History

The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald

Great Lakes
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April 2014
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By
Capt. Jeff
Werner

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 Ship

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.

The Final Run Down the Lakes

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 downbound 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 andafternoon 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.

The Wreckage

Four days after she went down, a U.S. Navy search plane discovered the Fitzgerald 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.

What Caused the Sinking? Theories Abound

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 did not fasten or maintain the hatch clamps properly. The following year, the National Transportation Safety Board ˜s 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.

Epilogue

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 theymight 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 FitzgeraldCapt. 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.

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The Fishy Side of Ocean City, MD
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With its sandy beaches and boardwalk attractions, Ocean City is the quintessential family summer vacation destination. It’s also a popular spot for sport fishermen and boaters traveling up and down the East Coast. But it wasn’t always that way. 

Ocean City was established on a barrier island called Assateague that extended 60 miles from the Indian River Inlet in Delaware to Chincoteague, VA. The section of the island belonging to the State of Maryland had no outlet to the sea, and early visitors came to bathe in the surf and take in the fresh ocean breezes. These travelers arrived by ferry boat from the mainland until 1876 when a wooden trestle train bridge was built. 

In its younger days, Ocean City was half resort town and half fishing village. The fishing was “pound fishing,” a style I’d wager few people today have ever seen. It was practiced originally by Native Americans and became popular in the 19 century along the East Coast from Maritime Canada to the Carolinas.

Pound fisherman used wide nets attached to wooden poles to catch fish. They drove these tall poles into the ocean floor about a half mile from shore, creating permanent structures called pounds. When fish entered the open end of a pound, they were then corralled by the nets and couldn’t escape. 

With no passage into the Atlantic, crews of Ocean City fishermen needed to launch 40-foot boats from the beach directly into the ocean and row out to the pounds. To harvest the fish, the crew would remove the ends of the nets from the poles and pull them up by hand. The fish were then brought back to shore, carted across the island, packed in barrels of ice and shipped via railroad to fish markets in Baltimore, Philadelphia and New York.

It was laborious work, and for years local businessmen petitioned state and federal agencies to create a manmade inlet to connect the bay directly to more fertile fishing grounds farther off the coast.

A Fierce Storm Carves Out a New Inlet

In August of 1933, a hurricane came ashore in Norfolk, VA, and then tracked up the center of the Chesapeake Bay, bringing up to 10 inches of rain per day and flooding the back bays to the west of Ocean City. Oceanside, wind and waves destroyed homes, hotels and businesses on the town’s boardwalk. 

When the storm subsided, the railroad bridge and fish camps had been washed away, replaced by an inlet 50 feet wide and eight feet deep that formed when built-up water driven by high tides rushed east over the barrier island from the swollen back bays to the ocean. Mother Nature did what governments wouldn’t do, and it changed Ocean City forever.

It didn’t take long for officials to take advantage of this event and enlarge the inlet to ensure its permanence. As a result, a commercial harbor, marinas and docks began sprouting up around the inlet and across the bay on the mainland. Most fishing was commercial in those immediate post-hurricane years, but a few captains realized the recreational fishing potential in the shoals and fertile canyons offshore that were teaming with billfish and other species. During World War II, a lack of fuel and the presence of German U-Boats in the Atlantic virtually shut down offshore fishing. Things picked up after the war, and by the late 1950s and 1960s more and more fishermen were coming to Ocean City. 

But it was the white marlin that really put Ocean City on the sport fishing map. A challenging fish known for its beauty, the white marlin wows anglers with its speed and jumping antics. These fish travel in packs and are prevalent in Maryland waters in late summer and early fall. 

Sport fishermen have been chasing white marlins off the coast of Maryland since 1934 when President Franklin Roosevelt visited and caught two of the feisty billfish. To celebrate this exceptional fish and attract more attention to Ocean City, local fishermen launched the White Marlin Open in 1974. Fifty-seven boats entered that first year. By contrast, the 2021 Open drew 444 boats, more than 3,500 contestants – including NBA superstar Michael Jordan – and awarded $9.2 million dollars in prize money making Ocean City the undisputed “White Marlin Capital of the World.”

Ocean City today counts eight marinas, 20 fishing tournaments and numerous charter boats. According to the city council, boating and sportfishing are significant economic drivers bringing tens of millions of dollars annually to the local economy. 

