40 Years Ago Today: The Big Lake Never Gave Up Her Dead

November 10th, 2015 by Roy W. Spencer, Ph. D.

Edmund_Fitzgerald_Great_Lakes_brewing
Today is the 40th anniversary of the sinking of the Great Lakes freighter Edmund Fitzgerald, on November 10, 1975, which took all 29 of the crew to the bottom of Lake Superior in 530 ft of water.

The Fitzgerald sank during a gale caused by an intense low pressure passing over Lake Superior. As the low moved east of the lake, unusually strong west to northwest winds caused waves that pushed the limits of what these freighters were designed to handle.

There are three theories of why the ship sank, and they all involve wind-driven waves. It is estimated that winds were gusting to close to 90 mph at the time of sinking, and the nearby Arthur M. Anderson reported being hit by rogue waves as high as 35 ft.

I lived on the lower St. Mary’s River which flows out of Lake Superior, and all freighters passed a few hundred yards in front of our house whether they were up-bound into or down-bound from Lake Superior, so I was familiar with both the Fitzgerald and the Anderson.

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Those of us who lived in eastern Upper Michigan and who saw the passage of lake freighters nearly every day remember what we were doing when we heard the news that evening. In my case, my wife-to-be and I were driving in the dark during the windstorm. I was preparing to be an atmospheric science student at U. of Michigan and, like all meteorology students, if there was bad weather, I wanted to be in it.

We stopped in at the National Weather Service Office in the Sault, where I worked summers and knew all of the employees. One of them was on the phone yelling at the Fitzgerald‘s operator in Cleveland to “start paying attention to the weather up here!” He then slammed the phone down.

I distinctly remember the weather forecast model prediction for that storm, as I examined the forecast charts in the weather office a day or two before. Unlike the Wikipedia entry characterization, this was not a typical November storm.

The forecast low pressure was unusually intense, and the anticyclonic curvature of the isobars right behind the low suggested there was going to be phenomenal winds just after the low passage.

That’s exactly what happened.

The 711 ft. long ship now sits in two pieces on the lake bottom, symbolically straddling the U.S.-Canadian border. The Fitzgerald remains the largest of many ships that have sunk to the bottom of the Great Lakes. Most experts who have studied the sinking have concluded that the ship broke apart on the surface before it went down.

Canadian singer-songwriter Gordon Lightfoot immortalized the sinking with his Grammy Award-winning Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald a year later (1976).

AP Was There: 40 Years Ago Edmund Fitzgerald Sinks


50 Responses to “40 Years Ago Today: The Big Lake Never Gave Up Her Dead”

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  1. mpainter says:

    By coincidence I had read the Wikipedia entry a few days ago, and it is full of details. What most impressed me was 1) the huge size of the ore boat and 2) the boat was obviously not in shape to withstand the sort of storm that she encountered, nor was she designed and constructed with proper safety tolerances, and 3) The coast guard said she must have broken in half on striking bottom while other experts said she must have broken on the surface.
    The biggest mystery was the report of a diver who reported the body of a man lying beside the wreck wearing a cork-stuffed life jacket!

    • JohnKl says:

      Hi mpainter,

      One claim was that the hatchway doors over the carrier ore were open letting way too much water in. If I remember correctly the family members of the lost crew denied it.

      Have a great day!

      • mpainter says:

        John, the problem intrigues me. Measurements of the wreckage indicate that a considerable length of the mid section disintegrated. My guess is that she was “pooped” by the “three sisters” and catastrophic structural failure of the midsection ensued. I would surmise that the third wave twisted the aft section, tearing it away from the bow section and capsizing it. There is no question that the wreck was sudden and without warning, Captain Sorley giving his last radio transmission ten minutes before the wreck, with no indication of danger. Then the “Fitz” disappeared from the radar screen. The “Fitz” was of welded construction, not rivetted construction. Welds are brittle.

        One of the links gave that 254 vessels had sunk in that area since 1816..!

        • JohnKl says:

          Hi mpainter,

          Good points but there has been conflicting reporting on the wreckage. If I remember correctly, I’ve read claims that the wreckage indicated the doors covering the ore were ripped off and the fasteners were wrecked and seem to remember reading the opposite. There was a inquiry made into the disaster and I will have to peruse some of it.

