Monday, November 10, 2008

"The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald" - Gordon Lightfoot, 1976 (ballad)

The legend lives on from the Chippewa on down
Of the big lake they call Gitchee Gumee
The lake, it is said, never gives up her dead
When the skies of November turn gloomy.

With a load of iron ore - 26,000 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 Wisconson
As the big freighters go it was bigger than most
With a crew and the Captain well seasoned.

Concluding some terms with a couple of steel firms
When they left fully loaded for Cleveland
And later that night when the ships bell rang
Could it be the North Wind they'd been feeling.

The wind in the wires made a tattletale sound
And a wave broke over the railing
And every man knew, as the Captain did, too,
T'was the witch of November come stealing.

The dawn came late and the breakfast had to wait
When the gales of November came slashing
When afternoon came it was freezing rain
In the face of a hurricane West Wind

When supper time came the old cook came on deck
Saying fellows it's too rough to feed ya
At 7 pm a main hatchway caved in
He said fellas it's been good to know ya.

The Captain wired in he had water coming 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 words turn the minutes to hours
The searchers all say they'd have made Whitefish Bay
If they'd 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 ruins 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 29 times
For each man on the Edmund Fitzgerald.

Well, it's November and we haven't wrecked anything this month, so I figured today was a good time. How about a boat...a really big one that sank on November 10, 1975? Happy (or not) belated sinking anniversary. The wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald is more highly acclaimed by only one other shipwreck in history - the Titanic. That being said, however, it is THE most mysterious and most controversial shipwreck of all time, mostly because nearly every theory surrounding its disappearance and why it sank is pure speculation.

"The ship had been christened in 1958 and launched into the Detroit River on June 17. It was named after Northwestern Mutual Life Insurance Company of Milwaukee's new board chairman, whose grandfather and five great uncles had been ship captains.

By 1975, the Fitzgerald was showing an average amount of wear for a ship on the Great Lakes. She had passed a rigorous two-month inspection (required yearly) in the spring of 1975, and had passed the Coast Guard out-of-water inspection (necessary every five years) in the spring of 1974. She was certified as seaworthy and safe for operation. An Oct. 31 inspection uncovered routine seasonal damage to the cargo hatches, but the Fitzgerald was granted permission to operate as long as the repairs were complete before the 1976 season.

There were 29 men aboard when the Fitzgerald launched that November. She was captained by Ernest McSorley, 63, of Toledo, Ohio. High water in the lakes since 1969 had prompted the U.S. Coast Guard to allow owners to load their ships to a greater depth and the Fitzgerald was no exception. She was loaded three feet deeper than had been considered safe in 1969, making her deck three feet closer to the water line." - Detroit News

On Nov. 9, gale warnings were issued for Lake Superior. By 2:15 p.m. on Nov. 9th, the giant lakes freighter had filled her cargo hold with 26,116 tons of taconite pellets in Superior, Wis., and was on her way south to Detroit, as an uneventful shipping season ran down.

The Edmund Fitzgerald was lost with her entire crew of 29 men on Lake Superior November 10, 1975, 17 miles north-northwest of Whitefish Point, Michigan. Once under way, the Fitzgerald didn't travel alone. She met up with another ore freighter near Two Harbors, Minnesota - the Arthur Anderson, who's captain was Captain Jesse B. Cooper. Cooper and McSorely maintained radio contact, discussing the storm. Due to the increasing intensity, they agreed to change course and to steer nearer to Lake Superior's north shore. They were hoping that by keeping close to the shores of Canada they'd be somewhat protected from the storm. The two ships weathered it together, maintaining radio contact and a distance of only 16 miles between each other.

The storm worsened. Not uncommon on and around the Great Lakes, it began snowing heavily, blurring all visibility. As if that wasn't enough, the waves grew steadliy to 12-16 feet. Winds gusted at 90 mph. The Soo Locks, where the Fitzgerald was due, were closed. The Coast Guard issued a warning that all ships were to find safe harbor until the storm subsided. By 6 pm on November 10, the crashing waves towered a hulking 25 feet over the vessels.

The crashing waves knocked out the ship's radar; so, Captain McSorely let the Anderson catch up and help him navigate the now treacherous waters. At 7:10 pm, Captain Cooper radioed Captain McSorely to warn him that they were approaching another vessel 9 miles ahead. However, Captain Cooper also a ssured Captain McSorely that upon their present course, the ship would pass to their west. The first mate of the Arthur Anderson signed off by asking, "How are you making out with your problem?" The Fitzgerald replied: "We are holding our own."

That was the last anyone ever heard from Captain McSorely or any of the 29 crew aboard the Edmund Fitzgerald. The 729-foot behemouth had vanished in the blink of an eye. On November 10, 1975, the Edmund Fitzgerald was lost at sea with all hands. An extensive search was launched to find or recover the lost vessel, but not a single trace of her was to be found: there were no bodies, no debris...nothing. As the song says, in Detroit, Michigan, the bell at the Mariner's Church rang 29 times - once for each of the crew. On November 14, she was located. They were found 530 feet below the surface of Lake Superior, just 17 miles from their safe harbor of Whitefish Point.

