The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald - The Awesome Mitten
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The Complete Guide to the Wreck Of The Edmund Fitzgerald

Michiganders have used the Great Lakes for travel and to transport goods for hundreds of years. With the lake weather being so unpredictable and dangerous, though, an estimated 1,500 vessels have been lost in Michigan waters. Among them is the famed wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald, which sank to the bottom of Lake Superior near Whitefish Point on Nov. 10, 1975.

We’ve put as much information about the vessel, wreck, and other interesting facts into this guide.

A Quick Review of the SS Edmund Fitzgerald

At the time of its launch, the SS Edmund Fitzgerald was a milestone freighter.

The first milestone was the owner of the ship — Northwestern Mutual Life Insurance Company of Milwaukee, the first American life insurer to own a freighter.

The second milestone was its size — 729 feet long, just 1 foot short of the maximum limit to pass through the Saint Lawrence Seaway.

The Fitzgerald was built to transport taconite iron ore pellets between the mines near Duluth, Minnesota, and the iron works at ports around the Great Lakes. From the time of its first voyage on Sept. 24, 1958, the ship set six records by carrying heavier and heavier loads.

Its usual route was from Superior, Wisconsin, to Toledo, Ohio, although the destination varied. By its last voyage, the freighter had made about 748 round trips.

Before the wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald, the ship had several collisions. It sustained external and internal damage from running aground, hitting lock walls, and colliding with another freighter. However, none of these incidents were considered serious or unusual.

You can learn more about the ship’s design, layout, christening, and history (as well as a detailed listing of its crew) in our article on the Edmund Fitzgerald ship & crew.

The Captain & Crew of the Edmund Fitzgerald

Commanding the SS Edmund Fitzgerald when it sank was Captain Ernest M. McSorley. He had more than 40 years of experience navigating oceans and the Great Lakes, assuming command of nine other ships before the Fitzgerald in 1972.

Although quiet, he was highly regarded by associates as skillful, and he treated his crew like professionals. He was considered an excellent heavy-weather captain, and his last words on record were, “We are holding our own.”

Like a few other men on the ship, Captain McSorley planned to retire at the end of the shipping season at the age of 63. He was survived by Nellie Pollock, his wife. Many of the other 28 crew members were husbands too, while others were also brothers, fathers, and sons. The majority of them were from Michigan, Minnesota, Ohio, and Wisconsin.

Here’s a complete list of the crew and their roles at the time of the wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald:

  1. Ernest McSorley — Captain born in 1912.
  2. John McCarthy — First mate born in 1913.
  3. James Pratt — Second mate born in 1931.
  4. Michael Armagost — Third mate born in 1938.
  5. David Weiss — Cadet born in 1953.
  6. Ransom Cundy — Watchman born in 1922.
  7. Karl Peckol — Watchman born in 1955.
  8. William Spengler — Watchman born in 1916.
  9. John Simmons — Senior wheelman born in 1913.
  10. Eugene O’Brien — Wheelman born in 1925.
  11. John Poviach — Wheelman born in 1916.
  12. Paul Riippa — Deckhand born in 1953.
  13. Mark Thomas — Deckhand born in 1954.
  14. Bruce Hudson — Deckhand born in 1953.
  15. George Holl — Chief engineer born in 1915.
  16. Edward Bindon — First assistant engineer born in 1928.
  17. Thomas Edwards — Second assistant engineer born in 1925.
  18. Russell Haskell — Second assistant engineer born in 1935.
  19. Oliver Champeau — Third assistant engineer born in 1934.
  20. Ralph Walton — Oiler born in 1917.
  21. Blaine Wilhelm — Oiler born in 1923.
  22. Thomas Bentsen — Oiler born in 1952.
  23. Gordon MacLellan — Wiper born in 1945.
  24. Robert Rafferty — Steward born in 1913.
  25. Allen Kalmon — Second steward born in 1932.
  26. Joseph Mazes — Special maintenance man born in 1916.
  27. Thomas Borgeson — Maintenance man born in 1934.
  28. Frederick Beetcher — Porter born in 1919.
  29. Nolan Church — Porter born in 1920.

Timeline of the Edmund Fitzgerald’s Final Voyage & Shipwreck

On Nov. 9, 1975, the SS Edmund Fitzgerald started on its final voyage.