So, whether you’re a hardcore sport fisherman, casual angler or a boater who simply enjoys a cocktail dockside at sunset, there’s something for everyone “Goin’ downy O, Hon!” as native Marylanders like to say about a visit to their beloved Ocean City.

Check Out Three World-Class OC Fishing Tournaments

Ocean City Tuna Tournament

July 8-10, 2022

Entering its 35th year, this has become the world’s largest tuna tournament with more than 100 participating boats and a record payout that eclipsed $1 million in 2021. 

White Marlin Open

August 8-12, 2022

First held in 1974, the WMO is inarguably the highlight of the Ocean City fishing tournament calendar. Now the biggest and richest billfish tournament in the world, the WMO drew 444 boats and 3,500+ contestants last year.

Poor Girls Open

August 17-20, 2022

Launched in 1994, this is the largest ladies-only billfish release tournament benefitting breast cancer research. Despite its charitable overtones, the tournament is all about the fishing, and the hundreds of boats and hundreds of competitors take it very seriously.

The Orange Crush: A Cocktail Born on the OC Docks

The Orange Crush is a staple cocktail in most Maryland bars. It’s basically a screwdriver with a shot of triple sec and a splash of lemon-lime soda. The secret to a good one, though, is fresh-squeezed orange juice. And there’s no place better to try one than the Harborside Bar & Grill in Ocean City where the cocktail is said to have originated on a slow night in 1995 when a couple of bartenders were bored and playing around with a bottle of orange-flavored vodka.

Harborside is a wooden establishment whose backside opens onto the commercial harbor in West Ocean City. Gritty is the word that comes to mind. As you would expect, the sign out front boldly announces the home of the Orange Crush, as do newspaper articles framed on the walls and t-shirts for sale. Inside, people pound crabs and watch the Orioles play baseball. Ceiling fans whirl, and it smells of Old Bay and French fries. White lights strung across the ceiling add a festive touch. It doesn’t get more Maryland than that. 

To try your first Orange Crush, visit Harborside Bar & Grill, in Ocean City, MD, 410-213-1846.

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There Once Was a Basket from Nantucket
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For many reasons, boat lovers and landlubbers love Nantucket. The well-known island 30 miles off the Massachusetts coast has great maritime history, picturesque scenery, unspoiled beaches, boutique shopping, a nice marina and seafood galore.It's also home to a unique basketmaking tradition developed in the second half of the 19th century by manly men who manned the lightships that warned of dangerous waters around the island.Today, the Nantucket baskets they wove are ubiquitous to the island as both a popular souvenir and a highly collectible object that reflects the island's fascinating history and heritage.

Baskets Born of Necessity and Boredom

In 1820, the United States began building and converting ships into lightships in coastal waters and the Great Lakes. These vessels served as floating beacons to identify perilous shoals, reefs and shifting channels in places where lighthouse construction wasn't possible. The ships housed bright and navigational light beacons atop their masts to guide maritime traffic.

basket - history - marinalife
Friendship basket purse made by José Formoso Reyes in 1950 | The Nantucket Historical Association[/caption]

The waters around Nantucket were well traversed and very treacherous. In Nantucket Sound, sandbars muddled traffic, so the U.S. government placed a lightship there in 1823 to help mark a safe path by the island along a popular commercial route between New York and Boston. It became known as the Cross Rip Lightship.

The Nantucket South Shoals off the island's southeast coast proved hazardous for transatlantic shipping. In some locations, the water can be as shallow as three feet. The shoals were a notorious shipwreck site, so the government stationed a lightship at the South Shoals in 1854. A lightship operated at the South Shoals until 1983 when it was replaced by a large navigation buoy. It was at the time America's last working lightship. By 1985, new technologies rendered the old lightship program obsolete.Lightships were manned vessels, and many Nantucket men were hired to work on the ones around the island. Some of these men had been whalers from back when Nantucket was the epicenter of the whaling industry. Rough coastal weather made the lightboat service perilous. For example, they had no onboard electricity, and the crew's only warmth was furnished by manually tending coal-burning stoves always at risk of breaking loose from their mounts and spilling hot coals during fierce storms that churned up mountainous waves that crashed over the ship.It was lonely, too. I've read how life on a lightship was likened to a term of solitary confinement combined with the horrors of seasickness. It's no wonder these men began making baskets to while away the time.

