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The gales of November, a Great Lakes shipwreck

Started by TelePlay, November 10, 2017, 09:04:21 AM

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This fateful story actually started 42 years ago yesterday afternoon, November 9, 1975, when after loading on 26+ tons of taconite (iron ore) pellets at a port in Superior, Wisconsin (on the far west end of Lake Superior) to be delivered to the Lake Huron iron works plants in Detroit and Toledo, the ship left port on its last journey. In a bit more than 24 hours later, the Great Lakes iron ore carrier Edmund Fitzgerald broke into two pieces with the loss of all 29 crew members.

Lake Superior is an east-west great lake and strong, west winds can cause the east end to become treacherous. I remember that day well having grown up and was currently living on Lake Michigan just east of Green Bay. The reason for its sinking are still controversial. Some say a deck hatch opened taking on wave water, some think the ship taking the northern route was blown of course and ended up too close to the east end shoals where it hit bottom. Whatever the cause(s), the end came late in the afternoon of November 10th when the 729 foot long ship broke into two pieces in about 535 feet of water. It sank quickly, some 15 miles short of the shelter of Whitefish Point. None of the bodies were ever recovered and are thought to be within the ship to this very day.

The wreckage was found 4 days later by a U.S. Navy plane equipped with a magnetic anomaly detector. In May of 1976, the US Navy returned with its CURV III state of the art submersible unit and took 43,000 feet of video tape and 900 photographs of the wreck, the bow sitting upright and the stern inverted in the lake bed. From the photos, artists created images of the ship's final resting place. The Edmund Fitzgerald is the most discussed ship wreck except for the Titanic with much of that attention owed to Gordon Lightfoot's haunting ballad, "The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald."

The full story of that day can be found here, quite a good read in that another ore carrier, the Anderson, was some 10 miles behind the Fitzgerald on the same course and the two captains were in radio contact with each other. The Anderson Captain gave a chilling report of the weather that day including the 12 to 16 foot waves rolling over the ships from the west. I can't imagine what it would feel like to be on the bridge, feel a huge wave hit the ship on the stern, then wash along the top length of the 700+ foot long ship toward the bridge and then when hitting the front end bridge superstructure, send the complete bow, the bridge, downward submerging it completely until the ship popped back up and righted itself. These ships were made to take it unless compromised in some way and taking on water.


Thanks for the research John. Gordon Lightfoot's song does make me listen carefully to the words each time I hear it on the radio.

Of all the Cruises we have been on we have been very lucky with the weather. We have had some memorably rough water on occasion but really nothing of any consequence. The *thud* is always a little surprising when a wave or swell slams the side if the ship with what I would call a direct hit (IE: square on rather than rolling down the side of the ship). These happen randomly in mildly rough seas. I've heard people say silly things like "we must have just hit a whale". Now if the seas are just a little more active and maybe it is dependant on just how the swell hits the side of the ship, it can start a side to side vibration in the hull that you can literally feel travel from one end of the ship and back again, and frequently back and forth a second time before subsiding. This all happens in 2-3 seconds. Mariners must have terms to descibe this phenomena but I don't know what it is.



This is being posted on the 48th anniversary of this best known shipwreck on all of the Great Lakes.

I was searching the internet a few weeks ago for more information about the sinking of this huge ore carrier when I came across this interesting article published in 2015 about a free scuba dive to the wreck resting on the bottom of Lake Superior some 530 feet below the surface.

This free scuba dive was the first ever free dive to this underwater tomb holding all of its 29 crew members. Many dives using pressure suits or submersibles had been completed prior to this 1995 dive.

The dive, which set several records noted in the article, took 6 minutes to descend to the well preserved wreck, the divers then had 15 minutes to explore it (including being the first ever to place neoprene-gloved hands on the ship's railing) and they then took over 3 hours to ascend to the surface to avoid the bends.

What really caught my eye was mention of a dive one year earlier, 1994, an expedition led by Fred Shannon captured video of a preserved body on the wreck. I would suspect that just prior to its breaking apart and sinking, the Captain had a crew member go out on the deck to check the status of the ship and being in a very rough storm, used a tether to keep him from being washed overboard. That tether kept his corpse attached to the ships deck ever since. The absolute darkness and cold temperatures seem to have preserved every aspect of this wreck.

Since then, Canada (the ship lies in Canadian waters) has passed laws to protect the wreck from everything without permission from the Canadian government. The story in this link

Diver recalls record scuba descent to Edmund Fitzgerald shipwreck

is an interesting read and copied below in its entirety.


WHITEFISH POINT, MI -- If people want to know what the Edmund Fitzgerald shipwreck looks like, there are numerous drawings, photos and models online that show the ill-fated carrier in its final resting place.

Veteran diver Terrence Tysall, however, has seen the looming hull of the famous shipwreck with his own eyes.

