Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald

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No one knows how many ships plying the Great Lakes have been sunk by the treacherous weather, but the most famous is the Edmund Fitzgerald, thanks in large part to Gordon Lightfoot’s 1976 song, The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald.

Originally nicknamed The Queen of the Lakes, the nearly 14,000 ton, 729-foot Edmund Fitzgerald was once the largest ore hauler on the Great Lakes, and a true workhorse, setting seasonal haul records six different times. By November 1975, she had made an estimated 748 round trips, usually between Superior, WI and Toledo, OH, with a cargo of taconite pellets (low-grade iron ore) bound for Detroit’s auto factories.

November is known as Storm Month on the Great Lakes, and even given that, the weather on Lake Superior on November 10th, 1975 was especially bad. Winds of up to 52 knots were reported, with extremely rough seas and some waves reaching more than 40 feet. The Edmund Fitzgerald, under the command of Ernest McSorley was followed by the Arthur M. Anderson helmed by Capt. Bernie Cooper. Both captains were experienced lake pilots, and had skippered their ships through similar conditions, and both ships were in radio contact.

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The two captains agreed to take the northerly course across Lake Superior, where they would be protected by highlands on the Canadian shore. They would later make a turn to the southeast and eventually reach the shelter of Whitefish Point.

In the early afternoon of November 10, the Fitzgerald had passed Michipicoten Island and was approaching Caribou Island, and the Anderson was some 17 miles astern, just approaching Michipicoten, about three miles off the West End Light. By then, both radar sets on the Fitzgerald had failed, possibly due to damaged antennas, and the Anderson was using its set to give McSorley positioning information. While snow and spray limited forward visibility, Captain Cooper could clearly see the Fitzgerald and the Caribou Island beacon on his radar set, and could also measure the distance between them. He and his officers watched the Fitzgerald pass right over the dangerous area of shallow water.

At 3:30 PM that afternoon, Captain McSorley radioed Captain Cooper and said: “Anderson, this is the Fitzgerald. I have a fence rail down (posts which hold up the guard cables on the sides of the ship,) two vents lost or damaged, and a list. I’m checking down (slowing his speed to allow the Anderson to catch up.) Will you stay by me till I get to Whitefish?” Captain Cooper asked McSorley if he had his pumps going, and McSorley said, “Yes, both of them.”

As the afternoon wore on, radio communications with the Fitzgerald were routine navigational information but contained nothing of an alarming nature. However, at about 5:20 PM the crest of a wave smashed the Anderson’s starboard lifeboat, making it unusable. Captain Cooper reported winds from the WNW at a steady 58 knots with gusts to 70 knots, and seas of 18 to 25 feet.

According to Captain Cooper, about 6:55 PM, he and the men in the Anderson’s pilothouse felt a “bump,” felt the ship lurch, and then turned to see a monstrous wave engulfing their entire vessel from astern. The wave worked its way along the deck, crashing on the back of the pilothouse, driving the bow of the Anderson down into the sea. Cooper later testified that “[Immediately afterward,] the Anderson just raised up and shook herself off of all that water …then, another wave just like the first one or bigger hit us again. I watched those two waves head down the lake towards the Fitzgerald, and I think those were the two that sent him under.”

The Anderson lost contact with the Fitzgerald about 20 minutes later. The following day, the Coast Guard began an exhaustive search, and on November 14, a U.S. Navy plane equipped with a magnetic anomaly detector located a strong contact 17 miles north-northwest of Whitefish Point. During the following three days, the Coast Guard cutter Woodrush, using a sidescan sonar, located two large pieces of wreckage in the same area. The front and back were more or less intact, but the center section had been reduced to pieces.

The Navy’s Underwater Recovery Vehicle CURV III found the wreck on May 20, 1976 at a depth of 530 feet. All 29 crewmen were lost; whatever had happened had occurred so fast that nobody had time to send out a distress call.

But what actually did happen? Many theories have been proposed, from hatches improperly secured, to scraping the bottom, to previous structural damage. Captain Cooper thought the cause were the monster waves which hit the Anderson, a group of three rogue waves, often called the “three sisters” on the Great Lakes (Basically, a series of three large waves forms, the second wave hits the ship’s deck before the first wave clears, and the third incoming wave adds to the two accumulated backwashes and suddenly overloads the ship deck with tons of water.) Experiments at the Naval Institute of Technology in St. John’s, Newfoundland showed that a 56 foot wave could have driven the ship’s bow or stern under water, at least temporarily.

For everyone who has a theory about what happened, someone else has a theory that it didn’t. There’s still no definite answer to the question, what sank the Edmund Fitzgerald?

In one of those incredible ironies, Capt. McSorley was planning to retire after this trip.

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