Singer/songwriter Gordon Lightfoot’s 1976 hit “Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald,” incorrectly recounts the details of the ship’s journey according to Ric Mixter, Great Lakes shipwreck expert and author of a new book, “Tattletale Sounds.”
“I’ve interviewed shipyard workers, sailors and over a dozen people directly involved in the history of the Fitzgerald. This is really their perspective, I just put it in a text that’s easy to understand,” Mixter told the Monroe News yesterday (Nov. 9, 2022).
The official story goes something like this:
On this day (November 10) in 1975, the Great Lakes freighter, SS Edmund Fitzgerald sank in Canadian waters of Lake Superior, claiming the lives of 29 crew members.
The ship fell victim to the gales of November (Lightfoot got that part right) during a storm that ravaged the Great Lakes region, producing winds in excess of 58 miles per hour, with waves running up to 35 feet high. Gale force winds are those in the range of 34 knots (39 mph) to 47 knots (54 mph).
Another ship, the SS Arthur M. Anderson, was crossing Lake Superior at the same time as the Fitzgerald. Both ships were making their way towards the Soo Locks.
The Fitzgerald, loaded up with Ore from Duluth, Minnesota, en route to Detroit and Toledo, remained in radio contact with the Anderson and reported damage, including the loss of radar at around 3:30 p.m. around the same time the Anderson’s Captain reported being hit by an 86.3 mile per hour gust of wind. Due to the loss of radar and damage, the Fitzgerald slowed down and let the Anderson guide the way.
The Fitzgerald’s Captain, Ernest Michael McSorley told the Anderson via radio: “I have a bad list, lost both radars. And am taking heavy seas over the deck. One of the worst seas I’ve ever been in.” He was 63 years old at the time. His last message to the Anderson was at 7:10 p.m., in which he simply stated, “We are holding our own.”
The ship is suspected to have gone down just moments after the last communication.
According to the US National Weather Service, the Coast Guard conducted a thorough search for the Edmund Fitzgerald and on November 14, 1975, a U.S. Navy plane located her 17 miles northwest of Whitefish Point in more than 500 feet of water. She was broken in two pieces and the ship’s lifeboats were found smashed while still secured to the ship, indicating they had not been launched and that the ship sank abruptly. No distress signal had been detected, either.
It is speculated that a possible grounding near Caribou Island may have damaged the hull, but there is no evidence such a grounding occurred. Based on communications from the captain, that water crashing over the ship full of ore and sitting low in the water, had flooded the deck, sending spillage into the cargo area.
It was widely speculated that the Fitzgerald broke in half due to riding the crest of two waves. Another official report suggests the Fitzgerald nose-dived into a large wave and that the heavy cargo shifted forward and the force propelled the ship to the bottom of Lake Superior in seconds with such force that the vessel snapped in two.
More information, including interviews with a cook who had worked on the Fitzgerald and a man who claims to have been the last person to see the Fitzgerald before it sank can be found in the new book about the most famous shipwreck in the history of the Great Lakes.
Purchase “Tattletale Sounds” here.