Mt. Rainier and Lenticular Clouds - Dec. 2008 copyright: JMM

May 20, 2007

For Val - The Big Fitz

In my "O Canada" post, I mentioned being fascinated by the story of the Edmund Fitzgerald. My US friends, at least those my age, will probably remember Gordon Lightfoot's haunting ballad from 1976, "The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald". I was always riveted by that tale. How could a ship that big and that mighty be taken down in seconds, on a lake?

The "Big Fitz" as she was called, was the largest freighter in the Great Lakes at that time. She shipped iron ore pellets from one end of Lake Superior to the other. One fateful night in November, 1975, on her last run of the season and during a vicious storm, the Fitz sank in Canadian waters. The below map shows Fitz's course in red, and another freighter, the Arthur Anderson, which was sailing about 10-20 miles behind the Fitz that day, in black. The last thing that Captain Cooper of the AA heard from the Fitz's Captain McSorley was "we are holding our own". She disappeared from radar after that.
It's still unclear what made the Fitz sink. Theories abound as to it bottoming out on some shoals, to a rogue wave crashing over the middle, to the holds not being properly fastened and allowing water to fill them. 29 men perished. Shortly after, divers located her position, two large pieces split in two on the lake floor. Since that time, the original bell was salvaged from the wreck and has been placed in the Great Lakes Maritime Museum. At the same time the old bell was salvaged, a new brass bell with the names of the men who died was affixed to the ship under water.
As Captain Cooper got closer to the Soo Locks, he was asked by the Coast Guard to turn around and attempt to perform rescue and recovery in the height of the storm. He did so, despite jeopardizing his ship and the lives of his own men. I thought that was such a heroic thing to do.

Here's the story I got off the internet:

The Story of the Edmund Fitzgerald

The Fitzgerald began Sunday, November 9, 1975, loading 26,116 tons of taconite at the Burlington Northern Railroad Dock #1 in Superior, WI. On this 40th voyage in her 17th season, the Fitzgerald's destination was a steel plant on Zug Island in the Detroit River. The weather that morning was cloudy and cool with a light northeast wind. However, a deepening storm system was already taking shape in the central Plains.

By early afternoon, she was loaded and ready to depart. At 2:19 PM, the Fitzgerald left Superior and soon entered the open waters of western Lake Superior. The National Weather Service forecast at that time called for east to northeast winds increasing to 25 to 37 knots during the night, then shifting to north or northwest 24 to 40 knots on the afternoon of the 10th. Soon after she left, the National Weather Service issued a gale warning for Lake Superior, forecasting sustained east winds between 34 and 48 knots beginning that night ahead of the intensifying storm in the central Plains then moving into Iowa. Captain McSorley acknowledged receipt of the warning in a radio communication with Captain Bernie Cooper of the Arthur M. Anderson, another ore carrier that had steamed out of Two Harbors, MN, at almost the same time the Fitzgerald had left Superior. After reading the updated weather forecast, the two captains decided to travel closely together across northern Lake Superior and then southeast along the east shore of the Lake to the Soo Locks. By doing so, they could monitor each other and possibly avoid the higher waves that would be generated over southern Lake Superior on the 10th by the expected north to northwest winds.

At 1:00 AM on November 10, the Fitzgerald and Anderson were south of Isle Royale in western Lake Superior. The storm system moving northeast from the central Plains had continued to strengthen and reached north central Wisconsin by early morning on the 10th. The Fitzgerald reported northeast winds at 52 knots with 10-foot waves at 1:00 AM, and the National Weather Service soon upgraded the gale warning to a storm warning, forecasting sustained northeast winds 48 to 63 knots and 8- to 15-foot waves for the rest of the night. Captains McSorley and Cooper both expressed concern about the deteriorating weather conditions. At 7:00 AM, the ships were approximately 45 miles north of Copper Harbor, MI. The Fitzgerald observed northeast winds at 35 knots and 10-foot waves as the intensifying low pressure center moved over Marquette, MI. This report was the last weather observation she would disseminate.
By early afternoon on the 10th, the storm system had moved into southern Ontario, and the ships had reached a point about 10 miles northwest of Michipicoten Island in eastern Lake Superior, now heading southeast toward the Soo Locks. The weather report at 1:00 PM from the M/V Simcoe, a Canadian vessel about 15 miles from the Fitzgerald, indicated the surface low pressure center had passed north of Lake Superior: the wind had shifted to the west at 44 knots. At 2:45 PM, the Anderson observed northwest winds at 42 knots and 12- to 16-foot waves. The storm had become so bad that the Soo Locks were forced to close.

Captain Cooper, who could see the Fitzgerald on the Anderson's radar screen, worried that the ship might have moved too closely to shallower water about 35 feet deep off the Ontario coast near Caribou Island at 3:15 PM. He was concerned that the Fitzgerald could strike the bottom of Lake Superior as it was tossed around in the increasingly violent seas, damage its hull, and leak in water. In fact at 3:30 PM, Captain McSorley radioed the Anderson and indicated the Fitzgerald was taking in water and had developed a list. Two water pumps were running to pump out the water. The Fitzgerald had also sustained topside damage.

During the late afternoon of the 10th, ship observations show sustained northwest winds over 50 knots were occurring across eastern Lake Superior. At 4:00 PM, an estimated 75-knot, hurricane-force northwest wind gust struck the Anderson. Captain McSorley contacted the Anderson shortly after and indicated he had lost both his radars used for guidance, presumably due to wind damage suffered from this mighty gust. He requested the Anderson to monitor his position and course. The wind gust also knocked out the lighthouse and radio beacon at Whitefish Point. The implication of all this equipment loss was that the Fitzgerald was now sailing blindly, completely dependent on the Anderson for navigational guidance.

At 5:45 PM, Captain McSorley was in communication with the ship Avafors, indicating the Fitzgerald was suffering a bad list, had lost both radars, and was taking in heavy seas over the deck. Captain McSorley stated: "One of the worst seas I've ever been in."

At 7:00 PM, the Anderson, trailing the Fitzgerald by about 10 miles, was struck by two waves estimated at 25 feet or higher. At 7:10 PM, Captain McSorley told the Anderson: "We are holding our own." This was the last communication from the Fitzgerald. At 7:15 PM November 10th, the Anderson lost the Fitzgerald on radar as a snow squall enveloped the doomed ship.
The Anderson tried to contact the Fitzgerald again, but to no avail. A worried Captain Cooper called the Coast Guard at Sault Ste. Marie to report his concern about the Fitzgerald, but the storm severely impacted search operations. The Anderson turned out to be the primary vessel in the search and later that night discovered two badly damaged lifeboats and some other debris, but no survivors.


  1. Even though I am quite a bit younger than you, I still remember this story. I'm from the Great Lakes area and I have visited the museum mentioned here.

    So how's the weather over in Washington?? I used to live over there, and I miss it dearly.

  2. What brave people. Sailors are so completely at the mercy of the elements.

    Thanks for the story, JoJo.