Forty-three years have passed since a major storm over the Great Lakes helped to sink the SS Edmund Fitzgerald on Lake Superior taking the lives of all 29 crew members on November 10th, 1975. When launched on June 7, 1958, it was the largest ship on North America's Great Lakes, and to this day she remains the largest to have sunk there. The Edmund Fitzgerald was in the worst possible location during the worst weather of the ferocious storm. The wind and waves from the west hit the freighter broadside as it tried to flee south to safety in Whitefish Bay. The Edmund Fitzgerald was loaded with about 26,000 tons of taconite pellets on Nov. 9, 1975, at Superior, Wisconsin and was bound for Detroit, Michigan when the storm hit.
Storms on the Great Lakes can rival hurricanes in their intensity and the one that sank the Edmund Fitzgerald had sustained winds of 67 mph, gusts up to 86 mph, and waves reported up to 35 feet according to another vessel in the area that survived the storm. On November 8, 1975, a storm was brewing in the center part of the country and it headed northeastward towards the Great Lakes. On November 9 at 7 p.m. the National Weather Service (NWS) issued a gale warning for Lake Superior. The NWS predicted east to northeasterly winds during the night, shifting to NW to N by the afternoon of November 10. At approximately 10:40 p.m., the NWS revised its forecast for eastern Lake Superior to easterly winds becoming southeasterly the morning of the 10th. At about 2:00 am on November 10th the NWS upgraded the gale warning to a storm warning (winds 48-55 knots) with a prediction of "northeast winds 35 to 50 knots becoming northwesterly 28 to 38 knots on Monday, waves 8 to 15 feet".
Around 2 a.m. on the 10th the captains of the Anderson – a second freighter caught in the storm that survived - and Edmund Fitzgerald discussed the threatening weather and decided to change their route. This safer route would take them northward, toward the coast of Canada. The northern route would protect them from the waves that the storm generated. At 3 am, the winds were reportedly coming from the northeast at 42 knots. The Anderson and Edmund Fitzgerald proceeded together with the Edmund Fitzgerald ahead of the Anderson. They had radio contact and the Anderson's radar located the position of the Edmund Fitzgerald. At 7 am on the 10th, the intensifying storm passed over Marquette, Michigan and it started to move across Lake Superior.
On the afternoon of November 10th, an important wind shift took place. At 2:45 p.m. the winds had backed to NW and were still strong at 42 knots. Steady winds at 43 knots and waves of up to 12 and 16 feet were reported by the Anderson. At around this time, the Edmund Fitzgerald contacted the Anderson and reported "a fence rail down, two vents lost or damaged and a list” (a list is when a ship leans to one side). A shift of winds to the NW is very important, as this increased the fetch allowing large waves to build. The Edmund Fitzgerald and Anderson were no longer protected by land.
Late on the afternoon of the 10th, the captain of the Edmund Fitzgerald made radio contact with another ship, the Avafor, and reported that they "had a bad list, had lost both radars, and was taking heavy seas over the deck in one of the worst seas he had ever been in." Captain McSorely was a seasoned sailor of the Great Lakes with 44 years of experience and this incredibly was to be his final voyage before retirement. At 7 p.m., the Anderson made radio contact with the Edmund Fitzgerald and had her on their radar. When asked how the Edmund Fitzgerald was making out (around 7:10 pm) they replied "we are holding our own". Shortly afterwards the Edmund Fitzgerald disappeared from the Anderson's radar screen. No distress signals were ever issued. The Anderson reported the missing Edmund Fitzgerald to the U.S. Coast Guard. After conducting a heroic, but futile search of the area for survivors, the Anderson entered into the protection of Whitefish Bay from the stormy Lake Superior in the early hours of November 11. The Edmund Fitzgerald sank in 530 feet of water about 17 miles from Whitefish Bay, near the cities of Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan, and Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario.
Gordon Lightfoot’s song “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald”
The story of the Edmund Fitzgerald was made famous one year later by Canadian songwriter Gordon Lightfoot's song "The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald" (1976, Moose Music, Ltd.). This song was a tribute to the ship wreck and to the men who lost their lives. Some of the lyrics of the song (below) made it sound as though the crew knew they were doomed. In reality, it is believed that the sinking of the Edmund Fitzgerald was very rapid and it is likely they did not know the seriousness of their condition. Indeed, after the wreck a severely damaged life boat was found and only part of the second. The condition of the lifeboats suggests that no attempts were made to leave the ship.
"...At seven p.m. a main hatchway caved in
he said 'fellas it's bin 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 'is lights went out of sight
came the wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald"
More on Great Lakes shipping disasters
Incredibly, in the past 300 years, about 30,000 people have died in 10,000 shipwrecks on the Great Lakes. Other shipping disasters on the Great Lakes, in which weather played a role include:
• Nov. 11, 1913: eighteen ships were lost killing 254 people.
• Nov. 11-13, 1940: 57 men died when three freighters sank in Lake Michigan.
• Nov. 18 1958: 33 men died on Lake Michigan with the sinking of the Carl D. Bradley.
• Nov. 29, 1966: Daniel J. Morrell sank in Lake Huron killing the 28 crew members.
Warning – you may be humming “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald” for the rest of the day and if you now have a strong desire to listen to the full version click here for the YouTube video.
Meteorologist Paul Dorian