          You stated:

          “One of the links gave that 254 vessels had sunk in that area since 1816..!”

          “Lake Huron rolls, Superior sings
          In the rooms of her ice-water mansion…”

          Have a great day!

      • mpainter says:

        Hi John. My first response got “lost” somehow. But measurements of the wreckage indicated that a considerable portion of the mid ship section disintegrated. It appears to have been sudden catastrophic structural failure amidship and there was no forewarning. Sorely spoke to the Arthur M Anderson about 7:10 pm and gave no indication of peril. Ten minutes later the “Fitz” disappeared off the radar screen of the Arthur M Anderson. I believe it was the “three sisters”, those three rogue waves reported at about this time, that broke the Fitz up.

        • mpainter says:

          P___ on WordPress.

        • richard verney says:

          I haven’t seen the wreckage, but just because there may have been some midship cracking, a la Titanic, or disintegration, does not necessarily mean that the sinking was due to catastrophic hull failure.

          The most common reason for a sinking of a general cargo carrier of this type is water ingress in the forward holds. If there is a hatch cover failure on no 1 or 2 hatch then water ingress will cause considerable midship stress, since the midship and aft is buoyant, and this could then lead to the hull cracking. The catastrophic failure that you hint at may be the result (not the cause) of the sinking.

          • mpainter says:

            Richard, it takes a while for a large vessel to sink from failure of hatch cover(s) or from any such failure of watertight integrity.The Titanic took several hours and it’s hull was ripped for about one third its length.There was no distress signal from the “Fritz” and it is a safe bet that it sunk too quickly to send one. That points to catastrophic structural failure. Read the Wikipedia article, it gives very good details. The aft section lay upside down which indicates it capsized. Also, the Fitz did not have watertight bulkheads, therefore any water shipped near the bow would wind up in the bilge. No structural stress under those circumstances. The Titanic had watertight bulkheads which is probably why it ripped in two: buoyant aft and water filled bow.

          • JohnKl says:

            Hi mpainter,

            You state:

            “That points to catastrophic structural failure. Read the Wikipedia article, it gives very good details. The aft section lay upside down which indicates it capsized. Also, the Fitz did not have watertight bulkheads, therefore any water shipped near the bow would wind up in the bilge. No structural stress under those circumstances. The Titanic had watertight bulkheads which is probably why it ripped in two: buoyant aft and water filled bow.”

            Well reasoned and the crew would have likely noticed the ship dropping in elevation as water accumulated slowly within the cargo compartments.

            Have a great day!

          • mpainter says:

            John, they were taking water and the bilge pumps were working but handling the water well. Capt. Sorley’s last radio transmission (ten minutes before the Fitz disappeared from the radar screen) “We are holding our own”.

          • richard verney says:

            I have been involved in shipping for some 30 years and have been involved in a number of significant casualties at sea where ships have sunk, sometimes rather quickly eg, the Derbyshire
            (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/MV_Derbyshire with 42 lives lost), the Estonia (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/MS_Estonia with 852 lives lost). A freighter can be lost very quickly.

            In the Derbyshire the wreck was surveyed (even though in 4km depth), and there were extensive reconstructions as to how the casualty occurred, and that vessel went down quickly, never managing to send an SOS. Like the Edmund Fitzgerald, the vessel broke in two. The generally accepted conclusion was that the hull breakage was resultant upon the casualty, not causative of it. In the case of the Derbyshire, the generally accepted view was that there was a hatch cover failure. I have been involved in other bulk carriers that have experienced similar fates.

            I have not studied the details of the wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald, indeed, I do not know whether an underwater survey has been carried out, but usually with a freighter like Edmund Fitzgerald it is hatch cover failure. I am not saying that that is definitely the case, but it is certainly the prome suspect.

          • mpainter says:

            You are very well qualified. Why don’t you review the Wikipedia article? It gives details (the wreck was surveyed extensively) there was an inquest, testimony,references, a diagram of the wreckage, etc. You should be able to make a pretty sure determination from that article. I wish you would.

        • Gordon Robertson says:

          @mpainter…”I believe it was the “three sisters”, those three rogue waves reported at about this time, that broke the Fitz up”.