Cross Rip Lightship - history - marinalife
Cross Rip Lightship on station, circa 1930s | The Nantucket Historical Association

According to several sources, it is likely a man named Thomas James introduced basketmaking to men on the lightships. James, the story goes, had worked in the whaling industry and during his voyages supposedly made baskets in his spare time. When he began working on the South Shoals Lightboat, he took up his old pastime while on duty and sold his work on leave in Nantucket town. It wasn't long before he taught his skill to his fellow lightship men.

Though the classic Nantucket basket is attributed to men aboard lightships in the mid-19th century, it's important to remember that its distinctive design was probably inspired by baskets originally woven with ash wood by the Wampanoags, the island's indigenous people.Lighthouse baskets typically were round and built on a mold with flat wooden bottoms to which staves (ribs) were attached to form the basic shape. Cane, also known as rattan, was then woven in and around the staves from bottom to top. Each basket was finished with a wooden handle. Tops and decorative elements weren't added until later. These baskets became popular with locals and tourists and thus became known as Nantucket lightship baskets. They're very desirable today among collectors.

Basketmaking Enters the 20th Century

By 1905, the last man from Nantucket manned a local lightship. Shortly thereafter, the federal government banned basket-making aboard lightships to end moon-lighting commerce. The craft then moved on island where it was taken up by a new generation of basket weavers who began personalizing their work and looking for ways to make them stand out and appeal to the growing tourist trade.

Nantucket basket lamp - history - marinalife
The author and Nantucket basket lamp

One of the most significant of this new generation of basket makers was José Reyes, a Filipino with an Education degree from Harvard, who served in the U.S. Navy fighting the Japanese and then after the war immigrated to Nantucket where his wife's family had a home. Unable to find a job in education, he repaired cane furniture and learned to make Nantucket lighthouse style baskets.

Reyes is credited in 1948 for adding a top to the lightship basket and turning it into a purse for women. These purses, later known as friendship purses, quickly became de rigour for well-to-do summer residents. Reyes later included ivory carvings to adorn the purse tops. Rumor has it the name originated when a woman carrying one of Reyes' purses while visiting Paris noticed another woman with the same purse. She yelled out Friendship! and the two strangers became lifelong friends linked by their shared love of Nantucket.Paul Whitten, another basket maker, helped elevate artistic appreciation for the Nantucket basket when he was invited in 1974 by the Smithsonian Institution's Renwick Gallery to submit one of his pieces in a national arts and crafts competition. His basket was selected to appear in the gallery and then tour the country with other competition winners as part of a traveling exhibit. Whitten's basket was purchased by the Smithsonian for its permanent collection. Whitten also wrote extensively about Nantucket baskets, which has been important to preserving the history of this unique craft.Today the lightship basket influence can be seen in jewelry, cribs, bike baskets and all sorts of decorative pieces sold on and off island. Yours truly even owns a pair of tall handsome lamps modeled on the classic Nantucket Basket. There's even an auction market for exceptional baskets woven on Nantucket. A recent piece went for more than $100,000. Who'd have thunk it?

Nantucket Lighthouse Basket Museum

If you're visiting Nantucket and want to delve deeper into the history of these unique baskets and learn more about their makers, you won't want to miss the Nantucket Lighthouse Basket Museum. It features a permanent collection of baskets, special exhibits and basket weaving classes. The museum website also has a variety of fascinating videos, including an interview with noted basket weaver José Reyes.

Location: 96 Main St.,Nantucket, MA 02554

Hours: May 28 - October 17, open daily 10:00 a.m.-4:00 p.m.

nantucketlightshipbasketmuseum.org

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The Origins of Fish Capture Flags
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I've never had much luck saltwater fishing. My first outing as a young boy was holding a handline over the side of my grandfather Pop Hunter's motorboat in the shallow bay behind Alligator Point east of Apalachicola, Florida. Pop and my father were after redfish, and I wasn't expected to catch anything. Sit and be quiet, they said. So I did, until something grabbed my line, and I let out a scream.

Fish flags - history - marinalife
Fish flags | Jodi

My grandfather snatched the line and began battling a strong fish with just his tough freckled hands. That fish turned out to be a small hammerhead shark! When he finally pulled it onboard, he tossed it at my feet where it thrashed about, and I began screaming again certain it was going to bite me until Pop threw it back in the bay. He thought it was hilarious and told the story repeatedly that summer. Somewhat traumatized, I didn't go saltwater fishing again for years. When I finally did, all I managed to hook was a four-inch starfish. Like Pop, the fishing boat operator laughed. It was a first, he said, and he lamented that he didn't have an appropriate starfish flag to hoist for our return trip to the dock.

Spend time around harbor docks and marinas, especially in the afternoon when the fishing boats come in, and you'll undoubtedly notice rectangular flags featuring different kinds of fish fluttering on outrigger halyards. Though they might look decorative, they're not. These fish flags, more formally referred to as capture flags, are colorful signals to let others know which fish were biting that day. It's a tradition born in the days before daily fishing reports began to appear in newspapers and on radio.

The earliest capture flags on record are attributed to The Tuna Club of Santa Catalina Island, California, a private fishing club started in 1898 by Los Angeles Times editor Dr. Charles Holder for the southern California and Hollywood elite. The Tuna Club refers to itself as the oldest fishing club in the United States, and it's still going strong.Charlie Chaplin, Bing Crosby, Cecil B. DeMille, William Wrigley and George S. Patton were among its early members. Teddy Roosevelt was an honorary member. Members flew large colored flags on their boats to alert their fellow anglers when they caught tuna, swordfish and marlin. The practice quickly spread, and sport fisherman and charter boat captains on both coasts began hoisting flags to announce their catch as they pulled into the docks.

In Florida, the West Palm Beach Fishing Club (WPBFC) added a different twist to the fish flag. Founded in 1934 during the Great Depression, the WPBFC's mission was to promote fishing to lure visitors to the Palm Beaches and stimulate the local economy. Given the proximity of the Gulf Stream and its big game fish, the club initiated the Silver Sailfish Derby fishing competition, a celebration of one of the world's most elegant and iconic sport fishes. The Derby was the first serious billfish competition in the country. It quickly became the in thing to do for wealthy tourists. And it still occurs every January.

red sailfish capture flag - history - marinalife
Derby Queen with red sailfish capture flag | WPBFC

Derby Queen with red sailfish capture flag | WPBFC[/caption]Here's the twist. Club members soon became concerned that too many sailfish were being caught and not consumed or mounted as trophies. As a result, WPBFC established new rules to restrict the number and size of sailfish captured and brought aboard boats during the derby. To help incentivize the policy, they encouraged contestants to raise a triangular red pennant to signify smaller sailfish that were caught and released so they could still be given their proper due. The national media seized on it with vigor. And in turn, the red pennant inspired other contests geared toward catch-and-release fishing and helped change the nature of big game fishing. It also furthered the practice and the prevalence of flying fish flags.

As sport fishing became more popular and accessible to Americans in the 1960s and 1970s, so too did fish flags. This was driven in part by a growing number of game fishing tournaments with affordable entry fees and guaranteed prize money. Competitors wanted to show off their fishing prowess, so flag companies were more than happy to begin making and supplying 12"x18" canvas and nylon flags featuring the most popular varieties of sport fish marlin, swordfish, sailfish, tuna, mahi-mahi, wahoo, etc. that we still see on boats today.Sharks, by the way, merit a capture flag. You can't miss it. It's usually a vibrant red color and features a white shark. To the best of my knowledge, there's still not a starfish flag.

HOW TO FLY YOUR FISH FLAG

white marlin - history - marinalife
White Marlin | Lunamarina

You need not worry about official regulations for displaying fish capture flags. Protocols vary from location to location. That said, more experienced fishermen tend to follow some informal rules of thumb.

  • Fish flags are generally flown on the port or starboard outrigger halyard and in order of merit, meaning game fish with bills (marlins, swordfish and sailfish) go at the top and others follow in order of size from largest to smallest. Shark flags are often flown on the bottom.
  • It's appropriate to fly a flag for each fish caught, though some say you should only fly one yellow mahi-mahi flag no matter how many you land. In Hawaii, some boats will run a black pirate flag beneath the mahi-mahi when more than 20 are caught.
  • Never run flags all the way to the top of the rigger; keep them about three quarters up the rigger and spaced at least six inches apart as this is optimal for visibility.
  • Flying a fish flag upside down is the most common way to signal a successful catch and release. Some fishermen, however, prefer to fly a fish flag right side up with a smaller square red flag beneath it or a red T-flag to indicate a fish was tagged and released. Red pennants are still sometimes used.
  • A fish flag should never hang on the halyard for more than a few hours, though charter boats might fly them for 24 hours to help attract clients.
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