Even though it was found, the Fitzgerald was never salvaged nor was the remains of the crew ever recovered. It remains in it's finaly resting place even today. However, on July 4, 1995, at the request of the crew's surviving family members, the ship's 200 lb. bronze bell was retrieved by the Great Lakes Shipwreck Historical Society. The endeavor was jointly executed by The National Geographic Society, The Sony Corporation, the Canadian Navy, and Sault Ste. Marie tribe of Chippewa Indians (who maintain the legend, as the song says). The bell is now in the Great Lakes Shipwreck museum as a tribute to her lost crew.

The Crew: Ernest M. McSorley, 63, Captain, Toledo Ohio; John H. McCarthy, 62, Mate, Bay Village, Ohio; James A. Pratt, 44, second mate, Lakewood, Ohio; Michael E. Armagost, 37, third mate, Iron River, Wisconsin; Thomas Bentsen, 23, oiler, St. Joseph, Michigan; Thomas D. Borgeson, 4l, maintenance man, Duluth, Minnesota; John D. Simmons, 60, wheelsman, Ashland, Wisconsin; Eugene W. O'Brien, 50, wheelsman, Toledo, Ohio; John J. Poviatch, 59, wheelsman, Bradenton, Florida; Ranson E. Cundy, 53, watchman, Superior, Wisconsin; William J. Spengler, 59, watchman, Toledo, Ohio; Karl A. Peckol, 20, watchman, Ashtabula, Ohio; Mark A. Thomas, 2l, deck hand, Richmond Heights, Ohio; Paul M. Rippa, 22, deck hand, Ashtabula, Ohio; Bruce L. Hudson, 22, deck hand, North Olmsted, Ohio; David E. Weiss, 22, cadet, Agoura, California; Robert C. Rafferty, 62, steward, Toledo, Ohio; Allen G. Kalmon, 43, second cook, Washburn, Wisconsin; Frederick J. Beetcher, 56, porter, Superior, Wisconsin; Nolan F. Church, 55, porter, Silver Bay, Minnesota; George Holl, 60, chief engineer, Cabot, Pennsylvania; Edward F. Bindon, 47, first assistant engineer, Fairport Harbor, Ohio; Thomas E. Edwards, 50, second assistant engineer, Oregon, Ohio; Russell G. Haskell, 40, second assistant engineer, Millbury, Ohio; Oliver J. Champeau, 4l, third assistant engineer, Milwaukee, Wisconsin; Blaine H. Wilhelm, 52, oiler, Moguah, Wisconsin; Ralph G. Walton, 58, oiler, Fremont, Ohio; Joseph W. Mazes, 59, special maintenance man, Ashland, Wisconsin; Gordon F. MacLellan, 30, wiper, Clearwater, Florida

About the Great Lakes (and why they're so treacherous):

Unless you live here (like I do), you know there really are no words to describe these bodies of water. The term "lake" is the understatement of the year. They're more like inland seas than lakes. The Lakes are actually one giant waterway system, all connected to each other, flowing from west to east, down the St. Lawrence, and out into the Atlantic Ocean. These Lakes are so enormous that they actually create their own weather systems, capable of even creating inland hurricanes. The Lakes make up 22% of the world's fresh water. There is enough water in the Great Lakes to cover the 48 contiguous states with 9.5 feet of water. Even under normal circumstances, when Canadian winds sweep across these Lakes, the winds draw an incredible amount of moisture, but when these winds finally make landfall they cannot hold it any longer and dump that moisture on the surrounding land.

In the summer, the Lakes are fairly calm and precipitation is normal, although because of them we have a saying, "This is Ohio. If you don't like the weather, wait 5 minutes." However, winter time is when it really gets going. The "Witch of November" in the song is what us locals know as that cold, hard west wind that just blows incessantly during the month of November. You've probably heard of "The Bible Belt" down South and "the Corn Belt" in the MidWest. Here in NE Ohio, off the shores of Lake Erie, we have "the Snow Belt". Because of the Great Lakes, it is not uncommon for it to snow several feet in a matter of just a couple of hours (from the air that can't hold it's moisture as it rises over the land). And yes, it gets REALLY cold AND snowy here, usually around January and February.

But the intense weather isn't the only reason these Lakes are deadly. Having dived these Lakes, I can personally attest to the fact that these Lakes (at least Lake Erie) can go from having great depths to extremely shallow in a matter of just a few nautical miles. The silt sea bed is always on the move and forever changing shape. Also, because one Lake feeds into another, the water levels go up and down seasonally, as well as the occasional surge or sudden withdrawl of water levels. This can make shipping quite dangerous, as in the case of the Fitzgerald, where they were laden with enough ore to lower their hull significantly, which could have caused the ship to run aground on the many shoals found in each of the Lakes. However, the shape and depth of the shoal can vary a great deal in as little time as a day, making safe navigation a real chore in calm water, let alone during a severe storm. The Lake bottoms are just as unpredictable as the weather above!

"The Wreck of the Edmond Fitzgerald" - Gordon Lightfoot, 1976

~information gathered by "surfing" the internet, specifically the Detroit News

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