          Roy alluded to a rogue wave being 35 feet on that night. A ship that size should been able to handle a 35 footer. Rogue waves on the oceans can reach heights of 100 feet.

          Lake Superior is not going to get the same kind of wave action that is found in the oceans, especially off the foot of South America. Those waves have thousand of miles to develop whereas a wave on Superior could not develop to that extent.

          I am going with the hatch door issue. A 35 footer could definitely cause havoc with loose hatch doors, flooding the compartments. If the compartments were far enough forward they could cause a nose dive.

          That’s how sailboats cartwheel on the ocean. The aft portion gets pushed up by a wave as the boat sails down it and the nose dives under the trough of another wave. The wave coming from behind continues to raise the aft portion till the boat cartwheels due to its nose being underwater.

          I can’t see that happening with a ship as large as the Fitzgerald but if the forward hatches flooded due to hatch doors being ripped off, it’s front end could go down pretty fast.

          Apparently the worst scenario for a boat in a storm is getting caught sideways to wave motion. The wave motion is normally in the direction of the wind so sailboats throw out a see anchor to hold the boats into the wind or with the wind. That way, the boat theoretically bobs like a cork without rolling over. Also, if the boat sails down a wave, the anchor slows it so it wont ram into the trough of the next wave.

          If they get caught sideways to the waves, they can be rolled over easily. I read about a 35 footer trying to sail around the tip of South America. They were caught from behind by a large wave that raised the rear end, tumbling it head over tail.

          During the cartwheel, the mast was ripped off, leaving a 4 foot square hole on deck. Luckily, one of the crew was a ship’s carpenter and he quickly jury rigged a covering for the hole and got a simple mast and sail setup that allowed them to reach Chile.

          The problem with rogue waves is that they can come from unexpected directions. However, I can’t see a rogue wave of 35 feet rolling a ship the size and weight of the Fitzgerald.

          • mpainter says:

            Gordon,why are you talking about sailboats? Why not address the facts at issue? For example, the USCG reported measurements of the wreck which indicated that about 180 feet of the mid ship section disintegrated. How can hatch covers explain that? I suggest that you read the Wikipedia link which gives considerable detail, if you wish to inform yourself on the matter. I believe that the waves were following waves and struck from the rear or rear quarter. In that case, explain how it was damage to the front of the vessel that caused the disaster.

            Also, the Fitz was a “laker”, not built as strongly as regular ocean going vessels, so your comparison to to ocean vessels/circumstance is hardy valid.

      • John F. Hultquist says:

        Regarding the hatchway doors:
        From the Toronto Sun, “Gordon Lightfoot says the families of some of the crewmen of the Edmund Fitzgerald are pleased he’s changed the lyrics to his iconic song …”

        http://www.torontosun.com/entertainment/music/2010/03/25/13357711.html

        • fonzarelli says:

          “Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald”

          Thanks for the “ear worm”, Dr S…

        • richard verney says:

          I understand the artist not wanting to upset the family of the crew, but his original lyric did not blame the crew, and in my opinion (which is based upon experience with these types of vessels but not upon an actual study of this particular incident), water ingress through the hatchcovers would be the prime suspect.

          It is speculation as to whether the covers were secured properly, and one must bear in mind that even if they were secured properly, there can still be a hatch cover or securing/locking failure which could have led to this casualty.

  2. Ric Werme says:

    The Fitzgerald was 711 feet long, and sank in water 530 feet deep.

    So if you could have stood the Fitzgerald on end, it would have stuck 200 feet above the lake surface!

  3. David Gray says:

    My mother, who was raised as a foster child, told me that her father had been a Great Lakes sailor and was killed in a storm. This would have been in about 1926. I only did a little research, but I couldn’t validate any of what she said.

  4. Steve Case says:

    Thanks for your personal recollections. Every year when this anniversary comes around, I learn something new about it. I remember the news and the weather at the time here in Milwaukee. It was cold gray and blustery.

  5. Bil Danielson says:

    When I was a kid, my dad and three of his buddies from Colfax (WI) bought 240 acres of land adjacent to the Iron River outside of Port Wing, WI. The cabin was only a couple miles off of the shore of Lake Superior. The cabin and land were used as base camp for deer hunting and fishing on the lake.