Under the command of Ernest M. McSorley, the ship departed Superior, Wisconsin, at 2:15 p.m. en route to Zug Island, which is near Detroit, Michigan. The freighter was transporting 26,116 long tons of taconite ore pellets and quickly reached 16.3 mph, which was its top speed.

The folowing is a timeline of the wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald:

  • Nov. 9 at 5 p.m. — The SS Arthur M. Anderson joined the Edmund Fitzgerald, taking the lead. Under the command of Captain Jesse B. Cooper, nicknamed Bernie, the freighter was en route from Two Harbors, Minnesota, to Gary, Indiana.
    At the time, the National Weather Service (NWS) had predicted a storm would pass south of Lake Superior by 7 a.m. the following morning. Captain Dudley J. Paquette of the SS Wilfred Sykes was following the radio conversations between the Fitzgerald and Anderson, and he overheard that they planned to take the usual downbound route.
  • 7 p.m. — The NWS changed its forecast, issuing gale warnings for all of Lake Superior.
  • Nov. 10 at 1 a.m. — A winter storm developed over the Fitzgerald and Anderson, so they changed their course to seek shelter north along the coast of Ontario. The Fitzgerald reported waves 10 feet high and winds of 60 mph.
    Captain Paquette reported overhearing Captain McSorley say that he slowed the ship because of the stormy conditions. Later, McSorley said they would try for Isle Royale because the Fitzgerald wasn’t keeping up with the Anderson.
  • 2 a.m. — The NWS changed its weather warning to a storm with winds of 40-58 mph.
  • 3 a.m. — The Anderson was moving at about 14.6 mph when the Fitzgerald pulled ahead. The storm center passed over the ships, creating shifting winds from northeast to south to northwest.
  • 1:50 p.m. — The Anderson recorded winds of 58 mph, which picked up rapidly.
  • 2:45 p.m. — It started snowing, and the reduced visibility meant that the Anderson couldn’t see the Fitzgerald anymore. The ships were about 16 miles apart at that point.
  • Just after 3:30 p.m. — Captain McSorley reported to Captain Cooper that the Fitzgerald was taking on water and had developed a list. Two of six bilge pumps were continuously running. Also, the ship lost a fence railing and two vent covers. He decided to reduce the Fitzgerald’s speed so that the Anderson could catch up.
    Shortly afterward, the U.S. Coast Guard sent a warning to all ships that the Soo Locks were closed and to seek safe anchorage.
  • Just after 4:10 p.m. — Captain McSorley reported a radar failure and asked Captain Cooper to track the Fitzgerald. The Anderson was able to come within 10 miles of the Fitzgerald to provide radar guidance. Cooper directed McSorley toward Whitefish Bay for safety.
  • 4:39 p.m. — Captain McSorley radioed the U.S. Coast Guard’s Grand Marais station to find out if the Whitefish Point beacon was still operating. Unfortunately, the monitoring equipment showed that the light and radio beacons were inactive.
    Then, McSorley called for any ships in the area to report the status of the navigational aids.
  • 4:52 p.m. — The Anderson recorded sustained winds of up to 67 mph. Other ships and observation points across the area at this time reported winds stronger than 58 mph.
  • 5-5:30 p.m. — Captain Cedric Woodard of the Avafors vessel reported to Captain McSorley that the light beacon wasn’t working, but the radio beacon was. Woodard also overheard McSorley tell the crew not to let anyone on deck.
    Sometime later, McSorley told Woodard that he had a bad list, lost both radars, and was taking heavy water “over the deck in one of the worst seas” he had ever experienced.
  • 6 p.m. — Waves were rising up to 25 feet high. The Anderson was struck by gusts of 81-86 mph and rogue waves up to 35 feet high.
  • 7:10 p.m. — Captain Cooper contacted Captain McSorley to warn him of an upbound ship and ask how the Fitzgerald and crew were doing. McSorley said, “We are holding our own.” That was the last communication from the Fitzgerald. It never sent a distress signal.
  • 7:20 p.m. — Captain Cooper could no longer reach Captain McSorley on the radio or detect the Fitzgerald on radar.
  • 7:39 p.m. — The first time that Captain Cooper made contact with the U.S. Coast Guard’s Sault Ste. Marie station after the wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald. The responders instructed him to call again on Channel 12 instead of Channel 16. The agency was having trouble with its communication systems and wanted to keep the emergency channel open.
    Then, Cooper called the Nanfri saltwater vessel nearby and was told that it couldn’t see the Fitzgerald on the radar.
  • 7:54 p.m. — Captain Cooper finally reached the U.S. Coast Guard again, and the officer on duty asked him to look out for a lost, 16-foot boat in the area.
  • 8:25 p.m. — Captain Cooper calls the U.S. Coast Guard again to express concern that he can’t see the Fitzgerald visually or on the radar.
  • 9:03 p.m. — Captain Cooper reports the Edmund Fitzgerald missing.

Theories of How the Edmund Fitzgerald Sank

The severe weather and terrible sea conditions on Nov. 10, 1975, certainly played a role in the wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald. However, there are many other theories about how the ship sank.

Hold Flooding

According to a U.S. Coast Guard Marine Casualty Report from 1977, it’s possible that ineffective hatch closures were a causal factor in the Edmund Fitzgerald shipwreck. It’s reported that the hatches didn’t prevent the waves from entering the cargo hold.

The water could have flooded the hold gradually throughout the day, impeding stability and buoyancy. Because of that, the Fitzgerald quickly descended to the bottom of Lake Superior without warning.

Hull Failure

It’s possible that the hull developed a stress fracture. A 1977 investigation of the wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald found that sections of the ship were 170 feet apart. The hypothesis is that the hull was already weak and carrying a heavier winter load than it was designed to carry.

As a result, the huge waves that formed because of the storm, not necessarily rogue waves, caused a stress fracture that made the ship split in two when it struck the bottom of Lake Superior.

Rogue Waves

Often referred to as “three sisters,” a group of three rogue waves was reported near the area where the Edmund Fitzgerald sank. It’s believed that this phenomenon occurs on Lake Superior when three rogue waves that are one-third larger than the others form.

The first wave sends a greater amount of water onto the deck, which doesn’t have time to drain fully before the second wave hits. The third wave adds to the excess of water, overloading the deck.

Captain Cooper reported that the Anderson was struck by two 30-to-35-foot waves, and those waves, possibly a third, continued toward the Fitzgerald. If the rogue waves reached the ship, they would have compounded its existing problems.

Shoaling

A probable cause of the shipwreck is that the Fitzgerald unknowingly ran aground on the Six Fathom Shoal located just northwest of Caribou Island. At the time, the Whitefish Point beacons weren’t working to aid navigation.

A Canadian hydrographic survey in 1976 supports this hypothesis. The shoal ran 1 mile farther east than Canadian charts indicated, and Captain Cooper confirmed that the Fitzgerald sailed through that area.

Topside Damage

Historian Mark Thompson believes that the two lost vents allowed flooding in two ballast tanks or one ballast tank and the walking tunnel, which is what caused the list. The U.S. Coast Guard says that the lost vents and damaged fence rail could have been caused by heavy floating debris.

Thompson also thinks that other undetected damage let water flood the hold. This damage was compounded by the extreme conditions on Lake Superior.

Weather and Waves

The NWS and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) ran a computer simulation in 2005 that included weather and wave conditions at the time the Edmund Fitzgerald sank.

It showed that waves were reaching up to 46 feet, which could have made the ship roll heavily. On top of that, wind gusts were reaching up to 86 mph.

Captain Cooper’s Opinion

Captain Cooper of the SS Arthur M. Anderson did an interview with the Great Lakes Shipwreck Historical Society (GLSHS) before he passed away in 1993. His belief is that the SS Edmund Fitzgerald was taking on water long before it sailed into the storm.

He thinks the ship ran aground in the afternoon, and the extra water on board created the starboard list.

Since there was no panic in Captain McSorley’s last transmission, Captain Cooper believes that the incident was “sudden and catastrophic.”

You can listen to the full interview here. You can also hear the radio transmission between Cooper and the U.S. Coast Guard right after the Edmund Fitzgerald disappeared.

Other Factors That May Have Contributed to the Shipwreck

In addition to the treacherous conditions on Lake Superior, the U.S. Coast Guard, National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), and others with theories have named possible contributing factors to the wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald. Here’s a quick overview of each:

  • Complacency — One factor could have been that frequently sailing the same route led to an overly confident attitude related to extreme weather conditions. The NTSB believes that this attitude was reflected in the deferral of maintenance and failing to properly prepare for heavy weather.
    Historian Thompson, however, believes that the complacency lies with the U.S. Coast Guard, which had inspected the Fitzgerald two weeks before the shipwreck. He blamed budget cuts that limited the agency’s ability to rescue vessels as well.
  • Earlier damage — Since freighters on the Great Lakes were only dry-docked every five years for inspection, NTSB investigators believe that the Fitzgerald had sustained undetected damage from prior groundings that led to a major hull failure during the storm.
  • Increased load — The U.S. Coast Guard increased the load line for the Edmund Fitzgerald three times — 1969, 1971, and 1973 — allowing it to carry 4,000 tons more than it was designed. The change allowed for 3 feet, 3.25 inches less minimum freeboard overall.
    Because of that, the ship’s deck was only 11.5 feet above water and overweight. This made the ship sluggish and slower to recover and decreased its buoyancy while facing 35-foot waves on Nov. 10.
  • No watertight bulkheads — Thompson hypothesizes that the Fitzgerald might have reached Whitefish Bay if it had watertight subdivisions in the hold. He believed that the ship was the least safe commercial vessel on the Great Lakes because it lacked watertight bulkheads.
    Historian Frederick Stonehouse agrees, explaining that the SS Maumee was fitted with watertight bulkheads but was able to sail halfway around the world after striking an iceberg that tore a large, truck-sized hole into its hull.
  • Not enough instruments — Under U.S. Coast Guard regulations, a fathometer wasn’t a required instrument at the time of the wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald. Such an instrument would have provided additional navigational data, making the ship less dependent on navigation from the Anderson.
    Also, the ship had no monitoring system for water in the hold, which meant that the water level couldn’t be assessed until it reached the top of the cargo. There was no draft-reading system either, so the crew couldn’t determine if the ship had lost freeboard.
  • Poor navigational charts — After examining the Canadian 1973 navigational chart that the Fitzgerald used, the U.S. Coast Guard found that it was based on 1916 and 1919 surveys, which didn’t show the full extent of the Six Fathom Shoal.
    The extra 1-mile stretch wasn’t found until a 1976 survey of the area. As a result, the waters that the Fitzgerald sailed through weren’t marked as hazardous.
  • Weather predictions — Captain McSorley and Captain Cooper chose their route based on weather forecasts from the NWS on Nov. 9. The dangerous weather was upgraded throughout Nov. 10 but still wasn’t accurate enough. On top of that, the NWS couldn’t precisely predict the height of the waves.

Finding & Exploring the Edmund Fitzgerald

When Captain Cooper reported the Edmund Fitzgerald missing just after 9 p.m., the U.S. Coast Guard asked him to turn around to look for survivors. The agency didn’t have the appropriate search-and-rescue vessels in order to respond to the disaster. Cooper was reluctant to do so out of concern for his own crew, but went back out anyway.

About 1.5 hours later, the agency asked all anchored commercial vessels in or near Whitefish Bay to assist the search. The SS William Clay Ford responded, but the Toronto SS Hilda Marjanne was unable to assist because of the weather.

The U.S. Coast Guard, though, was able to send an HU-16 fixed-wing search aircraft from Traverse City, Michigan, which arrived in the search area at 10:53 p.m. An HH-52 helicopter with a high-powered searchlight arrived at 1 a.m. on Nov. 11. The agency sent the Woodrush buoy tender too, but it took 2.5 hours to leave Duluth, Minnesota, and a day to get to the search area.

The Canadian Coast Guard participated in the search as well, sending an aircraft. In addition, the Ontario Provincial Police launched a beach patrol along the eastern coastline of Lake Superior.

The search lasted for three days, and only debris was found, such as lifeboats and rafts. None of the 29 crew were found. On the fourth day — Nov. 14 — a U.S. Navy Lockheed P-3 Orion aircraft found the wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald using equipment that submarines use to detect magnetic anomalies. It discovered the ship resting about 17 miles from the Whitefish Bay entrance in Canadian waters at 530 feet under Lake Superior’s surface.

Another U.S. Coast Guard survey using a side scan sonar showed two big objects near each other. Between Nov. 22 and 25, the U.S. Navy commissioned a second survey with Seaward, Inc.

