Saturday, November 10, 2012

"When the gales of November came slashin'... "

Today is the 37th anniversary of the sinking of the Great Lakes freighter the Edmund Fitzgerald. The first time I really became aware of this incident was when I first heard Gordon Lightfoot's haunting ballad "The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald".  The Great Lakes have a long history of intense fall and winter storms and the wrecks of hundreds of ships litter the lake bottoms.  The weather during the fall can quickly go from good to very bad, and such was the case in November of 1975.

Surface map on November 6, 1975
The week of November 3 was unseasonably warm week across the eastern two-thirds of the country. A surface ridge of high pressure stretched from the southern tip of Texas to Quebec, Canada keeping the eastern two-thirds in southerly flow.  In the days leading up to November 10, 1975 temperatures reached the middle 60s as far north as the Minnesota-Canadian border.

In Superior, Wisconsin the Edmund Fitzgerald was loaded with more than 26,000 tons of taconite pellets destined for a steel mill near Detroit. The weather while the Fitzgerald was in Superior was, well, superior. Temperatures early in the week reached 74°F, and when the Fitzgerald left port at 4:30 p.m. on November 9 the temperature was in the 50s°F and skies were cloudy.  She soon joined up with the Arthur M. Anderson, another freighter which left Two Harbors, Minnesota bound for Gary, Indiana.

Surface map for the morning of November 9, 1975

At 7:00 p.m. the National Weather Service issued gale warnings for Lake Superior, forecasting E to NE winds during the night, shifting to NW to N by the afternoon of November 10.  At approximately 10:40 p.m. the NWS revised its forecast for eastern Lake Superior to easterly winds becoming southeasterly the morning of the 10th. At about 2:00 am November 10 the NWS upgraded the gale warning to a storm warning with a prediction of "northeast winds 35 to 50 knots becoming northwesterly 28 to 38 knots on Monday, waves 8 to 15 feet".  The captains of the two freighters decided to take a route closer to the Canadian shore which would protect them from the northeast winds.

The surface weather map for the morning of
November 10, 1975, about 12 hours before
the Edmund Fitzgerald sank.
The center of the storm passed over Lake Superior on the morning of November 10. As the center of the low passed over the ships the Anderson reported winds dropped for a time to 5 mph. As the low moved to the northeast, the winds shifted into the south, then west and northwest and rapidly increased speed. Visibility dropped as snow began falling in the cold air plunging south behind the storm. The observed winds by the Anderson and by the Stannard Rock Weather Station during the afternoon of November 10 were from 40 to 58 knots from the west-northwest, gusting to 65 knots. The Anderson also observed wave heights of 18 to 25 feet during the afternoon of November 10 and later reported wind gusts from 70 to 75 knots.

The northwest winds were the worst possible situation for the Fitzgerald. The winds had a large fetch over open water allowing large waves to build. The Fitzgerald by this time was sailing southeast toward Whitefish Bay and passed over dangerous shallow water near Six Fathom Island.

At 3:30 p.m. on November 10 the captain of the Fitzgerald radioed the Anderson and reported that the ship was taking on water and listing. The Fitzgerald had also lost its radar, and was now relying on the Anderson to be its "eyes" in the storm. The first mate of the Anderson contacted the Fitzgerald at 7:10 p.m. and Caption McSorley of the Fitzgerald, when asked how they were doing, said "We are holding our own."  At 7:15 p.m. the Edmund Fitzgerald disappeared from the radar. 

On November 14 a Navy aircraft detected a large magnetic anomaly about 17 miles from Whitefish Point. A Coast Guard cutter located two large pieces of wreckage three days later using side scan sonar. In May 1976 a Navy controlled underwater recovery vehicle confirmed the wreckage was that of the Edmund Fitzgerald.

There are a number of theories on how the Fitzgerald sank. The initial theory was that the ship took on water through poorly sealed hatches, lost buoyancy, and sank when hit by huge waves. Another theory is that the ship may have been damaged in shallow water when it passed near Six Fathom Shoal. The debate continues to this day.

If you would like to read more about the Edmund Fitzgerald, check the following sources.

The Fateful Journey (The Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum)

NTSB Marine Accident Report: SS EDMUND FITZGERALD Sinking in Lake Superior  


  1. Here's an account I wrote. I started out with writing something about the storm that sank the Edmund Fitzgerald and the storms since then, but quickly came across some more important storms before then, especially the "Armistice Day" storm in 1940.

  2. The "anniversary storm" on November 10, 1998 (the anniversary of the Edmund Fitzgerald storm) was one I particularly remember. We were monitoring that during the day and a recall the amazement when we saw the 95 mph gust reported from Mackinac Island come in on the hourly reports. Here's a summary of impacts from that storm: