The gales of November came early…

A well-made tribute to the 29 sailors who went down 34 years ago in the most famous Great Lakes wreck of all time–that of the Edmund Fitzgerald. They all came from the US, but because they went down in Canadian waters, the empathy for their families and friends is shared across the border. This song is a Canadian classic.

“Does anyone know where the love of God goes when the waves turn the minutes to hours?”

I can’t think of a more haunting line in any ballad than that. This song is so eerie, in fact, that one night a few years ago I actually heard it in my dreams, pitch-perfect right down to the steel guitar that echoes the wailing of the north wind. I woke up in a flash, unable to get back to sleep. The Witch of November had come stealing, all right — and with her, she took my nerves.

But this song is more than just a haunting ballad. It’s also accurate in many concrete details. The Edmund Fitzgerald, as the lyrics say, carried 26,000 tons — 26,116 to be precise — of taconite (iron ore) pellets, bound for the US Steel mills in Detroit. The account of the disappearance is in line with the actual events (although the dialogue, especially between the cook and crew, is probably poetic licence, since the last words via radio from the ship’s captain were a terse “We’re holding our own”). It happened so quickly that no one could quite believe it. And after the sinking, there was much confusion for years as to what could have caused it; there were so many conflicting theories. At the time the song came out, the cause was still unknown.

But Peter Unwin, author of The Wolf’s Head, a compendium of history and folklore of Lake Superior, seems to have cracked the mystery once and for all. I’ll let Unwin lay out the facts, and draw my own conclusion in a bit:

At seventeen years of age, the Edmund Fitzgerald was a neglected and ailing vessel. It had also taken its blows. In 1969, in a serious grounding, the ship suffered damage to its bottom and internal superstructure. A year later, it collided with the S. S. Hochelaga and sustained damage above the waterline. Three times the ship suffered injury above the waterline in collisions with the lock walls at Sault Ste. Marie. Welding cracks in the ship’s keel area were discovered in 1969 and again in 1973. The Fitz also had an unusual bow action, what [Captain] McSorley called “that wiggly thing” — in hard weather the bow of his carrier flipped to one side and took forever to return. “If she starts to do the wiggling thing, let me know. This thing scares me sometimes,” he told a mate. His stated opinion of his own ship was that it was “not as great as you might think.”

In five years its hull had been damaged five times. In that condition, bruised, possibly sailing with a loose keel and its twenty-one hatch covers held down by a minimum of clamps, it headed full speed into the worst storm to strike Lake Superior in more than half a century.

[…]

Despite the circumstances on that dreadful night, of all the ships on Superior only one sank, the relatively young Edmund Fitzgerald. It is possible this massive carrier had been sinking for hours, that as its captain ploughed hard into the mounting waves, it was sinking. With every nautical mile, the ship slipped another degree below the surface. Even with pumps spewing thousands of gallons per minute, the ship was sinking. Inch by inch the distance between Superior and the spar deck decreased. What had once been compartments filled with air were now filling with water, tons and tons of water, coming from the top, perhaps from below.

[…]

From the time the ship was built in 1958 to the time it disappeared in 1975, the United States Coast Guard allowed the Edmund Fitzgerald to load an extra three more feet of cargo. A single inch of increased draft on a ship that size meant an extra 130 long tons per trip. Multiplied by forty-five trips per year and then the ship’s lifetime of perhaps fifty years, that inch translates into millions of dollars.

Year by year the Edmund Fitzgerald was riding lower in the water. In 1958 nautical engineers had concluded this ship could be safely loaded in winter to 24 feet 6 inches. In 1973 the Fitzgerald’s load line for the critical late-fall sailing season was increased a full 20 inches. Fully loaded, it now floated closer to the bottom of Lake Superior than it had the year before. When the Fitzgerald left Wisconsin for the last time on November 9, it was cargoed to a draft of 27 feet 2 inches forward, and 27 feet 6 inches aft, low enough that a twelve-foot wave would board it. A fifteen-foot wave hurled three feet of water across the deck. A thirty-five-foot wave like the ones encountered on November 10 put the deck nearly twenty-five feet beneath the surface of Superior.

