Gales of November: The Shipwrecks of the Great Lakes

Gales of November: The Shipwrecks of the Great Lakes

Whether you’re counting the Great Lakes’ lost souls or sunken ships, you’ll find no month more cruel or destructive than November.

Of the 11 deadliest storms to strike the Great Lakes during the past two centuries, seven swept the region in November, and two others struck during the second half of October. Those storms killed an estimated 1,300 people on the big lakes—mostly on Huron, Superior, and Michigan; and less so on Erie and Ontario. Of that toll, November claimed an estimated 725 (56%) of the deaths. And if you include the two deadliest late-October blows, the toll hits 875 (67%).

And of the 12 largest ships to sink on the Great Lakes the past 120 years, seven hit the bottom during November storms. In addition, heavy fog in November of 1918 helped run an eighth ship aground near Lake Superior’s Isle Royale.

Of those 12 big ships, the three largest sank in November storms a half-century ago: The S.S. Carl D. Bradley (639 feet) on Nov. 18, 1958, in northern Lake Michigan; the S.S. Daniel J. Morrell (603 feet) on Nov. 29, 1966, off Michigan’s thumb in Lake Huron; and the S.S. Edmund Fitzgerald (729 feet) on Nov. 10, 1975, in southeastern Lake Superior, 15 miles northwest of Whitefish Bay.

It’s impossible to know the exact number of ships and people lost on the Great Lakes since European settlement, but the first reported loss was the Le Griffon, which disappeared after leaving Green Bay in 1679. The Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum—located at the Whitefish Point Light Station in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula—estimates the toll at 6,000 ships and 30,000 people. Mark L. Thompson—a Great Lakes mariner, historian, and book author—thinks the total likely exceeds 25,000 shipwrecks. In his book “Graveyard of the Great Lakes,” Thompson attributes at least a third of that toll to November.

Inland Seas Those who know the Great Lakes confidently compare their perils to those of distant oceans. In "Moby Dick," Herman Melville wrote: “Those grand fresh-water seas—Erie, and Ontario, and Huron, and Superior, and Michigan—possess an ocean-like expansiveness…They are swept by…blasts as direful as any that lash the salted wave; they know what shipwrecks are, for out of sight of land, however inland, they have drowned full many a midnight ship with all its shrieking crew.”

In other words, the “Witch of November” is a name well earned by Great Lakes gales and storms. By National Weather Service definition, a gale generates sustained surface winds of 39 to 54 mph. Once winds hit 55 mph and higher, the NWS defines the system as a storm.

Gales and storms erupt when intense low-pressure systems collide with strong high-pressure systems over the waters of the Great Lakes. Michigan meteorologist Mark Torregrossa says November regularly generates strong, sustained winds because the Great Lakes’ huge waters remain relatively warm until December. As light air rises above those warm surfaces, the Great Lakes suck in cold-air systems descending from Canada and warm-air systems surging up from Western prairies or the Gulf of Mexico.

When those masses of cold and warm air collide over the Great Lakes, they spawn powerful witches. The greater the fronts’ air-pressure differences, the more potent the witch. Those differences in air pressure and temperature aren’t as great before November and typically decline by December as the lakes cool.

November’s witches generate hellish furies every 10 years or so. The storm that sank the Edmund Fitzgerald equaled a Category 1 to 2 hurricane. A November 1998 storm was even stronger, firmly equaling a Category 2 hurricane. More powerful yet was an Oct. 26-27, 2010, storm the NWS labeled a “significant extratropical cyclone.” During that two-day blow, Lake Superior’s Isle Royale recorded sustained 68 mph winds and gusts to 78 mph, and weather buoys to the northeast recorded wave heights of 19 to 27 feet.

Unlike hurricanes, however, Great Lakes storms aren’t assigned generic names in advance by weather forecasters. Typically, named Great Lakes storms require ships to sink or mariners to die. The Fitzgerald Storm of November 1975 claimed the 29 men lost on the Big Fitz, the iron-ore boat immortalized by Canadian singer/songwriter Gordon Lightfoot. The Morrell Storm of November 1966 claimed 28 men, and the Bradley Storm of November 1958 claimed 33.

Before that, the Armistice Day Storm in November 1940 killed 66 sailors after sinking five ships on Lake Michigan, and another 10 people on Superior. That storm, which killed an estimated 160 to 210 people across the Midwest, is most notorious for killing about 85 duck hunters across Iowa, Illinois, Wisconsin, Minnesota, North Dakota, and South Dakota. As Spencer Neuharth reported in his MeatEater article “Armistice Day, The Day 85 Duck Hunters Died," the other victims included farmers, motorists, children, and train passengers.

No witch, however, unleashed greater grief and widespread destruction than the Great Storm of 1913, which blew Nov. 9 to 12, killing an estimated 275 people. This killer storm, also called the “Big Blow” and “Freshwater Fury,” churned for four days across the Great Lakes.

It stranded at least 19 ships, and sank or wrecked 19 more, including eight ships sunk on Lake Huron (200 deaths), two on Lake Superior (43 deaths), and one ship each on lakes Erie (six deaths) and Michigan (seven deaths). That icy witch also generated a full-blown blizzard that shrouded shorelines and encased ships in ice, forcing lucky vessels to run aground and unfortunate ships to plunge into the depths, never to be seen again.

Two Days in Hell One man who lived through a similar ice-maker is Timothy Sullivan, a retired U.S. Coast Guard admiral who served 36 years as a “Coastie.” Sullivan was an ensign of six months when confronting his first November witch while stationed aboard the CGC Mesquite, a 180-foot cutter. The Coast Guard ordered the Mesquite to head north up Lake Michigan’s western shoreline from Chicago the night of Nov. 10, 1975. The Mesquite’s destination was Lake Superior, where the Edmund Fitzgerald had disappeared just hours before.

“That was a hellish two days,” Sullivan told MeatEater. “We were plowing into 30- to 40-foot waves out on the lake. I’m not guessing about those wave heights. The Mesquite’s bridge was 47 feet high, and I was up there standing my four-hour watch every eight hours, just holding on. At best, we made a half-knot for speed. The ship was icing over and we were miserable. Everyone was sore and seasick. We were getting our asses kicked. It really tested us. I grew up in Milwaukee and knew Lake Michigan but I’d never seen anything like that.

“We only got to about Sturgeon Bay [Wisconsin] when they told us to not bother, to turn around,” Sullivan continued. “The Fitzgerald was gone, and by then they had enough ships, planes, helicopters and smaller boats on scene for the search and recovery. By the time we got back to Chicago, I wasn’t sure I could finish out my five-year service requirement.”

Sullivan went on to serve aboard Coast Guard ships in the Atlantic and Pacific oceans for 14 years of his career. He also served from 1997 to 2000 as the Coast Guard’s Chief of Waterways and Vessels in Cleveland, where he oversaw the entire Great Lakes. In all that time, he never again experienced anything like Lake Michigan’s fury in November 1975.

“I’ve run into people who said condescending things like, ‘Sailing the Great Lakes is like sailing on a pond,’ but they don’t know what they’re talking about,” Sullivan said. “The Great Lakes are deep, giant basins with much different fluid dynamics than what you find in oceans. On the Great Lakes, heavy winds push water up against the far shoreline and pile up. The water actually rises several feet along the shorelines and into the river mouths. It has nowhere to go, and starts pushing back the other way like waves in a bathtub.”

“Ocean waves just keep rolling along,” Sullivan continued. “Nothing’s in their way. Plus, ships ride higher and behave differently in saltwater because it’s more dense than cold freshwater. I’ve been in 20-foot waves on the Pacific and felt fine. It was nothing like 20-foot waves on the Great Lakes.”

Complacency Kills Sullivan said people typically die on the Great Lakes after lowering their guard against weather. “It can be so beautiful out there,” he said. “You’ll roll gently back and forth for days. You get lulled into complacency. The waters generally aren’t deadly, and even the biggest ships are often within sight of land. But complacency can lead to carelessness and risky practices that reduce your margins for error.”

The Coast Guard Marine Board issued a similar conclusion in its review of the Fitzgerald’s sinking: “The nature of Great Lakes shipping, with short voyages, much of the time in protected waters, often with the same routine trip to trip, leads to complacency and an overly optimistic attitude concerning extreme weather. This attitude reflects itself in deferral of maintenance and repairs, in failure to prepare properly for heavy weather, and in the conviction that safety is possible by ‘running for it.’”

In "Graveyard of the Lakes," Thompson also cites complacency—not weather or weather forecasting—as the chief killer. But Thompson said complacency went beyond sailors and officers. He wrote that insurers, politicians, bean-counters, and Washington bureaucracies also share responsibility for Great Lakes shipwrecks and deaths.

Thompson reported that a 1995 Coast Guard analysis of shipwrecks the previous 30 years found 80% were caused by human error. Only 20% were “hardware failures,” such as steering systems, navigational equipment, and hull fractures. Former Coast Guard Admiral James Card wrote: “Governments and operating companies have been devoting most of their attention to fixing problems that account for only about 20% of the overall safety picture.”

The Coast Guard’s review of many other studies showed similar results, with human error blamed for 75 to 96% of all accidents. Those shipboard mistakes fell into three main categories: inattention, carelessness, and fatigue.

The Grim Reapers Even so, Thompson said one group bears the most blame in all such matters: those commanding ships on “North America’s freshwater seas.” Thompson wrote: “Through their incompetence, recklessness, errors in judgment, and taciturn willingness to go along with shipping company policies that put their ships, passengers, and crews in jeopardy, captains have been responsible for most of the shipwrecks and deaths on the Great Lakes. In the graveyard of the lakes, it is the captains who have been the grim reapers.”

Although Thompson doesn’t call them out, the captains of the Edmund Fitzgerald, Ernest McSorley; and the Carl D. Bradley, Roland Bryan; were known as “heavy-weather captains.” Both took pride in delivering their cargo on time, every time, no matter the conditions.

