BY MICHAEL SCHUMACHER
Renowned expert on Great Lakes shipwrecks and lighthouses
Every November, my thoughts turn to the Great Lakes and the historic storms that have claimed so many boats during this month. I’ve lived near Lake Michigan for all but four years of my life, and I have seen how quickly and forcefully waves are whipped up, especially by late-fall nor’easters that send water and spray crashing over the rocks near shore. Whenever I see this, I always have the same thought: if the lake is this rough so close to shore, where the seas are breaking up, I’d hate to be out in the middle of the lake, where waves can be so huge that they crash over the rails of vessels unfortunate enough to be caught out in a storm.
I have written extensively about the Great Lakes, the boats lost in storms, heroic rescue efforts, lighthouses and lighthouse keepers, and commercial fishing. Two of my books focused on the wrecks of the Edmund Fitzgerald and the Carl D. Bradley, the two largest vessels ever lost in the Great Lakes at the time. I am currently completing a book on the Storm of 1913, a maelstrom so lethal that it sank eight large freighters on Lake Huron in a four- or five-hour period. The sheer power of nature could be observed in that storm, when the Charles S. Price, a 504-foot bulk carrier, was found flipped on its back near Port Huron, Michigan.
The Fitz on Lake Superior (1975), the Carl D. on Lake Michigan (1958), and the Price on Lake Huron (1913)—all of these losses occurred with November storms. All proved, if nothing else, what we already know: regardless of advances in shipbuilding engineering, improvements in weather forecasting, discoveries in science and technology, and utter human courage and willpower, nature can—and occasionally will—have the final say.
The Edmund Fitzgerald might be the ultimate example. When she sank on November 10, 1975, she still ranked among the largest and strongest freighters on the lakes; she possessed the best that modern technology and communications had to offer. Her captain and crew were, in the words of Gordon Lightfoot, “well seasoned.” She appeared to be well equipped to handle anything that Mother Nature tossed at her.
No one will ever know for certain what happened at the moment of her sinking. What is known is that she was hauling 26,000 tons of taconite pellets down Lake Superior when she was caught in a particularly vicious storm. Depending upon whose theory you believe, she either hit bottom on a shoal near the Michipicoten and Caribou islands and ruptured hull plates, leading to her flooding with water and ultimately submarining to the lake bottom when she was overwhelmed by huge waves; or her cargo hold filled with water coming in through her hatches, leading to the same nose dive effect; or she broke in two on the surface and sank very quickly.
The sinking was so sudden that an SOS call was never transmitted, and her demise was so violent that she rests on the floor of Lake Superior in two incredibly damaged sections, the bow portion upright, the stern portion inverted. Twenty-nine men lost their lives.
When people ask me why this particular wreck has captured the public imagination, I usually respond by saying that, first, there was the great interest in Gordon Lightfoot’s song, which put a face on a boat and accident that might have been ignored, and, second, that the mysteries behind her sinking captivates anyone interested in maritime lore. That’s the easy explanation. More difficult—and compelling, I think—is trying to understand why we are drawn to the water in the first place, why we are captivated by boats and ships of all types, why we watch, transfixed, as huge waves break over the rocks lining the shore, why the loss of vessels is both fascinating and tragic.
I was reminded of all this recently when Superstorm Sandy assaulted the East Coast. Media coverage was extensive, with images from scenes in New Jersey and New York to the horrifying photographs of the sinking of the replica of the Bounty—all of which serve to remind us of the mind-boggling power of nature. The storm even made its presence known near my home in Wisconsin, when the waters of Lake Michigan stirred up into an angry, roiling mass of gray-brown. People from all over the city drove down to the lake, so many that a police officer had to direct traffic near a popular shoreline park. If truth be told, I’ve seen the waters stirred up as much in the past when other nor’easters blew in, but I suspect that this one was “must-see” viewing because a name was attached to it.
Whatever the reason, we are driven to watch, as if we need to be reminded of something very, very important.
A lifelong resident of the Great Lakes region, Michael Schumacher is the author of twelve books, including biographies of Allen Ginsberg, Phil Ochs, and Eric Clapton, the award-winning Wreck of the Carl D., and Mighty Fitz, which has just been released with UMP. He has written twenty-five documentaries on Great Lakes shipwrecks and lighthouses.
“Schumacher never fails to bring a sympathetic and knowledgeable view of the story, as well as great respect to the memory of the 29 crew members who died. A rewarding narrative.” —Publishers Weekly
“A fastidious history of loss at sea, for casual reader and maritime maven alike.” —Kirkus