After the investigation the Coast Guard’s first recommendation was to rescind its own reduction in freeboard brought about by changes in 1969, 1971, and 1973. The Lake Carriers Association issued its own report in which it complimented itself on its safety record through the years, and demanded that no changes be made to current load-line regulations: the Edmund Fitzgerald had struck a shoal and sunk.

Just a shoal? Hardly. It was greed that sank the Edmund Fitzgerald. Greed that kept the Fitzgerald in such poor condition; greed that left so few clamps on the hatches, allowing water to seep in from above; greed that kept raising the load line above what the engineers had decreed, time and again; greed that sent the vessel out on its final voyage when winter weather was already setting in, and the shipping lanes would be closed by law in a matter of days. And in the end, the shoal otherwise known as greed cost 29 lives, plus a highly-valued ship–once the biggest “laker” in the world — plus 26,116 tons of iron ore that has never been salvaged.

And who would salvage it? Who would dare brave the fury of the world’s greatest lake? Is anybody that foolhardy?

I was born in Northern Ontario; I lived there for the first ten years of my life. I was a little girl when the Fitzgerald sank. I don’t have any personal memories of the sinking. But I do have a visceral memory of what Superior is like; by concidence, burned in my brain not long after that fateful sinking. It’s clean, unbelievably big, deep blue, ruggedly beautiful, and full of excellent fish, the freshest I’ve ever tasted. I remember one family trip we took there; I remember wandering along its shore, picking up handfuls of rusty-brown agates, and jade-green, water-smooth pebbles (epidote, according to my gold-prospecting rockhound dad.) My senses were singing. Eventually, the lure of the big water was too much for me to resist; I took off my sandals and waded in. And suppressed a scream.

It hurt horrifically for a minute or so; then my feet went numb. I dropped my rocks and stumbled out, teeth rattling in my head, my legs dead below the knee. It felt as though I’d been in it forever, but I had been in for much less than five minutes. It was the height of summer, and Lake Superior, inviting as it looked, was in fact bone-hollowing cold. In an instant, I grasped the macabre horror of what awaited anyone unlucky enough to get caught by its rough waves.

And they were rough — even on a calm day, you could feel them sucking at you like a live thing, hungry for a human sacrifice. Even wading in the shallows, you felt it. I was maybe nine years old at the time, and I’ve never forgotten.

Now, just imagine what it must be like in early November, as fall gives way to winter, and freezing rain turns to sleet and snow. Imagine that great blue water turning a flinty, taconite grey, tossed by hurricane-force winds. Imagine it coming in 30-foot-high swells. How long do you think a ship’s crew would last, if they went down in that? “The waves turn the minutes to hours” is an understatement. Seconds would feel like eternities. Death might not be long in coming, but it would still be long enough that its utter horror would be inescapable.

Lake Superior — Gitchigami, its Ojibwa name, means “Big Water” — is not to be trifled with. Nor is its power to be underestimated. Like all the Great Lakes, it is so large that it can create its own weather and climate patterns — a trait otherwise limited mainly to oceans. “The gales of November come early”, all right — and nowhere more than on Superior. Pushing through a last shipment of heavy iron ore pellets — an oversize one, at that — at such a time, really is the worst kind of hubris. Were I the owner of a vessel like the Fitzgerald, I would never take such a risk. No amount of money to be made would be worth the loss, especially with a lake as legendary for its hunger as Gitchigami is.

And, pagan that I am, I would probably feel compelled to propitiate the Mishipashoo — the legendary feline water-spirit of Gitchigami — with regular rites of bonfires, native-style drumming and chanting, and prayers for mercy. (Not to mention binding-spells against human hubris — a sentiment far too easily felt when confronted with such a large body of navigable water, daring one to brave it…)

Here’s a nicely-done metal cover of the Gordon Lightfoot song:

It’s missing the piercing intonation of the steel guitar that rang with such eerie clarity through my dreams one night, but I think it still does justice to the ballad.