McSorley, for instance, reportedly said ships don’t make money by sitting in safe harbors. Former Fitzgerald crew members also said McSorley wasn’t a stickler about training, repairs, and maintenance. Such traits proved to be fatal flaws for a captain who prided himself on defying Great Lakes storms. Hugh Bishop, author of “The Night the Fitz Went Down,” wrote that another ore-boat captain, Dudley Paquette of the Wilfred Sykes, accused McSorley of negligence. “(McSorley) kept pushing that ship, and didn’t have enough training in weather forecasting to use common sense and pick a route out of the worst of the wind and seas,” Paquette said.

The Fitzgerald left Superior, Wisconsin, about two hours before the Sykes the afternoon of Nov. 9, but Paquette hugged the lake’s northwestern shoreline to avoid heavy seas. He then took refuge in Thunder Bay, Ontario, when the storm turned ugly. McSorley initially stayed closer to Lake Superior’s northern shoreline, but eventually took an aggressive route toward the distant Whitefish Bay, perhaps trying to outrun the storm. That fatal course exposed the Fitzgerald’s stern to huge waves rolling southeasterly across Superior at the storm’s height. The ship trailing the Fitzgerald, the Arthur M. Anderson, reported wind gusts of 75 mph and waves of 25 feet about the time of the sinking.

Bryan made a similar fatal bet on the Bradley in November 1958. After paralleling Wisconsin’s Door County Peninsula, he steered the Bradley directly across northern Lake Michigan for the straits of Mackinac—the narrow gap between Michigan’s upper and lower peninsulas. That decision exposed the ship’s stern to towering waves building northeasterly across Lake Michigan, lashed by 65 mph winds. Bryan took that risk even though he was worried about the ship’s seaworthiness, and eagerly awaited the shipping season’s end so the Bradley’s cargo hold could be upgraded. Soon after the Bradley turned east for its run across Lake Michigan’s depths, it broke in two and sank about 2 a.m. on Nov. 18.

Two of the Bradley’s 35-man crew survived by clinging to a life raft. The Coast Guard Cutter Sundew spotted and rescued them soon after dawn that day. A third sailor, apparently delusional with hypothermia, swam away from the raft shortly before dawn. The Coast Guard pulled him from the water hours later but he died soon after.

In contrast to Bryan and McSorley, the skipper of the Daniel J. Morrell wasn’t known as a heavy-weather captain. On Nov. 29, 1966, however, Captain Arthur Crawley took his ship onto Lake Huron from Lackawanna, New York, during a storm that eventually tore the Morrell in two. Crawley made it onto a life raft with several crew members and told them he shouldn’t have left the harbor near Buffalo. Huge waves soon capsized the raft after it pulled free of the sinking bow. Crawley wasn’t among the four men who managed to scramble back aboard the raft. Of those four, only Dennis Hale survived.

Hale later shared a haunting image of the Morrell’s demise. After the ship broke apart in Huron’s 25-foot waves, the still lighted stern section kept going, its propeller churning. As Hale and the others sat in the raft atop the ship’s sinking bow, the stern section repeatedly rammed the bow.

Meanwhile, Hale saw a shipmate holding an oil can step from a cabin onto the stern’s deck. Hale recognized him as Don Worcester, one of the Morrrell’s oilers. Worcester simply stared at the separated bow and the chasm in between, seemingly frozen in disbelief. Author William Ratigan wrote that the doomed stern then plowed off into the darkness “like a great wounded beast with its head shot off.”

Rescuers in a helicopter found Hale on the raft, wearing only his wool peacoat and boxer shorts, 38 hours later after the raft grounded in knee-deep water on Michigan’s shoreline. The other three men on the raft died of exposure, their bodies coated in ice. Worcester’s body was found floating five months later in April 1967. Searchers located the Morrell’s sunken stern section in January 1967, but its bow section wasn’t found until 1979.

Conclusion Over 46 years have passed since the Fitzgerald sank in November 1975 with its entire crew. The Great Lakes hasn’t lost a large commercial vessel since, even though hurricane-force storms struck the region in November 1985, Halloween 1991, November 1998, and October 2010. Sullivan said several factors kept those storms from becoming deadly. That list includes more conservative load limits for cargo ships, better navigational charts, mandatory shipboard GPS systems, revised methods for predicting wave heights, mandatory depth-finders for vessels heavier than 1,600 tons, less demand for steel by Detroit automakers, and pre-November inspections by the Coast Guard each fall of all hatches, vent closures, and lifesaving gear.

“A lot of Coast Guard policies are based on calamities, starting with the earliest steamboat explosions,” Sullivan said. “The Coast Guard is very good at after-action reports. We do learn from hard lessons and put things together.”

Likewise, Sullivan doesn’t underestimate the likelihood that the Fitzgerald disaster, and the storm itself, scared many people straight.

“You have to think everyone learned the high price of lost lives, lost ships, and lost cargos from those tragedies,” Sullivan said. “I can’t speak for how all those ships’ captains responded to storms in the years that followed, but I’ll never forget us getting our ass kicked those two days in November 1975. That was a life-changing experience. It was a building block for me as a Coast Guard officer.”

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