Five theories, five directions to point fingers

In November—at least around the Great Lakes, when the gales usually come—the radio plays a song by a certain Canadian balladeer that’s rarely heard the rest of the year. I grew up with the song, and yet, it’s only an interest in submarines—that grew to other seafaring stories like those of the merchant marine—that  I came to realize how little I knew about the facts of her sinking—how little is still known, even better than forty years later.

One of the things I have come to realize is what a perfect example her story is of how tragedy is politicized by different groups for special interests, even when it seems everyone is ostensibly trying to solve the same mystery in a perfectly objective manner.

The Edmund Fitzgerald, named for the then-president of her owner, Northwestern Mutual Life Insurance, was the biggest “big ship” on the Great Lakes when she was launched in 1958. She was still #5 when she went down in 1975. For those of you who haven’t grown up hearing “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald,” the short version of her fatal voyage goes something like this:

On November 9, 1975, “Big Fitz,” as she was known, loaded 26,110 tons of taconite (a semi-refined version of iron ore) and headed out across Lake Superior, bound for the Soo Locks and down to Lower Michigan. The worst weather on the lakes is usually encountered in late fall, and meteorologists were forecasting a bad one the next day. There are often more than one ore carrier going the same way at the same time, and this time the Arthur M. Anderson was pulling out of Two Harbors around the same time as the Fitz got into the area. The two captains started on the usual route, traveling as far south as the Keweenaw Peninsula allowed, but when the gale warnings came, decided to abandon the usual route and take a northerly route closer to the Canadian shore. The two lakers stayed to the north as long as they could, but eventually they had to turn a southerly heading—directly into the heart of the worst storm many had ever seen on the lake—to get down to Whitefish Bay, the nearest shelter for big ships.

The storm was so bad that both of the Fitz’s radar masts were washed away. To make matters worse, the storm had also knocked out power to the Whitefish Bay lighthouse. Yes, there’s a backup generator that’s supposed to kick in when the power is lost, but on that night, the light was out for several hours. Fitz was forced to rely on the Anderson, running about ten miles behind her, to tell her where she was.

And this was a terrible place to not be sure of one’s position. Shoals abound, ready to gouge a hole in the hulls of ships that stray too close to them. Worse yet, while lakes don’t have tides, they do develop seiches, where the low pressure from a storm will suck the water from an area, which can cause the water level to drop significantly below its charted levels.

It was into this: the most challenging navigation in her journey, in one of—if not the worst—storms of the century, without benefit of her primary, secondary, or tertiary means of determining her position, that Fitz steamed. She was taking on water, but not at a rate her pumps couldn’t handle.  The captain’s last transmission reported that the ship was “holding her own.” She never raised an alarm.

Anderson raised the alarm when Fitz disappeared from her radar, sweeping the area as best she could when she came on Fitz’s last position as she battled her own way to Whitefish Bay. The Coast Guard took the call, but what could they do? For years, Congress had under-equipped the Great Lakes bases—after all, they were “just lakes.” Equipment procurement was decided on by ocean requirements—where merchant vessels seldom went more than 30 minutes away from shore—but a boat in distress in the middle of Lake Superior could be more than two hours from shore, placing it out of range of most helicopters.

The Coast Guard sent the one operational “heavy weather” boat they had (stationed at the wrong end of the lake), and begged the freighters to help.  Captain Cooper took the Anderson back into the storm, and after some soul searching, Capt. Jim Erickson took the William Clay Ford out. They found nothing. By then, flotsam from the Fitz were washing up on the Canadian shore.

The Coast Guard located her within weeks, but didn’t bother to survey her until the next spring, giving the lake-bottom mud several months to cover clues as to why she went down. Better cameras surveyed it in the 1980’s, and found several things the Coast Guard’s survey missed. She was visited again in 1996, when her ship’s bell was recovered in an operation that, by the request of the families, would be the last visit to Big Fitz. Even those surveys were unable to conclusively determine why she went down. None of the major theories have ever been proven or disproven.

So what were they, and what’s so political about them?

The first theory

Over a year after the Fitz went down, the Coast Guard released it analysis: The Fitz had been in such a hurry leaving the dock, they didn’t even have their hatch covers in place. Finding no characteristic scratching on the areas of the Fitz that weren’t covered by mud or disintegrated during her sinking that would indicate she scraped a shoal, they concluded that Fitz flooded from the top because her hatches weren’t properly secured.

Bottom line: It was the crew’s fault for not being anal about safety procedures.

Winners/losers: The Coast Guard looks good for making the rules, Fitz’s crew looks bad for not following them.

The second theory

After the Coast Guard released it official finding, the National Transportation Safety Board reviewed it and gave their own conclusion. They also concluded the Fitz had flooded from the top, but believed the hatch covers to have leaked, either to poor design or inadequate maintenance. They also considered the bulkheads separating her holds to be inadequate, which allowed her water-logged cargo to shift forward, making her bow-heavy and exacerbating the flooding.