"It reminded me of an ice breaker cutting through large blocks of mud and clay," said Tysall, a Florida diving instructor who is one of two people to ever scuba dive the wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald, which sank 45 years ago today. He spoke to MLive about his dive in 2015.

"I'm assuming she nosed-in pretty hard."

On Sept. 1, 1995, Tysall and fellow diver Mike Zee, of Chicago, became the first and only people to ever scuba dive the Fitzgerald. The deep-water expedition landed the two men in the technical diving history books - and in hot water with some of the lost crew members' families, who consider the wreck a gravesite.

The Fitzgerald, the best known of all Great Lakes shipwrecks, sank suddenly in a gale on Nov. 10, 1975. All 29 men aboard died, and their bodies are entombed inside the wreck, 530 feet under the surface.

Tysall called diving the ship one of the most significant accomplishments in his lengthy career, which includes more than 8,000 dives for the U.S. Navy, NASA, NOAA and other organizations. He and Zee set a record for the deepest scuba dive on the Great Lakes, and the deepest scuba dive on a shipwreck.

Prior to that, a handful of expeditions -- Jacques Cousteau in 1980 among them -- had involved heavy dive suits, remotely operated vehicles and submersibles. But scuba? Too deep, everyone said. Zee, a student of Tysall's, thought differently.

"We wanted to prove it could be done respectfully," Tysall said.

The two picked a date, arranged a team and drove a small pickup truck from Florida to Michigan, taking turns sleeping on the oxygen tanks in the truck bed. When they arrived in the Upper Peninsula, the weather gave them a window of one morning when the water was millpond calm for the expedition.

All told, it took about six minutes to descend and three hours to ascend from the shipwreck using a "trimix" gas mixture. Between that, Tysall and Zee spent a grand total of 15 minutes on the bottom with the wreck.

On the lake bed, the pair saw a hull towering above them, illuminated by heavy-duty lights they'd dropped on a camera line. The lights gave them about 60 feet of visibility on the bow area and of the iron ore scattered around the bottom. They floated up the hull side, past the words "Edmund Fitzgerald," to the pilothouse.

"Her paint is as perfect as when she went down," Tysall said. "The only time I think I've felt smaller on a wreck was when we dove some World War II wrecks in Guadalcanal."

Due to the strict dive timeframe, Tysall and Zee didn't get as much time as they would have liked to explore the shipwreck. Every minute on the bottom at that depth lengthens the time needed to decompress on the ascent. The duo had a finite amount of breathable gas mixture, and Lake Superior allows little room for error.

Just before leaving, Tysall reached out and grasped the port side rail with two neoprene-gloved hands. It was a reverent moment filled with emotion, he said. For the first time in 20 years, living hands touched the ship.

"It was a connection," he said. "It wasn't disrespect."

"Two people risked their lives to pay respects to those 29 men."

Afterward, the dive team visited the Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum at Whitefish Point. They planned on a full week of diving, but the weather closed in. The one dive was all that Mother Nature allowed.

Family members who were already pushing the Canadian government for a ban on expeditions to the wreck criticized Tysall and Zee in the weeks following the dive. A few months prior, the ship's bell had been recovered during an expedition blessed by family members who wanted a tangible, symbolic memorial on land.

In 1994, an expedition led by Fred Shannon captured video of a preserved body on the wreck. Shannon's intent to distribute the image sparked outrage and, eventually, a legislative ban on photography of corpses on Michigan bottomlands.

Tysall said the dive boat did not anchor to the wreck and the team went through the proper channels for a dive license required by the Ontario Heritage Act. Subsequent amendments to the act have effectively banned diving of any kind on the Edmund Fitzgerald wreck without approval by the Canadian government.

The Fitzgerald dive fueled debate over what proper respect should be shown a shipwreck, with divers and shipwreck hunters likening the expedition to visiting a cemetery and others calling it a macho stunt done in poor taste.

After their accomplishment became known, Fitzgerald family members called Tysall. They were concerned about his footage getting into the hands of tabloid TV shows. Tysall stressed the dive was not a publicity stunt and promised to hold onto the footage, which has never been released despite numerous requests.

"I think they understood the spirit of the dive after that," he said.

Tysall, a military veteran diver, said he's been a part of restricted expeditions before, including a sanctioned dive on the USS Arizona, a Navy battleship that sunk in the 1941 Japanese attack Pearl Harbor with nearly 1,000 men inside. He's helped recover bodies and has dove on sites where shipmates died, he said.

In Orlando, Tysall co-founded the Cambrian Foundation, a nonprofit group that does technical diving for scientists, archaeologists and governmental agencies. He led the team that recovered artifacts from the USS Monitor, a Civil War ironclad that sunk in 230 feet off Cape Hatteras in 1862.

In an era when people can experience so many things virtually, Tysall said he considers diving a way to maintain a physical connection with history.

"The Fitzgerald was another step in that for me," he said. "I think it was important for us to be there."