There are few yacht owners who don't respect the power of the sea, and there are even fewer who have not heard of the Edmund Fitzgerald. Of the thousands of shipwrecks on the Great Lakes, the Fitz is the most well-known and the most controversial. Next year marks the 40th anniversary of the sinking, and there is still no definitive answer to the cause.
The SS Edmund Fitzgerald was christened in June 1958 and when launched was the largest ship on the Great Lakes. She was built as a bulk freighter carrying taconite iron ore pellets from the mines of Minnesota's Iron Range north of Lake Superior to the steel mills of Michigan and Ohio. Powered by a steam turbine and a single propeller almost 20 feet in diameter, the Fitzgerald carried 30,000 tons of iron ore in the cargo hold of her 729-Foot hull.
Since Great Lakes freighters are built for freshwater, they have a life expectancy of over 50 years. By the end of 1975, after 17 years of service, the Fitzgerald had completed almost 750 round trips from Duluth to Detroit or Toledo. Many years of profitability were still expected by the ship's owner, Northwestern Mutual Life Insurance, and its Chairman of the Board and ship's namesake, Edmund Fitzgerald.
On the afternoon of November 9, 1975 the Edmund Fitzgerald cast off her lines from the docks at Superior, Wisconsin (just across the bay from Duluth) with Capt. Ernest McSorley at the helm. She had a full load of taconite pellets to feed the blast furnaces of Zug Island just south of Detroit. McSorley, a veteran Great Lakes master, intended to retire at the end of the shipping season. That afternoon, the National Weather Service predicted a storm would pass over Lake Superior and the Fitzgerald's route the following day.
Joining the Edmund Fitzgerald down bound Lake Superior toward the Soo Locks was another ore freighter, the SS Arthur M. Anderson. They sailed in tandem about 10 to 20 miles apart.
At 7 p.m., the weather forecast was upgraded to gale warnings for all of Lake Superior. Five hours later, in the early morning of Nov. 10, the National Weather Service issued a storm warning predicting northeast winds 35 to 50 knots with waves 8 to 15 feet. Just before that storm warning was broadcast, the Fitzgerald noted winds out of the north-northeast at 52 knots, with seas of 10 feet.
As the weather and sea conditions deteriorated the two vessels left the regular shipping channels to seek the safety of the lee shore on the Canadian side of the lake to the east, a standard practice. The morning and afternoon of November 10 wore on, and the storm center passed overhead, snow began to fall and the Anderson lost sight of the Fitzgerald some 16 miles ahead.
At about 3:30 p.m., Capt. McSorley radioed I have a fence rail down, have lost a couple of vents, and have a list. The Fitzgerald also advised that two bilge pumps were running and she would slow down to allow the Anderson to catch up.
A half-hour later, as the sun was setting amid the snowstorm, McSorley radioed the Anderson again. Fitzgerald had lost both radars and was effectively blind as darkness approached. He asked that Anderson provide navigational assistance to help her steer toward the safety of Whitefish Bay.
At 5:30 p.m., using radar, the Anderson fixed Fitzgerald at 35 miles northwest of Whitefish Point. At about the same time, McSorely spoke on VHF radio to the northbound Swedish freighter Avafors. He remarked that am taking heavy seas over the deck in one of the worst seas I have ever been in. During this period, Anderson experienced wind gusts from 70 to 75 knots with waves between 18 and 25 feet.
At 7:10 p.m. McSorley told Anderson that Fitzgerald was holding her own. Ten minutes later, the Edmund Fitzgerald had vanished from the Anderson's radar screen. Concurrently, visibility from the Anderson had increased and lights on shore were clearly seen 20 miles away. The lights of the Fitzgerald, only 10 miles away, should have been visible but weren't. The Edmund Fitzgerald sailed no more, and all 29 souls on board were lost at sea.
Four days after the Edmund Fitzgerald sank, a U.S. Navy search plane discovered the ship about 17 miles from Whitefish Bay in 530 feet of water using magnetic detection equipment. The following spring, in May 1976, a U.S. Navy unmanned submersible was sent down to the lakebed to take a look. There lay the Edmund Fitzgerald, broken in two. The bow section, 276 feet long, rested upright in the mud. The stern section, 253 feet in length, sat upside down and askew of the bow section 170 feet away. The remaining 200 feet of midsection was a jumble of taconite and twisted steel.
