” . . . When the waves turn the minutes to hours”

Forty five years ago, on the night of November 10, one of the biggest boats* on the freshwater sea disappeared in a storm. The ore carrier S S Edmund Fitzgerald sank into the deadly cold waters of Lake Superior, taking with her all 29 men aboard.

It is easy to forget that the Great Lakes are deadly, even without “the Witch of November.” Lake Superior has claimed a number of vessels, as have Michigan, Huron, Ontario, and Erie. Storms, collisions, boiler explosions, groundings, there are lots of ways for a boat to vanish. Most are known only to those men (and women) directly involved, or their family and friends. But the Big Fitz was different, because she was immortalized in the coldest song Gordon Lightfoot ever wrote. Not cold in the emotional sense, but the words and the steel guitar combine to produce chills in the listener, even before the story unfolds.

The video below includes news reports and radio traffic related to the wreck.

The shipping museum in Duluth has a great exhibit about the ore and grain carriers, and the Big Fitz. If you get to watch one of the cargo ships entering or departing the harbor, it’s amazing to see. They are larger today than in 1975, but they are still prey and playthings for the Witch of November.

*All floating things on the Great Lakes are boats, even if they would be ships elsewhere. No, I don’t know if submarines are still boats or if they become ships when they pass through the Soo Locks [Sault St. Marie].

18 thoughts on “” . . . When the waves turn the minutes to hours”

  1. Great Lakes vessels have, as far as I know, no waterway to the oceans, which might be why they never graduate to being ships.

    • Correctio: The St. Lawrence Seaway does allow vessrls as large as the Edmund Fitzgerald through. My mistake. But Seawaymax is less than Soomax, so anything larger must be built and launched on the Lakes.

  2. I didn’t realize for many years what song Weird Al was riffing off with his Biggest Ball of Yarn in Minnesota.
    I think it was the thematic contrast, but I’m sure the lack of steel guitars doing their best imitation of a cold killing wind played a role.

  3. Cold and shivery, all right. I got a good view of Superior from a shingle beach on the Keewenaw Peninsula, in summer (1st week of August). Bright, sparkling day, with clear, very deep blue, cold water. Back up the road were the winter snow records, marked as different heights on the trees, up around 30 ft AGL. Nope, didn’t want to be there when things woke up from the nap.

  4. My uncle inherited a cabin in Paradise, on Whitefish Bay (FWIW, Paradise is about 300 miles north of Hell. Go figure.)

    We helped clean it up and visited the remains of the coast guard station in Vermillion (if memory serves; this was in the early ’60s). One of the buildings had been knocked over by storms. Whitefish Bay is relatively quiet (the point is NW of Saux Ste. Marie), but that’s close to the only place that doesn’t get wild weather all the time.

    OTOH, we were up there one April, and the snow drifts were up to the eaves. A couple of houses had insufficient pitch to shed the snow, with catastrophic results. I believe at that time, winter population in the town was about 5.

  5. I used to live near the mouth of the Columbia River, and enjoyed watching the ships go by, and those at anchor awaiting a river pilot to take them up the river or a bar pilot to take them out into the ocean

  6. Somewhere around here I have a book about shipwrecks on the Great Lakes. There have been hundreds of them since Europeans started traveling on the Lakes. Hundreds of commercial ones, that is — who knows how many personal and pleasure craft. Some are known; others simply disappeared without a trace. The Edmund Fitzgerald was not only the largest, but also the last of any note. That kind of surprised me when I learned it.

    I never understood why Lakes freighters are not built to the same standards as ocean-going freighters. The Witch of November can be as bad as any oceanic storm short of a full hurricane.

    At least in the US Navy, all submarines are always called “boats” — yes, even the huge Ohio-class boomers. It goes back to their original designation as “submersible torpedo boats”.

    • I read an analysis of the sinking of the Fitz. It claimed that the ship, originally a new standard of safety on the Lake, had suffered years of slow neglect, to the degree that her cargo hatches were no longer watertight. In the storm, they claimed, she would have taken on water in her cargo compartments and sunk from loss of buoyancy. I don’t know if that’s still current thinking.

      • My understanding (from the late 1990s [?]) is that when they got blown off course, they bottomed out on a shoal in a wave trough. That cracked her hull, and the waves “worked” the ship until she “broke deep and took water” several miles later.

        • I’ve heard both those theories, and a couple of others, but there doesn’t seem to be any agreement among the various investigations. We know the ship broke up on or near the surface because the wreck is in two parts and the stern half is upside down. The propeller and rudder appear intact, which sort of argues against the ‘bottomed out’ hypothesis. And we know that whatever happened gave little warning, because no distress signal was sent. But that’s about all we know. Everything else is guesswork.

  7. And like all of us, I had those eerie chords giving me earworms all day. The tune and those haunting lyrics just stay with you.

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