It was forty years ago today that Captain Ernest McSorley and his crew of twenty-eight perished in the wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald. In the 1991 addendum to his 1960 classic Great Lakes Shipwrecks & Survivals, William Ratigan pretty much agrees with Gordon Lightfoot’s lyric in his 1976 memorial musical tribute to the tragedy, The Wreck Of The Edmund Fitzgerald, that “she may have broke deep and took water.” Though the ship was found in two halves in the Spring of 1978, consensus is that it broke as it settled the 600 feet to the bottom.
When the Edmund Fitzgerald was launched in 1958, she was the largest vessel on the great lakes, and one of the fastest. She was equipped with the most sophisticated navigational and communications systems and she was built specifically to ply the great lakes, even in stormy weather. It is essentially impossible to sail the great lakes and avoid sailing through gales and tempests.
Odd as it may seem at first, storms on the great lake are often more treacherous than storms on the high seas. The relative shallowness of the lakes helps produce mountainous waves, and the relative smallness of the lakes – compared to oceans, of course – makes it hard to run around bad weather. The Edmund Fitzgerald was indeed trying to make the relative shelter of Whitefish Bay when all radio contact ceased. Gordon Lightfoot’s 1976 ballad is as good a musical narrative as ever was written about such an event.