On stormy Lake Superior, night was descending and snow had begun to fall, reducing visibility. Huge waves slid onto the spar deck of the Edmund Fitzgerald and routinely piled up behind the wheelhouse, their weight causing the bow to shudder and dig deeper into the angry water.
Capt. Ernest Michael McSorley grabbed a handhold to steady himself. The wheelhouse tilted heavily; it was difficult to keep a footing on the slippery floor. The wind clocked at 80 mph — and ahead lay the salvation of Whitefish Point. He had to skirt Six Fathom Shoals, extending about five miles north of Caribou Island. He had been this way before.
About 10 miles behind him, Capt. Bernie Cooper in the ore boat Arthur M. Anderson followed the Fitzgerald's progress on his radar console with increasing alarm.
"He's in close to that Six Fathom spot," Cooper told the second mate. "He's closer than I'd want this ship to be."
Minutes later, Capt. Cooper received a strange radio message: "Arthur M. Anderson, this is the Fitzgerald. I have sustained some topside damage. I have some fence rail down, two vents lost or damaged, and I have taken a list."
Ominous news, decipherable to a ship's master. Thick steel cables encircling the big vessel had snapped. Boarding waves could not have broken them. The vents break had to mean that something cataclysmic had happened not on deck but in the below-water ballast tanks. Almost certainly, hydraulic pressure had blasted up from the vessel's bottom and had blown off the heavy cast-metal vents.
Worse, a 729-foot-long ore carrier carrying 26,116 tons of taconite had taken a list to starboard.
At about 7 p.m., the Fitz was gone, leaving an unthinkable modern maritime mystery. Today, it is probably the most controversial of all Great Lakes shipwrecks and remains widely debated in public forums, newspaper articles, books, and magazines. It's the Freshwater Titanic.
Was it faulty hatch covers? A hotly disputed Coast Guard report listed hatch-cover failure as one of several possible main causes of the sinking. Since that time, however, in over 40 years, ore boats with similarly designed hatch covers have survived countless storms.
To many, the villain was Six Fathom Shoals, as also was cited as a possibility by the Coast Guard. Under this scenario, in stormy seas, the Big Fitz had touched bottom at the shoals and became a slowly sinking ship. A later survey showed that some reefs were higher than charts showed — and that there was a new reef.
I was in Chicago talking to a yachting group when a mariner pointed to a tugboat. "That's the diver who inspected the reef," he told me.
I hadn't known the reef had been inspected. There were rumors that the following spring an independent diver, and not the Coast Guard, would be hired by business interests to inspect the reef to see what could be found. The results of that private diving expedition would be of enormous interest since the reef possibly held the secret to the sinking. Did the rocks bear the marks of a titanic collision?
And here was the man who probably knew. Would he reveal anything to me, directly, since he was hired by confidential business interests? I bluntly asked: "Was it the reef?"
"I really wish I could say," he told me.
"Well, hypothetically, if a boat like the Fitz were to hit a reef, what would you find?" I pushed.
"She'd leave more than her calling card."
He told me that if a 729-foot vessel carrying 26,117 tons of taconite hit a reef, there would be evidence left behind from the grounding. There would be the impact of the steel upon the rock, leaving a gouge in the usual scum and film that covers most underwater rocks. Bright rock might show. Paint from the bottom of the vessel might scrape off onto the reef. There might be metal pieces strewn about from where the vessel was holed and where she scraped. Taconite pellets may have even spilled from her ruptured hull.
"Is that what you found?" I asked.
"I really wish I could say."
We left it at that. He had given me a number of clues to think about. Actually, some very good clues.
Later, another underwater historian similarly told me that if the Fitz had hit the area there would be scum scraped off the rocks, bright granite showing, possibly traces of ore boat bottom paint, and pieces of metal left behind. Hypothetical, of course. But it all made sense. Clearly, it seemed to me, the Fitz bottomed out. Think about it. The Fitz had no trouble before entering the Six Fathom area. It was only after emerging on the other side that Capt. McSorley broadcast the fence cable down, the ballast vents broken, and a list.
The end must have come quickly: the bow digging in but not coming back up; dark waters rushing in over the bow and slamming into the ordinary window-pane glass of the wheelhouse windows, shattering them; and a nightmare torrent likely carrying the wheelsman, the first mate, and the captain to the aft section of the small cabin.
The Fitz submarined at an estimated 28-30 mph. The bow section hit the bottom 530 feet below, plowing a path in the mud. When the bow hit, the 253-foot aft section twisted off and turned upside down, its crew trapped inside.
Later, underwater researchers found a remarkable sight: the wheelhouse door on the port side was dogged open. During the storm, the door would have been locked tight. This suggests a crew member survived the long dive and opened the door.
On the bottom mud, not far away, a body was photographed face down and unidentifiable. It's possible a crew member made it out only to have his personal flotation device collapse at 500 feet. An incredible feat of bravery but a doomed survival attempt.
A few years back, I sailed a catamaran along the Shipwreck Coast leading to Whitefish Point, and I realized that only about 15 miles or so out was where the hulk and all the crew of the Fitz remained. The Big Fitz was so very close to safety at the very place where I would tie up — so very close and yet so very far.
Marlin Bree (marlinbree.com) of St. Paul is the author of numerous books on boating and Lake Superior, including, "Broken Seas: True Tales of Extraordinary Adventures."