OT: Anniversary of the Edmund FItzgerald

Submitted by Go.Blue.Hail on November 10th, 2015 at 11:35 AM

Today, November 10th, is the 40th anniversary of the sinking of the Edmund Fitzgerald. Obviously, the song sprung from the event by the eloquent Gordon Lightfoot is of great importance to our fearless leader Jim Harbaugh.

So, let us remember this tragedy and honor those who lost their lives to the witch of November.

 

"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."

Comments

M-Dog

November 10th, 2015 at 12:46 PM ^

Old man editorial:

It's sad, but an epic song like this could never be made today.  Today we all live in our own little self-contained bubbles where we only hear "our" stuff . . . hip hop, rock, rap, country, whatever.  There is very little crossover.

Oh for the glory of Top 40 where you would hear "The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald" by Gordon Lightfoot, "Disco Duck" by Rick Dees, "Walk This Way" by Aerosmith, and "Dancing Queen" by Abba, all back to back . . . whether you wanted to or not!

 

FauxMo

November 10th, 2015 at 11:48 AM ^

I have a feeling the cook never said, "fellas, it's too rough to feed ya." It was probably more like, "JESUS CHRIST is it stormy out here. Fuck this, I am going back below deck and cooking for myself. The rest of you are on your own, suckers."

True Blue Grit

November 10th, 2015 at 11:52 AM ^

As a naval architect, I've always been fascinated with the whole story and aftermath of the disaster.  Fortunately, a lot of changes were made which made navigation on the Great Lakes much safer in the years since then.   Even in 1975, technology on these ore carriers wasn't very high compared to today.  The Fitzgerald didn't even have a depth finder nor radar.  So, on the fateful night, they had to rely on limited visibility, navigation charts, and a compass. 

Although there has never been a definitive conclusion reached on the cause of the wreck, and there were clearly a number of factors which contributed to it.  But I believe based on all I've read that the ship was structurally weak compared to other similar ships.  This was partly due to the design and partly the questionable way the hull was welded together.  Although it could survive most Great Lakes storms, the one that night was just too much for it.  Interestingly, the Fitz's sister ship was taken out of service only 5 years after this, and scrapped some 8 years later.   Normally, these fresh water ships last many more years than that. 

JFW

November 10th, 2015 at 12:03 PM ^

"Even in 1975, technology on these ore carriers wasn't very high compared to today.  The Fitzgerald didn't even have a depth finder nor radar."

 

I thought the Fitz had Radar, but the storm knocked it out. Also, didn't they have LORAN on both her and the Arther Anderson? 

:Interestingly, the Fitz's sister ship was taken out of service only 5 years after this, and scrapped some 8 years later"

Wow. I didn't know that. Heck, some of the Lakers have lasted nearly 100 years. The sweetwater boats last a long, long time. 

Didn't Fitz get a hull plug too? The hull girder on those things, with little in the way of partitioning on the inside, just seems like its going to be hugely stressed right from the get go. I'm not sure how they handle it with the 1000ft self unloaders. 

Also, they never seem to have had much in the way of HP. I remember reading about an early ore carrier that got stuck in a storm and basically got blown backwards because the wind and waves overpowered its something like 2300 SHP steam engine. 

 

 

True Blue Grit

November 10th, 2015 at 12:22 PM ^

Now that I think about it.  Thanks for catching that.

The other thing I read about the Fitzgerald sister ship was that reportedly, the owner refused to let a Coast Guard representative go out on the lakes on the ship.  Maybe they were trying to hide something?  Hard to say.

The ship had no watertight partition bulkheads in the cargo area.  They had some sort of partitions, but they were definitely not watertight and probably added little strength.  One issue with the design of these long lake  bulk carriers is they are long with relatively shallow depths and beams.  Other things being equial this makes them behave more like flexible beams in heavy seas.  So, the thickness of key structural members and hull plating, as well as the way it's assembled are extremely important.   The accounts of several seamen who served on the Fitzgerald indicate pretty strongly the ship had a lot of "give" in heavy wave condtions even resulting in large areas of paint cracking and splitting on the inside of the hull plating due to the flexing of the hull.  

Yes, the engines on all these bulk carriers are pretty low power since they don't travel very fast from port to port.  It keeps the fuel costs way down.  The Fitzgerald at that time probably had steam power, but in the years since, almost all the ships have been converted to diesel.

True Blue Grit

November 10th, 2015 at 1:01 PM ^

But I was more in the construction end of it vs. the design end.  Worked for several shipyards.  My only "claim to fame" was being lead project planner on the Exxon Valdez for a brief time.  But I will go on record as saying I had nothing to do with that ship's lack of a double bottom, which led to one of the biggest environmental catastrophe's ever in Alaska.  At the time, it was actually allowed by U.S. law.  That doesn't make sense of course, since why would the risk of going aground be less in intercoastal trade vs. trans oceanic?  It was probably some allowance to Big Oil to keep their costs down since building the double bottom is more expensive.  But, it would have prevented the huge oil spill in the case of the Valdez. 

JFW

November 10th, 2015 at 3:20 PM ^

Those ships are amazing.Even if you weren't in design it sounds like a sweet job. 

 

But I hate hearing stories about someone on the business end cutting stuff like that. 'We'll just be transporting tons and tons of oil. Double bottom? Nahhh...."

JFW

November 10th, 2015 at 3:18 PM ^

I used to see displays there when I'd walk in to work on the computing lab there. 

 

It was always my last stop of the night; so while I was autoloading the PC's and macs for the next mornings class (for fun I always changed the color scheme to Hot Dog Stand on the windows machines) I'd look at the stuff in the hallway. 

True Blue Grit

November 10th, 2015 at 6:31 PM ^

maybe West Hall as they call it today.  I'm a little surprised the NAME department has never been able to raise the funds to build a new one on North Campus.  Maybe they haven't tried that hard since the existing tank still works so well.  They get a lot of business from industry testing various hull forms there.  

JFW

November 10th, 2015 at 3:16 PM ^

its fascinating. 

 

Growing up around the lakes I have a love for the Ore carriers. I used to peruse boatnerd.com alot. 

They are great for what they do (move alot of cargo around the lakes) and majestic in their own way (I remember being a little boy and not being all that impressed when I heard the Titanic was 800 ft. long). 

So its really interesting to hear more about them from an engineering standpoint. 

FauxMo

November 10th, 2015 at 12:08 PM ^

Neither here nor there, but I have a house in northern Michigan, and a few years ago (2012, I think?) we had incredibly bad storms. In fact, a tree fell on my house during the storms. But in the aftermath the local news reported that it was the lowest barometric pressure reading in the area since the night of the Edmund Fitzgerald disaster.

stephenrjking

November 10th, 2015 at 12:19 PM ^

If the Fitz hadn't sunk, it would probably still be shipping today. The Arthur Anderson, the nearby ship it was buddied to and communicating with in the storm, still operates today; I see it here in Duluth periodically. There is a ship laid up in our harbor that could theoretically return to service if needed (not likely) that has a confirmed kill from its days as a freighter in WWII.

The sinking anniversary is a big deal up here, naturally. I sail past the docks that the Fitzgerald loaded its last cargo from occasionally in the summer.

UMgradMSUdad

November 10th, 2015 at 6:38 PM ^

As True Blue Grit mentioned above, the Fitz was poorly designed so most likely would have suffered the same fate as its sister ship:

"Although there has never been a definitive conclusion reached on the cause of the wreck, and there were clearly a number of factors which contributed to it.  But I believe based on all I've read that the ship was structurally weak compared to other similar ships.  This was partly due to the design and partly the questionable way the hull was welded together.  Although it could survive most Great Lakes storms, the one that night was just too much for it.  Interestingly, the Fitz's sister ship was taken out of service only 5 years after this, and scrapped some 8 years later.   Normally, these fresh water ships last many more years than that. "

RadioMuse

November 10th, 2015 at 12:25 PM ^

I know there was an era when the used to retire ocean-going vestiles to the Great Lakes but then a lot of them broke up because of the choppy nature of the waves in the 'Lake caused metal fatigue so much faster than the swells of the ocean. The thought was that the fresh water didn't erode the hulls so they'd last longer with less maintainance and that you're usually closer to aid (shore, other ships)  than you would be on the oceans.

There were a rather surprising number of shipwrecks on the Great Lakes during the 50s, 60s and into the 70s due to ships spontaniously breaking up when caught in the storms. Obviously the navigational aides of the time were also far worse (especially in stormy conditions) but aides don't stop your hull breaking apart from the waves.

I'd beleive a lot of the WWII era vestles that still traverse the 'Lakes were built more to military rather than civilian spec, and are far more durable as a result.

