The SS Edmund Fitzgerald
If you know of only one wreck on the Great Lakes, it’s most likely the Edmund Fitzgerald. Made infamous by the Gordon Lightfoot song, it has become legend in a very short time.
The SS Edmund Fitzgerald launched in 1958 and at 729 feet was the longest ship on the Great Lakes, but only held that honor for a year until the 730 foot SS Murray Bay was built in 1959. The Edmund Fitzgerald was a bulk carrier built in the traditional Great Lakes manner with a forward pilot house and an open deck between it and the rear engine room/crew quarters.
(Courtesy | Wikipedia)
The Edmund Fitzgerald was commissioned by the Northwestern Mutual Life Insurance Company (NWML) as part investment and part pet project of the company president. The president, Edmund Fitzgerald, was the son of a Great Lakes captain and saw shipping as a great investment for NWML. In addition to commissioning the Edmund Fitzgerald in 1957, the company purchased 2 ships, the J. Burton Ayers and the J.H. Hillman Jr. These were the first and only ships owned by NWML.
The Fitzgerald by all accounts was a workhorse. The ship primarily carried iron ore and within 6 years of launch became the first ship to carry more than 1 million tons of ore through the Soo Locks. She made around 47 trips per year and by 1975 had traveled the equivalent of 44 times around the world.
The SS Edmund Fitzgerald launch at Great Lakes Engineering Works on June 7, 1958. (Courtesy | Detroit Historical Society)
After 17 years and millions of tons of cargo the Fitzgerald set off from Superior, Wisconsin on November 9th and would never return.
Paralleling the Fitzgerald was the Arthur M. Anderson which had left a nearby port around the same time as the Fitzgerald. A storm was building as the Fitzgerald and Anderson left port with the National Weather Service predicting easterly to north-easterly winds. With this information both captains of the Fitzgerald and Anderson discussed and plotted a more northerly route to use the Canadian shoreline as protection from the waves.
(Courtesy | NOAA)
As the ships made their way across Lake Superior on November 10 the winds began to shift. The storm made its way across the lake and the winds shifted from easterly to northwesterly. This change gave the waves a long fetch for them to build, but by this time both ships where already motoring down the eastern shoreline of Lake Superior. During the afternoon of the 10th the Anderson reported steady NW winds of 43 knots and 16 foot waves. Around 3:30pm the Fitzgerald reported, "I have a fence rail down, have lost a couple of vents, and have a list."
(Courtesy | NTSB Report)
Less than an hour later the Fitzgerald radioed the Anderson to inform the ship that both radars were inoperable and to ask that they keep track of the Fitzgerald and provide navigational assistance. By 7:00 pm the waves had built to 25 feet as the Fitzgerald and Anderson found themselves in the worst place on the lake that day.
(Courtesy | NOAA)
The Anderson radioed at 7:10 pm to notify the Fitzgerald of northbound traffic and ask how they were progressing to which they replied, “We are holding our own”. This would be the last contact anyone had with the Fitzgerald. At 7:20 pm the Anderson checked its radar and could not find the Fitzgerald. Visibility had increased to the point where the Anderson could see shore lights 20 miles away and the northbound vessel’s lights 19 miles away, the Fitzgerald should have been only 10 miles away and was no where to be seen. The Anderson continued calling the Fitzgerald until 8:32 pm when they notified the Coast Guard of the circumstances.
The Fitzgerald went down with all 29 crew members and no bodies were ever recovered.
The ship was found in 530 feet of water split in 2 with the back half coming to rest upside down. The accident report concludes that the Fitzgerald sank whole and went head first into the bottom at which point the midsection disintegrated and the rear section rolled over to come to its final resting place.
Makings of a Disaster
The cause of the wreck has been debated and theorized many times over the years. From faulty hatches, to unmarked shoals, to a weakened hull, there have been numerous theories proposed and it’s likely we’ll never know the truth of what happened.
The NTSB and Coast Guard reports both came to a conclusion that pinned the blame on hatch covers. The Fitzgerald’s reports that the ship was listing and running pumps indicate it had been taking on water. The Coast Guard report places the blame more on a gradual flooding due to waves washing over the deck and improperly secured non-weathertight hatch covers. And that due to the circumstances the captain and crew did not realize the extent of the flooding until it was too late. Water in the hold would not have been visible until above the ore and the bulkheads were not watertight so water was free to fill the entire hold.
The NTSB on the other hand starts off with a similar conclusion, but adds that they believe a catastrophic hatch failure occurred. They estimated that by 7:15pm the Fitzgerald had taken on sufficient water to be running at near zero freeboard at hatch #1. At this point a 25 foot wave would be sufficient to collapse a hatch through static pressure alone, and once a hatch catastrophically failed it would have only taken minutes for the ship to have sunk.
(Courtesy | Great Lakes Ship Museum)
Now let’s explore some of the other theories that have been proposed. The least probable theory is one advanced by the Lake Carriers Association (LCA). Their theory was that the Fitzgerald grounded on a poorly marked shoal causing fatal damage to the hull or significantly weakening it allowing conditions to sink her later on. There really is no evidence to support this theory and divers even inspected the nearby shoal and found no evidence of recent damage.
Another theory is that the hull was weakened from regularly overloading the ship. The Fitzgerald was designed for a 26,000 ton payload but over the years the ship got Coast Guard approval 3 times to carry heavier payloads until the ship was allowed to carry 30,000 tons by 1975 (allowing it to sit over 3 feet deeper). Due to this overloading the ship would have less freeboard and on its last journey the Fitzgerald had over 27,000 tons of ore. Although the lower freeboard is assigned as a contributing factor to the loss by the Coast Guard and NTSB, they do not indicate any reason to believe the hull was structurally deficient. But, in 2009, naval architect Raymond Ramsey, a designer of the Fitzgerald, wrote that based on the increased loading, maintenance records, and construction of the ship he doubts the Fitzgerald was seaworthy that night.
A second theory related to the structure, the most speculative theory, is that the Fitzgerald suffered from structural issues just due to its construction. There is some evidence to support structural deficiencies inherent in the ship itself due to construction and not just overloading. An ex-crew member recalls seeing broken welds on the keel and sister keelsons over winter layup in 1971-1972. These broken welds were confirmed and approved for repair by the Coast Guard. The sister keelsons were claimed to have only been tack welded as well, meaning a much weaker keel. In addition to bad construction some former crew members give evidence that the Fitzgerald was just not designed well. Another former crew member recalls the Fitzgerald being a "wet ship", that she took on water all the time and they regularly had to pump out the tunnels. If this theory were to prove true, the ship would have had to broken up on the surface and not upon impact on the lake floor. There are multiple historians and researchers who believe this to be the case. They claim the taconite coverage on the front half would have required the rear section to remain a float for a short while before sinking and that the position and orientation of the rear does not support the official reports claims of sinking whole. Some also point to the fact that the Fitzgerald's sister ship (Arthur B. Homer) was permanently laid up in 1980, at less than half the typical lifespan of a freighter. Though this ship was lengthened by around 80 feet in 1975, so it wasn't really comparing apples to apples anymore.
(Courtesy | Great Lakes Ship Museum)
Finally, there is a theory that a rogue wave or series of waves sunk the Fitzgerald. The Great Lakes are notorious for their vicious waves, just in general the waves are said to be short and steep compared and much more random to the more rolling regular types of waves found on the open oceans. Beyond the characteristics of the waves the Great Lakes have what mariners call the “Three Sisters”, said to be a series of waves that come out of nowhere with a significantly larger amplitude than the surrounding waves. More recent research is seeing evidence of this sort of phenomenon in the Apostle Islands. Researchers have cataloged waves that are over twice the height of the surrounding waves and state that, “They group together during certain wave conditions. You might get three or four in an hour and then you won’t get one for the rest of the day.” The captain of the Anderson later even recounted that they encountered a series of waves up to 35 feet by his estimation. He wondered if those same waves are what did in the Fitzgerald.
It’s unlikely that any single one of these theories is completely correct on its own. The truth is probably some combination of the above. My opinion is that overloading and low freeboard led to excessive wave action over the deck which led to hatches moving or latches breaking allowing more and more water in and finally a series of significantly larger waves swamps the deck buckling hatches and sinking the ship.
The truth of how those 29 men lost their lives will likely never be known. Always remember, beware the witch of November.
Freighter in Lake Superior storm