The Cargo Hold Flooding Theory:
In July 1977, The U.S. Coast Guard concluded that the loss of the Fitzgerald was a result of ineffective hatch closures that caused gradual flooding of the cargo hold when green water was shipped on board. That report also implied that the crew members did not fasten or maintain the hatch clamps properly. The following year, the National Transportation Safety Boards report disagreed with the USCG's findings and determined the probable cause of the accident was the sudden massive flooding of the cargo hold due to the collapse of one or more hatch covers.
The Waves and Weather Theory:
The U.S. government funded a computer simulation in 2005 to re-create the wind and wave conditions on the day before, the day of and the day after the accident. The simulation produced significant wave height over 25 feet which would have caused the Fitzgerald to roll heavily in sustained winds over 60 knots, with gusts up to 75.
The Rogue Wave Theory:
The captain of the Anderson reported that a series of two or three waves 30 to 35 feet in height struck his ship at 6:30 p.m. causing severe damage to a lifeboat and burying the deck in heavy seas. This train of rogue waves then continued on in the direction of Fitzgerald and would have struck her about the time she went down.
The Shoaling Theory:
The Lake Carriers' Association, which represents owners and operators of U.S. flagged ships on the Great Lakes, believes that the Fitzgerald grounded on an unknown reef near Six Fathom Shoal north of Caribou Island about four hours before she sank.
The Structural Failure Theory:
A maritime historian thinks that the design and subsequent modifications to the Fitzgerald after she was built led to a weakened structure that was susceptible to fatal stress fractures caused by the continuous pounding of waves in heavy seas.
Beginning in 1980, a number of privately and publicly funded manned underwater surveys have taken place, but none of these dives have proved or disproved any of the theories of the sinking. And we will probably never know the reason. However, a series of salvage dives in 1995 recovered the ship's bell, which has been restored and is on display at the Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum as a tangible memorial to the loss of the captain and crew aboard the Edmund Fitzgerald.
Does any one know where the love of God goes when the waves turn the minutes to hours? The searchers all say they'd have made Whitefish Bay if they'd put 15 more miles behind'er. They might have split up or they might have capsized; they may have broke deep and took water. And all that remains is the faces and the names of the wives and the sons and the daughters. Gordon Lightfoot, from The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald
Capt. Jeff Werner has been in the yachting industry for over 25 years. In addition to working as a captain on private and charter yachts, both sail and power, he is a certified instructor for the USCG, US Sailing, RYA and the MCA. He is also the Diesel Doctor, helping to keep your yacht's fuel in optimal condition for peak performance. For more information, call 239-246-6810, or visit MyDieselDoctor.com. All Marinalife members receive a 10% discount on purchases of equipment, products and supplies from Diesel Doctor.
To sail around the world is an ultimate endurance test and a dream that has for centuries tempted explorers, adventurers and those who love sailing. Ferdinand Magellan was the first maritime globe trotter, and he gets all the credit — even though he didn’t finish the journey.
During a skirmish with natives in the Philippines, he was shot by a poisoned arrow and left by his crew to die. His navigator Juan Sebastián Elcano then captained the Victoria, a 31-foot, 85-ton ship with a crew of 45 men back to Spain in September of 1522, three years after Magellan led his flotilla of five ships westward across the Atlantic Ocean in search of a new route to the Spice Islands.
In September of 2022, Ellen Magellan set off down the Trinity River in East Texas in the Evelyn Mae, a 22-foot, carbon fiber rowboat outfitted with two cabins and a solar power generator, on her way to the Gulf of Mexico in the first leg of an audacious, seven-year attempt to row a boat solo around the world. At the age of 27, Ellen seeks to raise awareness of the state of the ocean and promote the notion that it’s okay for women to travel alone and experience life-changing experiences.
Will Magellan complete her journey? Who knows. But, inspired by her passion, Marinalife presents the stories of eight trailblazing women who circumnavigated the globe via boat in their own ways, taking on a challenge historically reserved mainly for men.
