overloaded with taconite, with a low waterline, and with structural damage causing a serious list, how could the Fitzgerald have prevailed against such a force of nature?
The rogue wave theory is the prevailing explanation for the question: what sank the SS Edmund Fitzgerald?
The 1995 dive was the last legal dive allowed on the Fitzgerald. The divers claimed the 200 pound bell of the Edmund Fitzgerald. The bell was restored and today is displayed at the Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum in Michigan. Every November 10th the bell is ceremoniously rung 29 times for each crewman of the SS Edmund Fitzgerald.
Today the wreck site is classified a graveyard. Diving the wreck is forbidden, so the dead may rest in peace. They are gone but not forgotten. The wreck of the Fitz has been explored in numerous books over the years. Perhaps the most enduring response to the tragedy is a ballad written in 1976 by Canadian folk singer Gordon Lightfoot. Entitled “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald,” Lightfoot’s lyrics are accurate and heart rending, especially the line: “Does anyone know where the love of God goes when the waves turn the minutes to hours?”
Where indeed was the love of God on the night of November 10th? Perhaps at the cold, dark bottom of Lake Superior, patiently waiting to greet 29 valiant seamen, and take them home.
The SS Edmund Fitzgerald Online (SSEFO)
Too Deep, Too Dark, Too Cold, by Jeannine Ouellette with Jon Zurn, published in The Rake, November 2003.
Wikipedia entries for The SS Edmund Fitzgerald, Lake Superior, Gordon Lightfoot.
You Tube video, Gordon Lightfoot performing The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald.