The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald

“The Lake, it is said, never gives up her dead.

When the skies of November turn gloomy.”

-Gordon Lightfoot

November 10, 1975  The bulk freighter Edmund Fitzgerald, Captain McSorley,  Master, sank in Lake Superior with all 29 hands.  The Fitzgerald cleared Superior, Wisconsin, on her last trip on November 9, 1975, with a cargo of 26,116 tons of taconite pellets consigned to Detroit. Traveling down Lake Superior in company with ARTHUR M. ANDERSON of the United States Steel Corporation’s Great Lakes Fleet, she encountered heavy weather and in the early evening of November 10th, suddenly foundered approximately 17 miles from the entrance to Whitefish Bay (47º North Latitude, 85º 7′ West Longitude)

Captain McSorley of the “FITZ” had indicated he was having difficulty and was taking on water. She was listing to port and had two of three ballast pumps working. She had lost her radar and damage was noted to ballast tank vent pipes and he was overheard on the radio saying, “don’t allow nobody (sic) on deck.” McSorley said it was the worst storm he had ever seen.


The ship lies broken in two sections in 530 feet of water.  Surveyed by the U.S. Coast Guard in 1976 using the U.S. Navy CURV III system, the wreckage consisted of an upright bow section, approximately 275 feet long and an inverted stern section, about 253 feet long, and a debris field comprised of the rest of the hull in between. Both sections lie within 170 feet of each other.

The National Transportation Safety Board unanimously voted on March 23, 1978 to reject the U. S. Coast Guard’s official report supporting the theory of faulty hatches. Later the N.T.S.B. revised its verdict and reached a majority vote to agree that the sinking was caused by taking on water through one or more hatch covers damaged by the impact of heavy seas over her deck.
This is contrary to the Lake Carriers Association’s contention that her foundering was caused by flooding through bottom and ballast tank damage resulting from bottoming on the Six Fathom Shoal between Caribou and Michipicoten Islands.
The U.S. Coast Guard, report on August 2, 1977 cited faulty hatch covers, lack of water tight cargo hold bulkheads and damage caused from an undetermined source.

NTSB Report of Fitzgerald Sinking

The Fitz hull took a fatal blow on a shoal

This theory was advanced by the Lake Carriers Association (LCA) after the U.S. Coast Guard report and seems to be the most popular among mariners and armchair wreck investigators. The LCA thinks the Fitzgerald grounded on the poorly-marked Six Fathom Shoal northwest of Caribou Island, causing fatal damage to the hull. If the ship had “hogged” upon striking the shoal, it could have caused the topside damage reported by Fitzgerald captain Ernest McSorley in the hours before the sinking. However, divers found no recent damage to the shoal after the wreck and the ship’s exact course could only be estimated because the Fitzgerald radars were inoperable and the Anderson kept inexact course records during the journey. Of note, the NTSB report included a dissenting opinion that held to this theory. In a similar vein, Paul Hainault, a retired Michigan Tech University professor, postulated a seiche caused the ship to scrape the bottom of Superior Shoal early that morning and the weakened hull eventually gave out.


The Fitz Broke in Half

To explain the lack of shoal damage another theory has immerged.  In 1975, Rogue Waves were still in the realm of sea stories, unproven.  We now know they exist and can be monstrously huge.  Lake Superior is an Inland Sea and Rouge Waves have been observed.  The Fitz was 729 feet long.  If a rouge wave struck her astern, it could have easily driven her into the lake bed.  That’s the theory.  That a rogue wave drove her so deep that she struck and promptly broke in half.  No warning. No distress signal. No survivors.


The church bell chimed till it rang twenty-nine times
For each man on the Edmund Fitzgerald

Captain Ernest M. McSorley
Michael E. Armagost
Fred J. Beetcher
Thomas D. Bentsen
Edward F. Bindon
Thomas D. Borgeson
Oliver J. Champeau
Nolan S. Church
Ransom E. Cundy
Thomas E. Edwards
Russell G. Haskell
George J. Holl
Bruce L. Hudson
Allen G. Kalmon
Gorden Maclellan
Joseph Mazes
John H. McCarthy
Eugene O’Brien
Karl A. Peckol
John J. Poviach
James A. Pratt
Robert C. Rafferty
Paul M. Rippa
John D. Simmons
William J. Spengler
Mark A. Thomas
Ralph G. Walton
David E. Weiss
Blaine H. Wilhelm