    We had a boat to fish on the lake, but it was not meant for anything but reasonably calm waters. I can vividly remember one day heading out on a calm, but increasingly overcast, morning to fish for Lake Trout. About an hour into our trip he turned and said the sky was looking bad, time to head in NOW. So we hastily pulled in our lines and motored for shore. Of course, I was disappointed because we hadn’t gotten a nibble on the lines yet and although the weather wasn’t perfect I didn’t see the problem.

    Well, by the time we pulled the boat out the weather had really ramped up and the winds were starting to howl. Then the cold rain hit. The weather changed really fast, and when you’re out fishing it’s really easy to get a long way from shore without realizing how long it will actually take to get back. Had we not headed in when we did i’m not sure we would have gotten in high and dry. Dad was a naval pilot, well trained and had a keen sense for the weather. Lucky me.

    It’s an alluring body of water; the lake can be incredibly beautiful and calm, yet when the winds start to blow and the weather turns cold it can become a scene out of a horror movie if your on it. And clearly, for the crew of the Fitz, that was the case in ’75.

  6. JohnKl says:

    Hi Roy,

    I’ve referenced Gordon Lightfoot’s great song before and have quoted from the same. So that people don’t have to look it up here goes:

    The legend lives on from the Chippewa on down
    Of the big lake they call Gitche Gumee
    The lake, it is said, never gives up her dead
    When the skies of November turn gloomy
    With a load of iron ore twenty-six thousand tons more
    Than the Edmund Fitzgerald weighed empty
    That good ship and true was a bone to be chewed
    When the gales of November came early

    The ship was the pride of the American side
    Coming back from some mill in Wisconsin
    As the big freighters go, it was bigger than most
    With a crew and good captain well seasoned
    Concluding some terms with a couple of steel firms
    When they left fully loaded for Cleveland
    Then later that night when the ship’s bell rang
    Could it be the north wind they’d been feelin’?

    The wind in the wires made a tattle-tale sound
    When the wave broke over the railing
    And every man knew, as the captain did too
    ‘Twas the witch of November come stealin’
    The dawn came late and the breakfast had to wait
    When the gales of November came slashin’
    When afternoon came it was freezing rain
    In the face of a hurricane west wind

    When suppertime came, the old cook came on deck
    Sayin’ “Fellas, it’s too rough to feed ya”
    At seven PM a main hatchway caved in
    He said, “Fellas, it’s been good to 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 out of sight
    Came the wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald

    Does anyone know where the love of God goes
    When the waves turn the minutes to hours?
    The searchers all say they’d have made Whitefish Bay
    If they’d put fifteen more miles behind her
    They might have split up or they might have capsized
    They may have broke deep and took water
    And all that remains is the faces and the names
    Of the wives and the sons and the daughters

    Lake Huron rolls, Superior sings
    In the rooms of her ice-water mansion
    Old Michigan steams like a young man’s dreams
    The islands and bays are for sportsmen
    And farther below, Lake Ontario
    Takes in what Lake Erie can send her
    And the iron boats go as the mariners all know
    With the gales of November remembered

    In a musty old hall in Detroit they prayed
    In the Maritime Sailors’ Cathedral
    The church bell chimed ’til it rang twenty-nine times
    For each man on the Edmund Fitzgerald
    The legend lives on from the Chippewa on down
    Of the big lake they call Gitche Gumee
    Superior, they said, never gives up her dead
    When the gales of November come early

    Have a great day!

    • richard verney says:

      “That good ship and true…”

      I think that this should read: “That good ship and crew…”

      • JohnKl says:

        You are correct! I should have examined the lyrics more carefully after cutting and pasting.

        Have a great dat=y!

    • fonzarelli says:

      Hey there, John, take it from the fonz, if you’re gonna go around “sock-puppeteering” as james bond then you’re gonna have to drop your “Have a great day!”. It’s a dead give away… (“Live and let die!”?)

      • JohnKl says:

        Hi Fonz,

        Dr. No should have known who I was if he checked out my other posts. I wasn’t really trying to hide so much as play his game. So while it’s a dead give away, just remember “You only Live Twice.”

