May 15, 2021

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7:15 AM | *The role of the weather in “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald” on November 10th, 1975* — Perspecta Weather

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Late on the afternoon of the 10th, the captain of the Edmund Fitzgerald made radio contact with another ship, the Avafor, and reported that they “had a bad list, had lost both radars, and was taking heavy seas over the deck in one of the worst seas he had ever been in.” Captain McSorely was a seasoned sailor of the Great Lakes with 44 years of experience and this incredibly was to be his final voyage before retirement. At 7 p.m., the Anderson made radio contact with the Edmund Fitzgerald and had her on their radar. When asked how the Edmund Fitzgerald was making out (around 7:10 pm) they replied “we are holding our own”. Shortly afterwards the Edmund Fitzgerald disappeared from the Anderson’s radar screen. No distress signals were ever issued. The Anderson reported the missing Edmund Fitzgerald to the U.S. Coast Guard. After conducting a heroic, but futile search of the area for survivors, the Anderson entered into the protection of Whitefish Bay from the stormy Lake Superior in the early hours of November 11. The Edmund Fitzgerald sank in 530 feet of water about 17 miles from Whitefish Bay, near the cities of Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan, and Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario.

Gordon Lightfoot’s song “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald”

The story of the Edmund Fitzgerald was made famous one year later by Canadian songwriter Gordon Lightfoot’s who was inspired to write the ballad “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald” (1976, Moose Music, Ltd.) after reading an article about the tragedy in Newsweek. He included the song on his 1976 album Summertime Dream, and the nearly six-minute single reached #2 on the Billboard Hot 100 charts that year and became Lightfoot’s second-most successful hit (his most successful hit was Sundown which went to #1 on the charts in June 1974).

The song was a tribute to the ship wreck and to the men who lost their lives. Some of the lyrics of the song made it sound as though the crew knew they were doomed. In reality, it is believed that the sinking of the Edmund Fitzgerald was very rapid and it is likely they did not know the seriousness of their condition. Indeed, after the wreck a severely damaged life boat was found and only part of the second. The condition of the lifeboats suggests that no attempts were made to leave the ship.

The legend lives on from the Chippewa on down
Of the big lake they call Gitche Gumee
The lake, it is said, never gives up her dead
When the skies of November turn gloomy
With a load of iron ore twenty-six thousand tons more
Than the Edmund Fitzgerald weighed empty
[Former version:] That good ship and true was a bone to be chewed
[Latter version:] That good ship and crew was a bone to be chewed
When the gales of November came early

The ship was the pride of the American side
Coming back from some mill in Wisconsin
As the big freighters go, it was bigger than most
With a crew and good captain well seasoned
Concluding some terms with a couple of steel firms
When they left fully loaded for Cleveland
Then later that night when the ship’s bell rang
Could it be the north wind they’d been feelin’?

The wind in the wires made a tattle-tale sound
When the wave broke over the railing
And every man knew, as the captain did too
‘Twas the witch of November come stealin’
The dawn came late and the breakfast had to wait
When the gales of November came slashin’
When afternoon came it was freezing rain
In the face of a hurricane west wind

When suppertime came, the old cook came on deck
Saying, “Fellas, it’s too rough to feed ya.”
[Former version:] At seven PM a main hatchway caved in
[Latter version:] At seven PM it grew dark, it was then
He said, “Fellas, it’s been good to know ya.”
The captain wired in he had water comin’ in
And the good ship and crew was in peril
And later that night when his lights went out of sight
Came the wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald
Does anyone know where the love of God goes
When the waves turn the minutes to hours?
The searchers all say they’d have made Whitefish Bay
If they’d put fifteen more miles behind her
They might have split up or they might have capsized
They may have broke deep and took water
And all that remains is the faces and the names
Of the wives and the sons and the daughters

Lake Huron rolls, Superior sings
In the rooms of her ice-water mansion
Old Michigan steams like a young man’s dreams
The islands and bays are for sportsmen
And farther below, Lake Ontario
Takes in what Lake Erie can send her
And the iron boats go as the mariners all know
With the gales of November remembered

[Former version:] In a musty old hall in Detroit they prayed
[Latter version:] In a rustic old hall in Detroit they prayed
In the Maritime Sailors’ Cathedral
The church bell chimed ’til it rang twenty-nine times
For each man on the Edmund Fitzgerald
The legend lives on from the Chippewa on down
Of the big lake they call Gitche Gumee
Superior, they said, never gives up her dead
When the gales of November come early

-Gordon Lightfoot, “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald” (1976) [Credit to for the lyrics].

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