JEANNE BARET of France became the first woman to circumnavigate the globe, albeit without knowing it. Jeanne disguised herself as a man to illegally accompany her botanist lover as part of a French Navy scientific voyage looking for exotic plants. Women weren’t allowed on Navy boats. In Brazil, it is believed she discovered a new exotic flowering vine and named it Bougainvillea in honor of Louis de Bougainville, who headed the around-the-world expedition. Her identity was eventually discovered in Tahiti where some historians claim she was sexually assaulted by her crewmates. Baret and her lover Philibert Commerson were later left behind in Mauritius in the Indian Ocean as the expedition continued. On Mauritius, they befriended the governor, an avid botanist, and studied the flora of the region. When Commerson died, Baret married a Frenchman and together they returned unceremoniously to France three years after Baret’s journey began, thus completing the around the world journey. Bougainville later arranged for Jeanne to receive a Navy pension in recognition of her contributions on the exhibition.
NELLIE BLY was an American investigative journalist widely known for going undercover to report the terrible conditions of a New York City insane asylum. In 1888, she began what would be a 72-day trip around the world via steamship, horse and railroad to emulate Jules Verne’s popular fictional character Phileas Fogg in Around the World in Eighty Days. She was the first person to turn the fiction into fact. New York World Publisher Joseph Pulitzer initially was against it, believing only a man could make such a trip. He eventually acquiesced and published daily updates on her journey. The entire nation followed along as Nellie raced not only time, but also another woman. Elizabeth Bisland, representing Cosmopolitan Magazine, finished her circumnavigation four days after Nellie triumphantly arrived in New York. Bly was honored with a U.S. postage stamp in 2002.
KRYSTYNA CHOJNOWSKA-LISKIEWICZ, an experienced Polish sailor and ship construction engineer, became the first woman to sail around the world solo. Krystyna was selected for the challenge in a competition held by Poland’s Sailing Association to promote Polish sailing during the United Nation’s International Women’s Year. Her husband, also a shipbuilder, custom- designed the Mazurek, a 9.5-meters long by 3-meters wide boat for Krystyna. During her voyage, Krystyna was stopped and suspected of drug trafficking, overcame storms, and battled not only kidney stones, but New Zealand sailor Naomi James, who was also trying to become the first woman to circumnavigate the globe by herself. Krystyna beat Naomi by 39 days. Now retired, Krystyna continues to sail and encourages women to take up the sport.
TRACY EDWARDS was expelled from school in Britain at the age of 15 and began traveling the world. She worked on charter yachts in Greece and learned how to sail, eventually taking part in the prestigious Whitbread Round the World Race as a cook in 1985. Four years later, Edwards skippered the first all-female crew in the Whitbread Race. Edwards’ Maiden, a restored second-hand racing yacht, went on to win two of the six legs of the race and finished second overall. The media covering the race was often derogatory. One sailing journalist described the Maiden as a “tin full of tarts.” Nevertheless, Tracy and her crew garnered worldwide praise, and she was awarded Britain’s Yachtsman of the Year Trophy and the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire (MBE). Today, she works with charities around the world to break down barriers preventing girls from getting an education.
DAME ELLEN MACARTHUR, a British sailor, broke the world record for the fastest solo circumnavigation of the globe in 2005 on her first attempt. Her time of 71 days, 14 hours, 18 minutes and 33 seconds beat the previous record by more than a day. Shortly after her return to England amid a flotilla of boats and cheering crowds, MacArthur became the youngest woman in modern history to be made Dame Commander of the British Empire (DBE). In 2009, she announced her retirement from competitive sailing and subsequently launched a foundation promoting the concept of the “circular economy” — rethinking how to design, make, and use the things people need, from food to clothing, to transform our economy into one where waste is eliminated, resources are circulated, and nature is regenerated.
LAURA DEKKER, a New Zealand- born Dutch sailor became at age 16 the youngest person to circumnavigate the globe single handedly. Because her parents were divorced, Dutch courts stepped in to prevent her departure earlier at age 15 because national law prohibited a captain of a boat younger than 16 to sail a boat longer than 7 meters in Dutch waters. Dekker, who was born to parents living on a boat off the coast of New Zealand, first sailed solo at the age of six and soon thereafter began dreaming of sailing around the world. When she finally won the right to sail, she launched from St. Maarten in her 38’ boat Guppy. In 2018, she founded the Laura Dekker World Sailing Foundation to provide programs for young people to develop life skills such as teamwork, self-confidence, responsibility and leadership.