        Have a great day!

        • Dr No says:

          Sorry, but I do play “games” as you appear to do.

          Let me remind you, there is only one Dr No – “a scientific genius bent on destroying the U.S. space program.”

          Contact me c/o SPECTRE

          • Dr No says:

            Should read:
            “do not play games”

            (maybe I am not a pure genius)

          • mpainter says:

            Ha ha, you’re fonz, aren’t you.
            Yes, yes, you can’t fool me, confess: you are fonz.

          • Dr No says:

            You can threaten me with torture but I will never confess to being a “fonz” – whatever that is.

            By the way, as an evil scientist I am also interested in the ability of the human body to withstand and survive pain. I tortured Bond to no avail.

            Just remember:
            “Americans are fools. I offered my services, they refused. So did the East. Now they can both pay for their mistake.”

          • mpainter says:

            Ha, another masquerade by fonz, whom the spell checker now informs me is really one Gonzales.

          • JohnKl says:

            Hi Dr. No,

            Just remember Ursula Andress (Undress) prefers Bond, James Bond.

            Have a great day!

          • Dr No says:

            Ah yes, the lovely Ursula. That reminds me – Did you know that:
            “the Dr. No bikini is cited as the best known bikini of all time and an iconic moment in fashion history.”

            Unfortunately I was unable to cash in on that.

            What this has to do with the Edmund Fitzgerald now escapes me.

          • JohnKl says:

            Hi Dr No,

            You state:

            “What this has to do with the Edmund Fitzgerald now escapes me.”

            Haven’t a clue. Remember your post here:

            November 12, 2015 at 7:09 AM

            What did that have to do with the Edmund Fitzgerald? Mad scientist must entertain themselves with off topic reveries. Just trying to help.

            Have a great day!

          • Dr No says:

            You may be correct.
            But I prefer being described as mad rather than a “fonz”.

            I have just discovered some appropriate replies to “Have a great day!”
            These include:
            “why?”
            “too late”
            “make me”

            and, best of all:

            “Thank you, but I have other plans.”

          • Dr No says:

            Also off-topic:

            “Have a great Friday 13th today !”

          • Lewis says:

            Just to let you know, Friday the 13th comes on the 13th every month, not just on the 5th day of the week.

            Apologies to Pogo and fiends.

          • Dr No says:

            On average, there is a Friday the 13th once every 212.35 days

  7. richard verney says:

    It is fitting that an article is posted about this on this anniversary. My thoughts are with those who lost their lives and their loved ones (and indeed all those who have been lost at sea, and their loved ones). The force of nature is strong, and the sea is a dangerous place.

    Whilst it is always dangerous to read to much into photographs, the photograph of the ship in the “AP was there” article suggest that the ship was sagging, at any rate, the stern end of the ship looks to be running higher than the midpoint, but perhaps that is merely a perspective phenomena, and not truly representative of the vessel.

    Obviously I do not know whether the hatches were firmly closed or watertight, but the dynamic forces can be high and this can cause the locking mechanism to snap or jump free. Usually when a general freighter such as this flounders in heavy weather, it is due to a hatch problem.

  8. Mike Maguire says:

    A similar storm and tragedy today would be blamed on………..human caused climate change.

    Reexamination of the 9–10 November 1975 “Edmund Fitzgerald
    ” Storm Using Today’s Te c h n o l o g y

    http://www.glerl.noaa.gov/pubs/fulltext/2006/20060016.pdf

    HOW UNUSUAL WAS THIS EVENT?

    ” The atlas also indicates that the percentage frequency of significant waves in excess of 7 m in height is 0.1%, with the majority of these waves generally traveling from north
    to south. When averaged over eastern Lake Superior,
    virtually no waves with heights greater than 7 m were
    found to be moving from west to east (Table 1), which
    likely occurred the night of 10 November 1975. Since
    west- to east-moving waves in excess of 7 m in height
    are very rare on eastern Lake Superior, it is unlikely
    Captain McSorley had ever seen a sea state similar to
    that which occurred during the afternoon and eve-
    ning of 10 November 1975. This may help to explain
    why the master of the
    Edmund Fitzgerald indicated to the ship Avafors that the seas were the worst he had ever encountered”