Bottom line: It was either the construction firm’s fault for cutting corners in construction and/or the owner’s fault for not giving the Fitz the maintenance it needed.

Winners/losers: The industry as a whole looks bad for putting profits over people’s lives. Government (including the NTSB and the Coast Guard) get to look like saviors protecting the common man from the greedy industrialists.

The third theory

The laker mariners as a body rejected the contention that the Fitz flooded from the top. Hatch covers weigh several tons, the crew would have certainly checked the hatches as soon as the gale warnings went out, and at worst, the hatches would only leak about a cupful—well within the capacity of the bilge pumps. They pointed out that Fitz had been far closer to the shoals than what was considered safe, and the captain had told the Anderson that part of his fence (the safety fencing that runs along the sides of the boat) was down. Now to a landlubber or weekend yachtie, a fallen railing may sound like the result of a wave crashing over the side, but to experienced lakers, it was a clear sign that Fitz had “hogged”–she had either suffered a stress fracture or struck something underwater that caused her to arch upwards amidships, causing the fence to snap under the tension. They contended that the Fitz had run aground and not felt it in the fierceness of the storm.

Bottom line: She bottomed out because she didn’t have the navigational tools she needed. (The Whitefish Bay lighthouse had known power problems that could have been addressed sooner.)

Winners/losers:The crew looks good for doing their best with a bad situation, the Federal Government looks bad for not making funds available to maintain, much less improve, navigational aids for a water system many lakers are convinced that Washington views as  “knee-deep ponds.”

The fourth theory

Taconite absorbs water. Plus, water-logged taconite can clog up the “rose box” (a guard on the pump inlets to keep cargo out of the pumps), making it impossible to pump water out of the holds.  Furthermore, the pumps are in the back of the boat; if she was down by the bow, there would be no way for that water to get to the pumps. She would get lower and lower every time a wave broke over her bow that eventually she would “nosedive.” In this case, the first inkling that she wouldn’t be coming back up again would be when her wheelhouse imploded from the water pressure, an event that would give no one any time to raise an alarm, much less escape.

Bottom line: Having pumps in the back of the boat only is a dangerous flaw; there should be a means to detect and remove water no matter where it gets into the hold.
Winners/losers: The Coast Guard/government get another chance to make more burdensome regulations. The ship owners/operators are saddled with the added expense of more pumps/less space for cargo, for marginal benefit. Why “marginal”? Because if a significant amount of water does get into the holds, it’s difficult to separate from the taconite, no matter where you put the pumps.

The fifth theory

For centuries, there have been tales of 100-ft waves. The few who had survived such waves were dismissed as delusional. Even into the 20th Century, it was “known” that waves couldn’t be much more than 30 ft. Experts proved it with their Gaussian models. They refused to consider they might be wrong until Gorm platform in the central North Sea in 1984 observed a 36-ft (11m) wave in a relatively low sea state. It wasn’t until the Draupner platform in the North Sea on January 1, 1995, recorded an 84-ft (25.6m) wave that experts were forced to admit that such waves did exist; even though their models didn’t predict them. Since then, with more sensors capable of more and more accurate wave height measurements, what are most commonly referred to as “rogue waves”—waves substantially larger than average waves in an area that form without warning and disappear without a trace—have turned out to be not so rare, after all. A curious trait of rogue waves is they either show up as a single wave, or as a sequence of three waves; lakers have many tales of the “three sisters”–three abnormally large waves that will hit a ship -bang-bang-bang.

What does this have to do with the Fitz? On YouTube, there is an interview with a tugboat captain who knew some of the crew that was on the Anderson the night the Fitz went down. The waves were so bad, they had to lay canvas over the motors to keep them from flooding out. Many feared the Anderson—which wasn’t dealing with flooding—would go down. And then a triple rogue wave hit her from behind. Anderson was in better shape to begin with. She wasn’t as deep into the thick of the storm as the Fitz was. And she barely survived it. The Fitz was ten minutes ahead of her, as the waves roll.

Ten minutes later, the Fitz’s “lights went out of sight.”

Bottom line: The Fitz went down due to a situation that was not anticipated because its possibility of its existence was dismissed out of hand by the governing bodies.
Winners/losers: The captain and crew are vindicated from cries of negligence. The scientific community has to eat crow for denying what sailors have known for decades.


You might have guessed that I originally wrote this in November, and you’d be right. I wrote this based on what I saw in a documentary I came across, but I had a few facts I wanted to check before I posted it (I hate finding blunders of fact in written works, especially my own.) One thing led to another, and in the intervening two months, I’ve been reading and watching a lot of Fitz and her friends, so much that I was tempted to completely rewrite this post. I think I mostly succeeded in resisting the urge, because I wanted this to stay true to my early impressions; I’m planning on putting my revised impressions into a  . . . “more substantial” document.



Update: Five Theories on the Fitz: And What They Reveal About the Politics of Disaster launched on October 18, 2018 .

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