Later Surveys of the Shipwreck Area

Since the wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald, the government and other organizations have conducted many underwater surveys:

  • May 20-28, 1976 — The U.S. Navy used an unmanned submersible CURV-III and discovered that the ship was resting in two big pieces. The bow section was standing upright in the mud about 170 feet from the stern, which was capsized at a 50-degree angle. Scattered wreckage and the taconite ore pellets were laying in between.
  • 1980 — Marine explorer Jean-Michel Cousteau sent two divers in the first manned submersible. The team guessed that the ship broke apart on the surface but made no final conclusions.
  • 1989 — The Michigan Sea Grant Program coordinated a three-day dive with several organizations to record a 3D videotape for museum educational programs and documentaries. It used a TSS Mk1 and remotely operated vessel equipped with mini stereoscopic cameras and wide-angle lenses.
  • 1994 — Joseph B. MacInnis coordinated six publicly funded dives over three days. The Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institution lent a support vessel and manned submersible vessel. The GLSHS was able to send three members on the dives to take photos. Still, MacInnis couldn’t provide an explanation for the wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald.
  • 1994 — Sport diver Fred Shannon established Deepquest Ltd. and coordinated a privately funded dive using a submersible vessel from Delta Oceanographic. Seven dives were conducted, and more than 42 hours of underwater video was captured. Shannon and the company also conducted the longest dive to the shipwreck at 211 minutes. While reviewing navigational charts from the NOAA, he discovered that at least one-third of the immediate wreckage area is in U.S. waters.
  • 1995 — MacInnis coordinated several more dives to salvage the Edmund Fitzgerald’s bell. The Chippewa Tribe supported the dives by co-signing a $250,000 loan. The Phil Nuytten atmospheric diving suit was used for the retrieval and to put a replica in its place and a can of beer in the pilothouse.
  • 1995 — Mike Zee and Terrence Tysall set records using trimix gas to dive to the shipwreck. They’re the only ones known to have touched the ship and to reach it without using a submersible vessel.

After these surveys, the Ontario Heritage Act was amended in 2005 to hinder dives, pictures, and scans of the wreckage without a license. Those who violate the Act could be fined up to $1 million Canadian. The Act was amended again in 2006 and 2009 as well. No survey equipment of any kind is allowed near the shipwreck without a license.

Changes in Shipping Practices on the Great Lakes

After the wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald, an investigation by the U.S. Coast Guard resulted in 15 recommendations for regulation changes. The NTSB did its own investigation and gave the NOAA two recommendations, the American Bureau of Shipping four recommendations, and the U.S. Coast Guard 19 recommendations.

Of these recommendations, only eight regulations were put in place over the years:

  1. All vessels of at least 1,600 gross register tons must use depth finders.
  2. Each crew member’s quarters and customary work station must have a survival suit equipped with strobe lights. Life jackets must be equipped with strobe lights as well.
  3. The NOAA changed how it predicts wave heights for better accuracy.
  4. Navigational charts of northeastern Lake Superior have been improved with greater detail and precision.
  5. To improve navigation, freighters were equipped with a LORAN-C positioning system in 1980, but this was upgraded to GPS in the 1990s.
  6. For accurate, immediate location data in the event of a disaster, all Great Lakes vessels are equipped with Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacons.
  7. An annual pre-November inspection program was instituted, and all U.S. Coast Guard inspectors board the ships in the fall to examine the lifesaving equipment and closures for the hatches and vents.
  8. The U.S. Coast Guard revoked the 1973 Load Line Regulation amendment that allowed a reduced freeboard.

Memorials to the Edmund Fitzgerald

The wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald has been memorialized in numerous ways over the decades. Aside from traditional ceremonies, there are books, plays, songs, and TV specials that remember the shipwreck.

Every year on Nov. 10, the GLSHS holds a memorial ceremony at its Whitefish Point museum. The museum is where the recovered bell from the ship is on display. During the ceremony, the bell rings 29 times for each of the lost crew members, and their surviving family members have the opportunity to participate.

The bell also rings a 30th time in remembrance of the estimated 30,000 people who have lost their lives on the Great Lakes.

