The Gales of November Came Early

The legend lives on from the Chippewa on down
of the big lake they called “Gitche Gumee.”
The lake, it is said, never gives up her dead
when the skies of November turn gloomy.


In 1958, when she was christened, the S.S. Edmund Fitzgerald was the largest freighter sailing on all of the Great Lakes. She set seasonal records for hauls six times, frequently beating her own record.

She was named after the chairman of the board of the Northwestern Mutual Life Insurance Company, which had commissioned the design and building of the ship.

There are numerous theories about what caused the sinking of this record-breaking ship, among them the ideas that the Fitzgerald suffered structural failure, been shoaled in the shallows of Lake Superior, taken on water which entered through his cargo hatches or her deck, or experienced topside damage in the extremely high winds of the storm, estimated at between 80 and 90 miles per hour. 

In any event, on November 9, 1975 the Edmund Fitzgerald, loaded with taconite pellets from the iron mines near Duluth, Minnesota, left Superior, Wisconsin en route to a steel mill at Zug Island on the Detroit River near Detroit, Michigan, carrying 26,116 long tons of taconite ore pellets. It would be her final voyage.

It is one of the most famous disasters in Great Lakes shipping history, and the subject of Gordon Lightfoot's 1976 song entitled "The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald."

In the early evening of November 9, the National Weather Service issued gale warnings for Lake Superior. At about 2:00 am on November 10, the NWS upgraded the warning from a gale warning to a storm warning. Gales carry wind speeds which range from 34 to 40 knots, while storms carry winds from 48 to 55 knots.

The Fitzgerald was traveling down Lake Superior in tandem with the S.S. Arthur M Anderson, one of United States Steel Corporation's fleet when they encountered the storm. They were in radio contact, and the discussion led to their deciding to change their route in order to avoid the threatening weather. They decided to take what they deemed to be a safer route, north toward the coast of Canada, where they would be protected from the waves they expected.

In the late afternoon of November 10, Captain McSorley, the skipper in charge of the Fitz, made radio contact with a third ship, the Avafor. He indicated that he was having difficulty and was also taking on water. The ship was listing to the port and had only two of her three ballast pumps still working. She had lost her radar, and there was damage to the ballast tank vent pipes.

According to subsequent testimony of the Avafor's Captain Woodward, he heard McSorley, who had 44 years of experience on ships, say to someone else on the Fitzgerald, “Don't allow nobody on the deck.” He also told Woodward, "I have a 'bad list', I have lost both radars, and am taking heavy seas over the deck in one of the worst seas I have ever been in".

At a few minutes after 7:00 pm, the Anderson made radio contact with the Fitz. He asked how the ship was holding up, and McSorley responded, "We are holding our own."

It was to be the last thing heard from the Edmund Fitzgerald. No distress signal was ever sent.

All 29 souls onboard were lost when the ship went down.

Although Gordon Lightfoot's ballad has a romantic but misleading verse which says, 

"When suppertime came, the old cook came on deck sayin'.
"Fellas, it's too rough to feed ya."
At seven P.M. a main hatchway caved in, he said
"Fellas, it's been good t'know ya."
The captain wired in he had water comin' in
And the good ship and crew was in peril.
And later that night when his lights went outta sight
Came the wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald."

In fact, the sinking was very fast, and it is highly doubtful that the crew had time to understand the fact that they were fated to not survive this storm. The wreckage of two lifeboats were found after the wreck, and it was clear to experts that no one tried to leave the ship on either of them.

The ship lies broken into sections beneath 530 feet of water in Lake Superior. The US Coast Guard's official report advanced the idea that the wreck was caused by faulty hatches.

The National Transportation Safety Board voted unanimously to reject that theory but later revised the verdict agreeing that the sinking was caused when the ship began to take on water through a hatch covers which had been damaged by the heavy seas pounding the deck.

The Lake Carriers Association, for their part, posited that her foundering was caused by flooding through the bottom and ballast tank which were damaged when the ship bottomed on Six Fathom Shoal which was between Caribou and Michipicoten Islands.

Whatever the cause, the wreck is still memorialized every year. The Mariners' Church in Detroit rang its bell 29 times the day after the shipwreck, one time for each lost sailor. It continues that practice, though in 2006, it expanded the annual ceremony to honor all of the people who have died on the Great Lakes.



More information:

Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum

USA Today: Mystery, debate still surround sinking of Edmund Fitzgerald

The Edmund Fitzgerald, Beyond the Mystery