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Gales Of November Bring Shipwrecks To The Great Lakes

The legend lives on from the Chippewa on down
Of the big lake they call ‘gitche gumee’
Superior, they said, never gives up her dead
When the gales of November come early
-Gordon Lightfoot, The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald

If you’ve ever walked out onto a pier in one of Michigan’s Great Lakes and felt the pounding of the waves and heard the crash as they break against rock and steel, you can imagine what it might be like to withstand a storm at sea. The size and depth of the Great Lakes make them more like inland seas, allowing large freighters to make their way from the Atlantic Ocean all the way to Chicago by water. But a large ship doesn’t guarantee a safe crossing on the Great Lakes.

Almost every elementary school child in Michigan knows of the tragedy immortalized by Gordon Lightfoot’s  The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald. Forty-one years ago, the Fitzgerald sank a mere 10-15 miles off the coast of Whitefish Point in the Upper Peninsula with all 29 crew members lost.

It remains the most notorious shipwreck due to the fact that there was no distress call from the captain or crew. The Fitzgerald had also been running parallel with another freighter since leaving Wisconsin, and the Anderson didn’t sink. At the time of its sinking, the Fitzgerald was the largest freighter sailing on the Great Lakes and remains the largest ever to sink.

Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum
From the Whitefish Point looking out into Lake Superior. Photo courtesy of Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum.

November is the most feared months for shipwrecks due to the seasonal weather changes. Cold northern air begins to blow down from Canada and crosses the warmer lake water. The large expanse of water allows severe weather to build unchecked, which can be unpredictable and have disastrous consequences for ships that can’t find safe harbor.

There are an estimated 6,000 shipwrecks on the Great Lakes. The earliest known occurred in 1679, when Le Griffon set sail with a load of furs. It passed through the Straits of Mackinac and was never heard from again. The oldest ship to be discovered is the HMS Ontario, a British warship that was sunk in Lake Ontario in 1780, found in 2008. The Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum at Whitefish Point in the Upper Peninsula has artifacts and information about the preservation and restoration of many wreck sites.

In August of this year, the second oldest wreck was discovered in Lake Ontario – the Washington, a sloop sunk in 1803. It is the oldest commercial ship to be found and the only known sloop to be used on Lakes Erie and Ontario. Since there are no known drawings of the Washington, the discovery will shed more light on shipping on the Great Lakes between the American Revolution and the War of 1812. 

sunken ship's propeller
A sunken ship’s propeller. Photo courtesy of Alpena Shipwreck Tours.

The cold fresh waters of the Great Lakes help preserve even wooden ships, but the depths make diving to many wrecks dangerous for even the most skilled divers. However, there are a number of shipwrecks that can be safely explored by diving at designated underwater preserves. You too can sink below the surface and see what the lakes won’t give up. But if the thought of visiting one of these underwater graveyards in person isn’t your thing, you can also explore some preserves on a glass-bottom boat tour.

Unless you’d like to risk adding another wreck to the total, I’d suggest trying either of these activities in warmer weather though, when the gales of November aren’t blowing.

Have you explored what lies beneath the surface of the Great Lakes? Let us know in the comments!

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