Additionally, some of the surviving family members gather to mark special events or anniversaries related to the Fitzgerald. For instance, a 1999 consecration ceremony was held over the wreckage on Lake Superior and a dozen families attended.

Read more about how the Edmund Fitzgerald is remembered here.

The “Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald” Song

The most famous memorialization of the shipwreck could be the song “Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald” by Gordon Lightfoot.

The Canadian singer-songwriter was inspired to write lyrics about the disaster after reading “The Cruelest Month,” an article published by Newsweek on Nov. 24, 1975. He had some experience sailing the Great Lakes and knows how unpredictable the weather can be.

Although the lyrics tell a true story, Lightfoot took some creative liberties to make the seven verses rhyme. Since releasing the song in 1976, he has changed some of the lyrics for live performances because a couple of them offended a few people.

Rather than calling the Mariners’ Church of Detroit a “musty old hall,” he refers to it as a “rustic old hall.” Instead of saying that “a main hatchway caved in,” he says “it grew dark.”

Despite the few reservations, “Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald” was a radio hit. It reached No. 1 on all the Canadian weekly charts and on the U.S. Cash Box Top 100. The song was nominated for two Grammy Awards, too.

Even though it was about 6.5 minutes long, none of the stations shortened the song so that they could fit more advertisements into the slot. The lyrics were just too important.

Edmund Fitzgerald Products & Merchandise

You can find a lot of different products and merchandise that memorialize the Edmund Fitzgerald.

Great Lakes Brewing Co. makes an Edmund Fitzgerald Porter that’s available all year. This tribute to the lost crew has notes of bittersweet chocolate and coffee, and it pairs well with chocolate and oysters. It has won numerous awards, and you can cook with it.

HistoBrick has an SS Edmund Fitzgerald Lego Kit that’s great for kids, collectors, and the young at heart. This unique kit is made in partnership with the GLSHS, so some of the proceeds benefit the Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum.

While the kit contains 602 LEGO pieces, the bricks are obtained through third parties, so it’s not actually a LEGO product. Included are a spiral-bound instruction booklet and a bamboo wooden box.

Along with these products, you can find a lot of Edmund Fitzgerald merchandise on Etsy. Sellers create models, T-shirts, perfume bottles, blankets, vinyl decals, art pieces, coasters, and so much more.

Learning More About the Edmund Fitzgerald Shipwreck

We may not have fit everything there is to know about the wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald in this single post, but you could learn even more from the GLSHS.

Founded in 1978, its mission is to preserve lighthouses and honor the brave lives lost on Lake Superior. It operates several historic properties — the Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum and Whitefish Point Light Station in Whitefish Point and the U.S. Weather Bureau building at Soo Locks Park in Sault Ste. Marie — all of which offer educational and informational exhibits.

Additionally, the GLSHS continues to perform diving and underwater research as well as research into the stories of shipwrecks on the lake. Its Research Vessel David Boyd is a 47-foot boat equipped with a side scan sonar, remotely operated vehicle, advanced navigation electronics, underwater digital imaging equipment, and digital surface interface data storage.

The organization works with others too, such as the Discovery Channel, History Channel, Harbor Branch Oceanographic, National Geographic Society, U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, and state and local government agencies.

Despite that, you don’t have to visit the GLSHS properties to learn more about the Edmund Fitzgerald wreck. For instance, you could watch Shipwreck: The Mystery of the Edmund Fitzgerald, a Discovery Channel documentary from 1995 that’s available on YouTube from someone who recorded the airing. On top of that, Amazon has a plethora of DVDs and books that you can purchase:

Videos About the Shipwreck

Books About the Shipwreck

Great Lakes Shipping Terms to Know

As you’re reading, you might see some unfamiliar terms if you don’t sail or know much about ships. We’ve included these uncommon terms and definitions — including crew member roles — for your reference:

