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Local View: 'In a race with death'

The Edmund Fitzgerald, 47 years ago next week, ‘submarined’ to the bottom of Lake Superior

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This is Marlin Bree’s illustration of the Edmund Fitzgerald at the bottom of Lake Superior, its cabin lights still glowing.
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The sun was setting, burnishing everything golden in its long rays. The elderly captain had taken me up on an invitation to visit my handmade sailboat, the 20-foot Persistence. I had spent several weeks in the Apostle Islands, hanging from the anchor and tying up at rustic docks, and now I was in the Duluth–Superior harbor at posh Barker’s Island.

As he stepped onboard, my little boat dipped as if to welcome him, this grand old man of the inland ocean. Capt. Guido Gulder looked every inch the Great Lakes big-boat skipper he once was. A tall man in his 70s, he wore his age gracefully.

When he began sailing in 1930, ships were up to 600 feet long, carried about 11,000 to 12,000 tons, and had a draft of about 20 feet. These days, the longboats are over a thousand feet in length and carry 63,000 tons.

The old ships never wore out, and he missed their passing. “A ship can keep going on,” the captain said nostalgically. “Those reciprocating engines run forever, so long as you reline their cylinder walls and take care of their bearings and shafts. They were well built but slow.”

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Marlin Bree produced this illustration of the Edmund Fitzgerald battling the storm on Nov. 10, 1975.

“What happened to the old ships?”

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“We must have sent 100 of them to the scrapyard. And they ended up in foreign ports. I don’t like it.”

We talked of the old days on Lake Superior. I often wondered: Did the crew know what was happening without modern equipment to tell them?

He frowned. “It doesn’t take long to know about a problem on a boat.”

Including hitting a reef?

“In fair weather, if you were to touch bottom, you would know about it; and if damage occurred, the listing of the ship or the change in the draft would soon tell the men in charge,” he said. “Most times, when a ship touches the bottom, you can feel the rumble, little or big, depending on the damage. However, under certain circumstances, such as during a storm, a captain might touch and not know about it, but the consequences would be known quickly.”

Capt. Gulder acknowledged that he had “rubbed on a few reefs.” He told me that when he was a mate in his younger days, his ship was running slowly in thick fog and strong current — and hit some boulders.

“What a ruckus that made,” he said. “You know you hit bottom.”

That brought up the Edmund Fitzgerald. One moment, the Fitzgerald had been in radio contact, the next she was gone. It was as if the seas had mysteriously swallowed up this 728-foot steel vessel. What had gone wrong?

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Edmund Fitzgerald
The freighter Edmund Fitzgerald sank in a ferocious Lake Superior storm 47 years ago next week. Twenty-nine men lost their lives when the Fitzgerald, which had left Superior the day before, foundered near the entrance to Whitefish Bay at the eastern end of the lake on Nov. 10, 1975. In this undated News Tribune file photo, probably from the early 1960s, the Edmund Fitzgerald is guided by the tug Vermont under what would later be called the Blatnik Bridge.

The Fitzgerald has long been a boat of mystery — the Titanic of the Great Lakes. Four main theories attempt to explain the leading cause of her sinking: her hatch covers broke, a big wave enveloped her and sent her down to the bottom, she had a loose keel, or she hit something. Whatever happened went down with her — the captain did not radio a Mayday or an explanation.

Hatches Gave Way: The theory is that boarding seas broke over the deck and smashed in the Fitzgerald’s hatch covers, letting massive amounts of water pour into the hull. But other ships with similar hatch covers survived. So did the Fitz.

Rogue Wave: It overran the Fitz and sank her, says a second theory. But my feeling is that the rogue wave was not the primary cause of Fitz’s sinking, that the big wave was but the final step in a series of disasters that befell the doomed boat.

Loose Keel: Like most ore boats, the all-steel Fitzgerald worked hard and developed hull flaws, including a loose keel. The captain of the Fitzgerald, Ernest M. McSorley, had been concerned about the big ship’s ultra flexing in big waves. “The wiggling thing,” he once reported, “scares me.” A crew member said it was like “a diving board after someone has jumped off.” Sometimes it took minutes for the bow to straighten out. There was a structural problem here, but if the Fitz had broken up on the surface, she would have sunk differently, at a different time, and ended up in a different pattern at the bottom. The ore boat Daniel J. Morrell, for example, broke up at the surface. Her two ends separated and were located underwater miles apart. On the other hand, the Fitzgerald’s 276-foot front section rests within 170 feet of the 253-foot aft section, a relatively compact area. If she had broken up at the surface, her hull sections would have scattered over a wide area, not so close.