British sailor JEANNE SOCRATES became the oldest woman at age 77 to single-handedly sail around the world, non-stop and without outside assistance. It was her third attempt. When she departed Victoria, British Columbia, aboard her 38’ boat Nereida, she was still recovering from a broken neck and broken ribs from a fall in a previous attempt. Socrates accomplished the feat in 11 months, sailing around all five great capes (Cape Horn, Cape of Good Hope, Cape Leeuwin, South East Cape of Tasmania and the South Cape of Stewart Island) and dodging three cyclones. In honor of her feat, the Greater Victoria Harbour Authority in Victoria named the inner harbor commercial dock the Jean Socrates Dock. Socrates is still sailing today.
Hurricanes are nature’s grandest, most ferocious storms. They fascinate us, and they repel us. As a radio news and weather reporter in Miami for 30 years, my grandfather was obsessed with hurricanes. (Confession: I am, too.) Using colored pencils and a wooden ruler, he meticulously plotted their paths onto an enormous paper map tacked up on the wall of his study. It was a beautiful and mesmerizing record of these ferocious and complicated storms that somehow feel alive as they zigzag and wobble across the ocean like drunken sailors.
Science has improved dramatically since my grandfather’s era. A fleet of Earth- observing satellites providing real-time data now help thousands of scientists around the world answer three age-old questions: Where and when will the hurricane hit and how strong will it be? Modern forecasts are pretty accurate. Long gone is the day when a storm could sneak up and hit without any warning. Here are the stories of three men who helped pave the way.
When the regime of Queen Isabella II of Spain collapsed in 1868, many who supported her thought it wise to flee the country. Father Benito Viñes, a Jesuit priest and educator, was one of them. He emigrated to Cuba and found a position as director of the meteorological observatory in Havana. Shocked by the damage hurricanes regularly inflicted upon the island, he made it his mission to learn everything he could about them.
Within five years of arriving, Father Viñes knew more about hurricanes than any living person. He was the first to discover that the cloud pattern and the behavior of the wind well in advance of a storm could be used to track it accurately. Using this information, he designed the “Antilles cyclonoscope,” a kind of slide-rule that could estimate from a considerable distance the current position of a hurricane and calculate its likely path. Up until then, weather observers could tell when a hurricane was coming but not where it was going.
His first forecast was published in a Havana newspaper on September 11, 1875 — two days before an intense hurricane ravaged the southern coast of Cuba. Many lives were saved because of the timely warning. Throughout the 1880s he exchanged hurricane information with other weather observers across the Caribbean via telegraph. It was the first hurricane warning system and a model the United States. Weather Service later emulated it. Father Viñes was so well-respected that for a short time hurricanes were even called Viñesas and identified numerically. The pronunciation, however, was difficult for Americans, so the practice ceased. Father Viñes died in 1893.
Len Povey was a self-taught pilot who flew with the new U.S. Army Air Service until 1922 when he left to pursue a more “colorful” career testing race planes, flying bootleg liquor and barnstorming over the Great Lakes as a headliner with a flying circus. His aerial acrobatics at the All-American Air Maneuvers show in Miami in 1934 caught the eye of a Cuban Air Force official who hired him to train Cuban pilots and serve as the personal pilot for Fulgencio Batista, the chief of the armed forces and later president and dictator of the island nation.
When Cuba’s Weather Service detected a storm intensifying several hundred miles east of the island in early September 1935, Len Povey volunteered to help pinpoint the location and movement of the storm. He jumped in his Curtiss Hawk II, an open cockpit biplane, and flew over the Straits of Florida where he located the hurricane farther north than predicted and moving northwestward toward the Florida Keys. The Cubans dispatched a warning, but it was too late. Later that same day, the storm roared ashore at Islamorada, FL, with winds of 200 m.p.h. and a 20-foot storm surge that drowned more than 400 people, mostly Army veterans who were building the Overseas Railroad.
Povey later joined the faculty at Embry-Riddle, a private Florida college focused on aviation and aerospace programs, where he was a tireless advocate for aerial hurricane patrols. However, the type of reconnaissance mission he envisioned didn’t happen until July 1943, when Air Force Colonel Joe Duckworth flew a plane directly into the eye of a hurricane churning toward Galveston, TX. Len Povey died in 1984. His obituary claimed he survived a mid-air collision and an encounter with a turkey buzzard that sheared off a portion of his plane’s wing.