  9. Fulco says:

    Roy,

    Someone is attacking the validity of your work.
    Sorry for the quality of the translation (blame google)
    Can you comment on this
    source: http://www.staatvanhetklimaat.nl/2015/11/03/modellen-vs-waarnemingen-trends/

    Jan van Rongen
    November 7, 2015 at 00:08

    Let the satellite series only outdoors: somewhere in early 2000 to go for the good in fog and as long as it is not clear which has in my opinion no one what of it.
    Is simply to count on – you can eg compare the measurements.
    See RATPAC weather balloon (radiosonde Atmospheric Temperature Products for
    Accessing Climate) of NASA.

    Jan van Rongen
    November 7, 2015 at 18:31

    Marcel – RATPAC gives global temperatures in various layers of the
    troposphere. RATPAC 800-300 millibar range corresponds in good agreement with TLT RSS
    and UAH. Sorry, it was NOAA, not NASA.
    ftp://ftp1.ncdc.noaa.gov/pub/data/ratpac/ The agreement from 1979 to 2000
    Extraordinarily strong, then the structural difference is rap
    -0.3 to -0.4 at. Just download data and make graph!

  10. Fulco says:

    Roy,

    On http://www.staatvanhetklimaat.nl/2015/11/03/modellen-vs-waarnemingen-trends/ (Marcel Crok) a scientist Jan van Rongen claims that satellite temperature series are flawed after 2000. His argument is that after 2000 there is a mismatch between the satellite measurements and that from weather balloons (RATPAC). How about that ?
    He reveres to data found at ftp://ftp1.ncdc.noaa.gov/pub/data/ratpac/ and concludes salellite data is off by 0.3-0.4 kelvin.

    • Fulco says:

      I mean Kelvin (sorry lord)

    • JohnKl says:

      So he prefers one data set to another. Why are other data-sets than satellites to be preferred?

      Have a great day!

      • nigel says:

        It is problematic to use occasional balloons in the lower troposphere, with spotty coverage, in an attempt to detect trends in climate.

        It was cutting-edge technology, a century ago, to investigate the UPPER atmosphere with balloons. “Sounding the Ocean of Air” by A L Kotch, 1900, is an interesting read in this regard.

  11. numberer says:

    RATPAC collects data over (a few) LAND stations*

    SATELLITES collect data over almost the whole globe, including the 70% of it that is covered by SEA.

    UAH figures for anomalies for October 2015:

    Northern Hemisphere Land + 0.64
    Northern Hemisphere Sea + 0.64
    Southern Hemisphere Land + 0.59
    Southern Hemisphere Sea + 0.13

    The last number, I think, accounts for the difference from RATPAC.

    Dr Spencer, in a thread, entitled “Version 6.0 of the UAH Temperature Data…”, in the archives and dated April 28 2015, wrote on April 30 at 8:44 AM

    “Most of the radiosonde statistics are still better in UAH than RSS. John Christy does those.”

    Therefore any questions should be directed to Dr Christy, I imagine.

    *see the list of 87 stations in the supplement to,

    “Radiosonde Atmospheric Temperature Products for Assessing Climate (RATPAC): A new data set of large area anomaly time series” Melissa Free et al Journal of Geophysical Research (Atmospheres) Vol 110 Issue D22, 16th November 2005.

  12. boris says:

    Roy thanks for the link to the song. Beautiful bit of poetry that! On a par with “Chicago” back in the day before industrial workers found themselves living in a “post industrial society”

  13. Brian D says:

    As a resident of the North Shore of Lake Superior, we have ore docks here in Two Harbors, MN. Ore boat traffic is life here. Taconite is shipped here from the Iron Range via rail. Silver Bay, just 30 miles north has a taconite plant right on the shore. Ore boats stop in to load there as well. And of course, Duluth, has the greatest traffic with ore boats and “salties” that come for the grain. Shipping season ends in early Jan and restarts the second half of March, depending on ice conditions. One thing about freshwater shipping, corrosion is not a big issue as it is with ocean going vessels. Maintenance time during off season can focus on other things.

    So Dr. Spencer, we have something in common with one of the most beautiful areas of world, and one of the most dangerous.