She Hit Something: The Fitz’s problems began after she crossed Six Fathom Shoals off Caribou Island. Before she went into that area, the big boat had no problems; after she came out, she reported a fence rail down, a list, and broken vents, all indicators of a significant hull problem. A sudden list on a massive steel vessel indicated something was radically wrong. A fence rail down could be from the hull “hogging” (bouncing up and tearing the steel cables), and ventilators to the bilge could be broken by hydraulic pressure.

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Photo courtesy of the Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum / The restored bell from the Edmund Fitzgerald is on display at the Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum at Whitefish Point, Michigan. It was retrieved in a joint U.S.-Canadian dive in 1995.

After being holed, the Fitz became a slowly sinking but valiant ship. “We are holding our own,” Capt. McSorley said in one of his last radio transmissions, his ship’s throttles set at full ahead in a race with death. She might have made it to the protection of Whitefish Point had she not been overrun by the rogue wave. The massive wall of water could easily have slid onboard her lowered spar deck and piled high behind the pilothouse — probably to the horror of the captain and crew. The hatches still held, but the wave depressed the bow section. The Fitz began its downward plunge to the bottom. She “submarined.”

Capt. Gulder was operating an ore boat when the Ten November gales came, and I valued his opinion on the Fitzgerald’s sinking. I wondered if the crew, as well as the captain, knew they had hit bottom and were taking on water. The Fitz operated in an age of little navigational electronics, few gauges, and no depth sounders. Their radar had been blown out by the storm.

“Even if a longboat crew did not know the instant they hit, they would know if their boat was taking on water,” he said. They lived on the boat and knew its inner secrets. He pinpointed the Six Fathom Shoals near Caribou Island as the likely “touching” spot.

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“It sticks out a long way, and others have hit it,” Capt. Gulder confirmed. “Most shippers feel Fitzgerald touched. He was southerly.” He meant that the big laker had strayed too far south in the storm, and in his track was the deadly reef.

So, yes, the Fitzgerald captain and crew knew they had hit something, were taking on water, and were in danger of sinking. They stuck with their boat.

I was curious about a snippet of radio conversation that had come out in the Coast Guard hearings where Capt. McSorley ordered that the crew was not allowed on deck. I asked the old captain, and I saw his face grow thoughtful as he told me in a calm voice: “They were trying to get off.”

That meant the aft section crew was on deck during the storm. The conditions below were so bad that they were willing to brave the waves and freezing water to get to their lifeboat. (A Lake Superior sailor leaves his big boat only when he has to step up to the little boat.) Dutifully, the crew left the deck and returned to the aft section. When the boat sank, they were still there. She went down under power with a still-turning propeller. The aft section turned over and came upside down with her bottom pointed toward the surface.

Today, the Fitz lies in 500 feet of water, about 17 miles from Whitefish Point on the Shipwreck Coast. She sank with her captain and crew fighting a storm-lashed lake on Nov. 10, 1975. Her crew is still with her. Their bodies have never been recovered.

In the setting sun’s golden glow, Capt. Gulder leaned back in my cockpit and spoke nostalgically of old times on the lake, even though he worked 12-hour days and earned an average of 27½ cents an hour.

“At first, I was sorry to be off the lakes, but not now. When they had large fleets in the old days, there was lots of competition, but everyone had to cooperate. Now everything is different — cold and impersonal. You hardly have any human beings around compared to how it used to be.”

And there was another matter: “Today, ships even have air conditioning.” He seemed to sniff the air.

I managed a smile. That was one thing I did not have to worry about. My 20-foot wooden sailboat does not have air conditioning.

Marlin Bree of Shoreview, Minnesota, is a former Duluthian. This story was excerpted from his forthcoming nonfiction book, “Bold Sea Stories 2: True Boating Tales of Adventure and Survival,” to be published in March by Marlor Press. Bree has written six books.

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Author and sailor Marlin Bree

A FEW FAST FITZ FACTS
June 8, 1958: Edmund Fitzgerald is launched in River Rogue, Michigan
Named for: The president and chairman of the board of Northwestern Mutual
Big Boat: At 729 feet long and 13,632 gross tons, it was the largest vessel on the Great Lakes for 13 years
Operations: Its normal course was from Silver Bay to steel mills on the lower lakes in Detroit and Toledo
Nov. 9, 1975: Left Superior with a load of taconite for Zug Island, Detroit
Nov. 10, 1975: Sank 17 miles north-northwest of Whitefish Point, Michigan; all 29 crew members perished
1976: The Gordon Lightfoot song, “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald,” released
1989, 1994, and 1995: Underwater expeditions to the wreck conducted by the Great Lakes Shipwreck Historical Society

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