One of the most recognized voices on hurricanes in the late 20th century emanated ironically from a mile-high lab at Colorado State University. That voice was Dr. William Gray, a professor of tropical meteorology from 1961 until 2005.
Bill Gray grew up in Washington, DC, wanting to be a baseball player. He was a standout pitcher for George Washington University until he hurt his knee. During service in the Air Force, he turned to a career in climatology. He once told the Los Angeles Times he was inspired to study hurricanes after he flew a plane through one off the east coast of Florida in 1958.
Dr. Gray was an outlier when it came to hurricanes. He eschewed computer modeling, focusing instead on observational science: historical storm data, old maps featuring storm patterns, and statistics on wind speed, water temperatures and other meteorological factors. He was the first to determine that the intensity and frequency of storms in the Atlantic was cyclical and that likelihood of a hurricane reaching the East Coast of the United States depended on a variety of factors including the amount of rainfall in Africa and the impact of El Niño (the periodic warming of the Pacific Ocean that produces powerful winds that shear off the tops of storms developing in the Atlantic). In short, he figured out Mother Nature’s recipe for powerful storms.
In 1984 Dr. Gray unveiled the first Atlantic seasonal hurricane forecast and quickly became a hurricane superstar and media darling. He, however, considered his greatest legacy the students whom he taught and mentored, many of whom went on to become leaders in weather research and forecasting. He died in 2016.
Check out Marinalife's recent article about How Hurricanes Get Their Names.
You don’t need all six of these apps, but we’re certain you’ll find one here that you like. All are available on Google Play and the Apple App Store.
THE WEATHER CHANNEL
Rain radar, storm tracker and severe weather warnings help you prepare for hurricane season, as well as storms and heavy rain. Monitor live radar updates, an hourly rain tracker, storm radar news, and local weather forecast on the go. Free. Available in English and 30 other languages.
NATIONAL HURRICANE CENTER DATA
Official data, custom graphics, updates and maps from National Hurricane Center (NHC) experts. Considered the grandparent of all hurricane trackers. Free. Available in English and French.
Reliable, real-time and hyperlocal forecasts combining data from 250,000+ personal weather stations and a proprietary forecast model provide an incredibly accurate local forecast. Interactive radar and customizable severe weather alerts. Free. Available in English and 30 other languages.
Previously called NOAA Radar, this is a good hurricane tracker app, because it lets you overlay rain, radar or satellite images on top of the tracker. This gives you a detailed look at what’s happening in the storm. Add multiple locations to the map to get alerted if you’re in the path of a hurricane. Free. Multiple languages. Paid upgrade packages available.
If you’re willing to spend some money on an app favored by weather nerds and professional storm chasers, then check out RadarScope. The learning curve is steeper than with others, but it features high-resolution radar data sourced from NOAA’s next generation radar and Doppler Weather Radar. Available in English, French, German and Spanish.
HURRICANE – AMERICAN RED CROSS
Monitor conditions in your area or throughout the storm track, prepare your family and home, find help and let others know you are safe. Free. Available in English and Spanish.
Historically, hurricanes in the United States were referred to by their time period and/or geographic location, e.g., the Great Galveston Hurricane of 1900. In the West Indies, they were named after the particular saint’s day on which the hurricane occurred. A colorful Australian weatherman named Clement Wragge began assigning Greek and Roman mythological names to Pacific cyclones in the late 19th century. He later began naming them after politicians he particularly disliked.
During World War II, U.S. Air Force and Navy meteorologists plotting storms over the Pacific needed a better way to denote tropical cyclones while analyzing weather maps. Many began paying tribute to their wives and girlfriends back home by naming the cyclones after them. In 1954, the National Weather Bureau officially embraced the practice of giving hurricanes women’s names. Because America led the world in weather tracking technology, the practice was adopted elsewhere.
In response to pressure from women’s groups, the National Weather Service and the World Meteorological Association began using both men’s and women’s names starting in 1979. More recently, the lists of names, which are predetermined and rotate every six years, have been further diversified to reflect names used in the many regions where tropical cyclones strike. Names of devastating storms, such as Katrina in 2005, are permanently retired.
Stay up to date with the latest articles, news and all things boating with a FREE subscription to Marinalife Magazine!