PS: Read here about the efforts of a Fitzgerald victim’s nephew’s efforts to save the ship that tried to rescue his uncle and 28 crewmates. It’s a very moving story. I hope that even if the Arthur M. Anderson doesn’t continue to sail as a working “laker”, it will still be preserved for its historic value. Perhaps it could be turned into a floating museum in honor of those lost on Lake Superior–the human sacrifices, counted and uncounted, of Gitchigami.

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3 Responses to The gales of November came early…

  1. Polaris says:

    I’m surprised the Edmund Fitzgerald remained afloat for as many years as it did with its record of damage, poor repair and overloading.
    I have never been on Lake Superior but I have some experience with Lake Michigan, and the two lakes sound similar in many ways.
    I have heard experienced ocean sailors say that Lake Michigan is more dangerous than most oceans because the weather can change so suddenly. Currents and undertows are trickier. The waves are closer together and it makes it more difficult for a big ship to have some time between waves during bad weather. The ends of a big vessel can be raised by the waves while the middle is in the air and it can break in two.
    Some years ago billionaire yacht racer Ted Turner said that Lake Michigan was a millpond, but the underestimated lake must have been listening because his boat was demasted and badly damaged during the Mackinac race.
    Nearly 100 years ago an overloaded ship carrying 5500 Christmas trees sank in Lake Michigan. About 500 of the trees were tied down on the deck to make more profit because the hold was full. The trees on the deck caused more ice and snow to pile up and made the ship ride lower in the water. The wreck was located in the early 1970s and some of the trees had remained surprisingly well preserved because of the coldness of the water. The Great Lakes often do not give up the dead because cold water prevents the formation of gas that will raise a body.
    During WW II Lake Michigan was used to train aircraft pilots on improvised aircraft carriers. Some of the planes crashed and sank. One plane that was brought to the surface more than 40 years later was in fairly good condition and its tires had remained fully inflated thanks to the cold water preservation.
    I first learned how to swim at a Lake Michigan public beach and the water is usually rather chilly but in a way that was good, because I found the only way I could keep fairly warm was by actually swimming. Wading or prancing about was not enough to stay warm.

  2. Michigan is a good bit smaller and warmer than Superior, but you’re right–it’s no millpond. I read an article in National Geographic some years back that profiled the Great Lakes, and Michigan in particular, because it lies almost due north-south, has a unique trait that makes it highly susceptible to strong north winds. It creates a phenomenon known as seiche, in which the north wind actually sucks a great volume of the lake’s water southwards, so that land which was three or more feet above water on a calm day can be inundated on a windy one, even without a drop of rainfall. It can do a lot of damage in a short time. The Michigan seiche has made it hard to live on the lake’s southernmost shores–unless one can afford what it costs to build big breakwaters. It, too, is a lake deserving of tremendous respect. Ted Turner is lucky his arrogance didn’t cost him his life!
    I live on the north shore of Lake Ontario. It’s tame compared to Superior and Michgan, but I still wouldn’t push my luck with it. It looks smooth, but it too has treacherous rip currents, often not far from shore. On a moderately windy day, breaking waves can be as high as five or six feet. On a rough one, they can easily be twice that. I haven’t seen a full-force hurricane over Ontario, but it can happen. The last one to hit here was Hazel, during the 1950s, and it drowned 80 people in Toronto, all in low-lying areas along the rivers–the lake apparently backwashed up into them. It’s still too cold for me to swim in for very long (and these days, too polluted to even contemplate, as I’d come out dirtier than I went in!) Just knowing how much lake-effect snow comes off the thing throughout the winter makes me very careful how close I get to the shoreline in spring, especially along the cliffs just to the south of where I am. They get dangerous mudslides.

  3. Polaris says:

    Cold water lakes often feature some fascinating curiousities.
    Crater Lake in Oregon is in the caldera of a dormant volcano and the water is very cold. For more than 100 years an old log has been observed floating vertically in the lake and several feet of the log remain above the water line, bleached white by the elements. It’s known as the Old Man of the Lake. At times with the help of a few drinks and a little imagination it probably resembles an old man strolling across the waters. 🙂
    The cold water and natural sap and resin in the log have preserved it. The Old Man sometimes wanders many miles per day. It has been included on navigation maps and at times it has been tied off to keep it still for safety reasons.

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