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No hiding from the gales of November

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Just an hour from a safe harbor, the large ship plowed on through the powerful November storm, breasting towering seas and wind-whipped snow, spray and darkness. The veteran skipper was certain these were some of the worst conditions he’d ever encountered. His ship had already suffered some damage to its topsides — likely caused by striking an object washed aboard in the rough seaway — and it also was listing.

But as best as anyone can tell, Capt. Ernest McSorley was unaware of the serious flooding taking place in the cargo hold.

With his ship’s radars no longer functioning, McSorley and his crew were receiving navigational guidance from the steamer Arthur M. Anderson, which was trailing her by about 10 miles. There was no sense of urgency in McSorley’s voice or message when he talked with the skipper or watch officers on the Anderson.

Around 7 p.m., a mate aboard the Anderson radioed McSorley’s ship to relay some new radar target information. As the mate was about to sign off, he asked: “Oh, by the way, how are you making out with your problems?”

“We are holding our own,” McSorley replied.

“OK, fine, I will be talking to you later.”

That was the last message the outside world heard from the SS Edmund Fitzgerald, the ill-fated ore carrier whose sinking 33 years ago was etched in both popular culture and the maritime community through the lyrics of Gordon Lightfoot’s haunting ballad.

The ship went to the bottom in 530 feet of water and broke in two early on the evening of Nov. 10, 1975, in eastern Lake Superior, about 17 miles from the entrance of Whitefish Bay. All 29 aboard were lost. No bodies were recovered. And no mayday was ever issued.

I was reminded of the Edmund Fitzgerald this fall by a small news item noting the anniversary of her sinking in an e-newsletter sent out by a maritime law firm. The story was linked to a PDF copy of the Coast Guard’s 1977 marine casualty report on the incident.

I’ve written about sinkings, rescues and survival at sea for more than 25 years, but it dawned on me just how few specific details I knew of the Edmund Fitzgerald tragedy outside of the Lightfoot lyrics.

Did the storm catch the ship by surprise? How bad were the seas? Did she ice up? What actually caused her to sink?

I downloaded a copy of the casualty report, printed all 109 pages, and read them over several evenings. It was an odd sensation, working through the pages and already knowing the fate of this crippled ship as she steamed blindly through Lake Superior, where the seas that evening were running 16 feet or greater and winds exceeded 50 knots. I wanted to somehow sound an alarm, to reach out and shake the captain, but all I had in my hands was an old report.

The Edmund Fitzgerald was a conventional “straight decker” Great Lakes ore carrier, 729-feet long, with a 75-foot beam, a 39-foot draft, and powered by a 7,500-hp steam turbine. The “Fitz,” as she was known, left Superior, Wis., on the afternoon of Nov. 9, bound for Detroit with a cargo of 26,116 long tons of taconite pellets. A milk run for this big ship and her experienced skipper and crew.

The weather system that claimed the ship was generated over the Oklahoma Panhandle Nov. 8. Investigators found that weather reports and forecasts adequately reflected the storm’s path and severity, and that Capt. McSorely was aware of both the strength and location of the powerful system.

From extensive underway surveys of the wreckage, experts concluded that the most likely cause of the sinking was the loss of buoyancy and stability that resulted from massive flooding of the cargo hold. Boarding seas washed along the spar deck, flooding the hold through loosely dogged hatches, a situation that only worsened as the weather deteriorated, the seas built and the ship lost more and more effective freeboard. (Later theories on her demise suggest she may have grounded briefly, opening up the hull, or been overwhelmed by a rogue wave.)

A question: Had the crew known what was looming, how successful would they have been launching lifeboats or life rafts into the maelstrom that night? Without exception, the Great Lakes mariners who testified before the board told a familiar story: They had little or no confidence that anyone could survive abandoning ship in the kind of rough conditions faced by the sailors aboard the Edmund Fitzgerald.

“I have said that if the damn ship is going to go down, I would get in my bunk, pull the blankets over my head and say, ‘Let her go,’ because there was no way of launching the [life] boats,” one registered pilot told the board.

Even though the Coast Guard couldn’t say for certain what transpired in those last moments, those working the case reconstructed what they considered the most probable scenario in clear, riveting prose:

“Finally, as the storm reached its peak intensity, so much freeboard was lost that the bow pitched down and dove into a wall of water, and the vessel was unable to recover,” the investigators wrote. “Within a matter of seconds, the cargo rushed forward, the bow plowed into the bottom of the lake, and the midships structure disintegrated, allowing the submerged stern section, now emptied of its cargo, to roll over and override the other structure, finally coming to rest upside-down atop the disintegrated middle portion of the ship.”

The bell from the Edmund Fitzgerald was raised in 1995 and rung 30 times, one time for each crewmember who died. And once in memory of all lost sailors.

“And every man knew as the captain did, too, t’was the witch of November come stealing.”
- Gordon Lightfoot