  • Aft — near the stern or rear of a vessel.
  • Aground — when the bottom of a vessel strikes the bottom of a body of water, reef, or shore.
  • Anemometer — equipment that indicates and measures wind force and velocity.
  • Astern — near the stern or rear of a vessel.
  • Ballast — heavy material placed within a ship’s hold to improve stability.
  • Barge — a large boat that’s usually towed or pushed by other vessels and transports freight.
  • Bottom out — when a ship hits the bottom of a body of water, which often results in sinking.
  • Broadside — the side of a ship that’s above the waterline.
  • Bulkhead — the upright partition in a ship that separates compartments.
  • Cadet — a person in training for the mate position on a ship.
  • Captain — the master of a ship.
  • Deckhand — a crew member whose duties include maintaining the decks, hull, and superstructure as well as cargo handling and mooring.
  • Engineer — the person who maintains and repairs equipment on a ship, including the boiler, engine, generators, pumps, and electrical, heating, refrigeration, and ventilation systems.
  • Fathom — a unit of measure that represents 6 feet.
  • Fathometer — a type of sonic depth finder.
  • Freeboard — the level of the deck that’s above water.
  • Gitche Gumee — an Ojibwa Tribe term that means “Big Lake” in reference to Lake Superior.
  • Heavy-weather captain — a captain who is “fearless” of dangerous conditions and generally sails into them with confidence.
  • Hatch — an opening on a ship’s deck for quickly loading cargo and that which has a secure closure.
  • Hold — the space that stores the cargo on a ship.
  • Hull — the outside walls or structure of a ship.
  • Knot — a unit of distance used for navigating Lake Superior and other large bodies of water.
  • List — when a ship tilts to one side.
  • Lock — a canal or enclosure with gates at each end to raise and lower boats as they journey between two bodies of water that have different water levels.
  • Maintenance man — the person in charge of maintaining a ship.
  • Mate — a deck officer on a ship who ranks below the captain; the “first,” “second,” and “third” before the word “mate” indicate the person’s rank among multiple mates.
  • Oiler — the person on a ship that keeps the machinery oiled.
  • Port — the left side of a vessel.
  • Porter — the person who performs routine cleanings.
  • Shoal — a shallow spot in a body of water.
  • Shoaling — when a ship runs aground on a shoal.
  • SS — the abbreviation for States Ship or Steamship.
  • Starboard — the right side of a ship.
  • Stern — the rear of a ship.
  • Steward — the cook on a ship.
  • Topside — the part of the side of a ship above the waterline.
  • Watchman — the person who pays the utmost attention to the ship’s surroundings in order to detect navigational hazards.
  • Wheelman — the person who steers the ship; also called a helmsman.
  • Wiper — the person in charge of cleaning the engine room.

Frequently Asked Questions About the Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald

What happened to the SS Edmund Fitzgerald?

The ship sank on Nov. 10, 1975, during a treacherous storm. The exact cause of the shipwreck has never been officially pinpointed.

How deep is the Edmund Fitzgerald?

The freighter rests 530 feet below the surface of Lake Superior. While the lake’s average depth is 483 feet, its deepest point is 1,333 feet.

Why is the Edmund Fitzgerald so famous?

The ship was the largest to sail on North America’s Great Lakes at the time of its launch in 1958, and it’s still the largest ship to have sunk. Also, the Edmund Fitzgerald tragedy remains a mystery and the most recent disaster on Lake Superior — some of the surviving family members of the lost crew are still alive today. Moreover, the shipwreck is famous and intriguing to those who hear the “Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald” song by Gordon Lightfoot.

Were bodies found on the Edmund Fitzgerald?

All 29 crew members died during the shipwreck, and none of their bodies were recovered from the wreckage.

Why does Lake Superior never give up her dead?

In most bodies of water, the bacteria that decay sunken bodies cause bloating, which makes the bodies rise to the surface. Since the average temperature of Lake Superior is 36 degrees Fahrenheit, bacteria can’t grow. As a result, sunken bodies never resurface and take much longer to decay. The cold water preserves the ships and other items as well.

Why is Lake Superior so dangerous?

Ferocious storms can suddenly develop over the Great Lakes, sinking boats and ships of all sizes. On Lake Superior, ice volcanoes can appear as snowy hills but erupt with a mixture of ice, sleet, and water. Even on the shoreline, longshore currents and rip currents make swimming hazardous. With waves that can reach 31 feet high, it’s no surprise that more than 10,000 people have been lost in this body of water.

Can you dive to the Edmund Fitzgerald?

No, you can’t dive to the Edmund Fitzgerald shipwreck. Since April 2005, the Ontario Heritage Act has allowed the Ontario government to charge heavy fines for diving and operating side scan sonars, underwater cameras, and other submersibles without a license. Further amendments over the years have made it even harder to secure a license.

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