Five Theories on the Fitz: Leftoverture

When you’re writing a book that involves a lot of research, there comes a point when you have to tell yourself, “Enough! Write the book already!”

The aftermath of this being, even as you’re finishing the final edits, you’re still discovering new information, and your brain is still formulating new material on your research.

For example, as I paged through my proof copies (typo #23, typo #24…) I began to think more about the equipment the boats carry and what it shows about how Government “solves” problems. More importantly, which problems Government chooses to solve.

You see, at the time the Edmund Fitzgerald went down, there was no requirement to have fathometers on large vessels, and the Fitz only carried a hand lead (a weight on a marked line–not something you’d use in heavy weather). There was no requirement to have anemometers, thermometers, or wind vanes, either, but Fitz had a full suite of these.

Why Fitz was carrying a suite of weather equipment is a story that goes back to November 11, 1940. That was a nasty storm that brought a few boats down. The lakers wanted better forecasting. The National Weather Service wanted more data for their weather models. So they entered into an agreement: the NWS would supply and maintain 40 suites of weather equipment on lake carriers, and the crews would learn to make weather observations and report them four times a day (except when they were navigating rivers). The Edmund Fitzgerald was one of those 40 boats carrying NWS equipment. The program was so popular and beneficial to the boats, that some companies bought and installed weather equipment out of their own pockets.

The Arthur M. Anderson carried company weather equipment.

If the Government’s attitude of “they won’t do it unless we force them” is correct, then why were they buying anemometers and not fathometers?

To outside lubbers, the lack of a fathometer bordered on criminal negligence. Why wouldn’t you want to know if you were getting into shoal areas? To the freighter community, a fathometer was irrelevant. They traipsed over the same paths day after day, week after week, they knew from years of experience where the shallow spots were. The only place there was any variation of note was in the harbors, where erosion and spilled cargo could, over the course of a few weeks or months, leave an ore boat with not as much water under her keel as she should have. In that case, a hand lead was adequate to let the dock know it was time to dredge. Hull damage from shallow harbors and canals is considered normal wear and tear for freighters.

Weather, on the other hand, was a huge unknown. Going to anchor when they didn’t need to wasted tens of thousands of dollars. Not going to anchor (or picking the wrong place to anchor) when they needed to could lead to hundreds of thousands of dollars in damage or loss of the entire boat (and crew). Sometimes a spot that provided safe anchorage early in a blow would leave a boat exposed to the full force of the storm when the wind shifted. The only defense against this was better weather forecasting, and the only way to get that was by accumulating more weather data.

So why were fathometers mandated for large vessels after the Fitz went down and not weather monitoring suites?

Because fathometers to prevent grounding is an easier problem to understand and simpler to apply a fix to than improving freighters’ ability to gauge exactly how dangerous an incoming weather system will be.

Once you recognize this pattern, you see it in legislation everywhere. Government looks for the easiest fix, then tries to convince you that the the fix Government came up with is the most effective solution to the problem, that the problem it solves is the biggest problem you have to face, and that the problems that it can’t solve are so unlikely to occur as to not bother about.

Look around. You’ll see.

 

 

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

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