I don't know if the Edmund Fitzgerald was of that era of thinking or not - but it was purpose-built as a Great Lakes freighter. If I recall correctly the main (suspected) culprit was the design of the cargo hatch seals, which in large swells could cause the Fitz to take on some water. Under most circumstances the ship had enough pump capacity to deal with this, but this was a particularly bad storm. The additional ballest caused additional loading well beyond the rated capacity of the ship, which coupled with the waves resulted in strutural failure. It's known that the ship broken in two, but it's believed that the split actually happened as or (immidiately) before the ship capsized.

But I was just really into shipwrecks for a little while as a kid.  I'm no navel architect.

 

stephenrjking

November 10th, 2015 at 12:36 PM ^

There aren't many WWII era freighters around anymore. The American Victory, which I described above,mis in long term layup and may never ship again. It's not because they couldn't be used, but just because they're not needed anymore. Newer, existing boats have been lengthened and refitted, and the thousand-footers the upper lakes can now hold have much larger capacities. Shipping companies just don't need as many boats to do the same work as they used to.

And even then, in low years not all the boats are used. The 1000-foot Walter McCarthy has been parked in the harbor for most of the summer because it's a low-volume year.

True Blue Grit

November 10th, 2015 at 1:16 PM ^

10,000 shipwrecks on the lakes since ships started navigating on them 300 years ago or so.  I'm not sure how accurate that number is, but one person who tracks those statistics thinks so.

The cargo hatch seals may be the most hotly debated issue with the Fitzgerald sinking.  It was common practice on most of these bulk carriers that not all the clamps on the cargo hatches would be "dogged" in a shut position.  There were quite a few of them and often the crew didn't get around to securing all of them.  This was almost never an issue since they rarely were in seas high enough where water was crashing on top of the hatch covers.  Obviously, November 10th 1975 was a whole other story.  What IS known for sure is that the ship was taking in water from some source.  The captain reported a significant list (ship tilting to either port or starboard) in the hours before the ship sank, and that they were running their pumps to try and remove the water.  Whether this water had come in from improperly secured hatch covers, or the several vent pipes that had broken off, or from some crack/failure of the hull somewhere below is unknown.  Some people theorize it had hit a shoal some miles back and the water was leaking in from the keel area.  But, divers checking the shoal sometime later found no evidence of any grounding.

Apparently, another issue was that shortly before the Fitzgerald's last trip, the Coast Guard had issued some policy that allowed something like 3 feet less of freeboard (distance from the waterline to the main deck), which meant they could carry more cargo.  But, this also reduces the margin of error the ship has if stability is lost - from say water coming in.  

So, I'm guessing the water coming in from wherever, definitely had an effect on the ship sinking. 

UMich87

November 10th, 2015 at 3:34 PM ^

I haven't been aboard a freighter since 1983, but we only skipped dogging them all down in the summer (also left hatch covers off on sunny days while underway to dry the hold after cleaning it to switch from taconite, ore or coal to grain).  Any iffy weather and late in the year, we were water tight.

On the freeboard issue, you could only run deep on the lower lakes.  Rock Cut and other stretches of the St. Mary's River, as well as relative lake levels (but we were in the long high water cycle that lasted until a few years ago) constrained how deep you could load.  If you were running stone or pellets from Stoneport, Presque Isle or Escanaba and heading to Inland or US Steel or Burns Harbor at the bottom of Lake Michigan, you were constrained only by the Coast Guard regulations on how deep you could load.  Well, physics would eventually constrain you.

True Blue Grit

November 10th, 2015 at 6:39 PM ^

That makes a lot of sense.  In summer, the weather is generally very calm other than the occasional localized thunderstorm.   So, not dogging down every clamp is no big deal.  In the case of the Fitzgerald, surveys of the wreck seemed to make it unclear as to the extent the hatch clamps were all secured.  When you have a shipwreck where there was that much "trauma" for wont of a better term, you don't know what caused the final condition of the hatch areas.  

UMich87

November 10th, 2015 at 3:23 PM ^

gave 3 theories: rogue wave, lost hatch cover and grounding.  At least that is what I remember from reading a book on the sinking 30+ years ago.  Author Frederick Stonehouse leaned toward the ship striking bottom on Caribou Island Shoal.  Captain of the Arthur M. Anderson always maintained that his radar track of the Fitzgerald showed it passing closer to the shoal than he would have cared to have been.  Canadian surveys later showed that the shoal extends miles further from the island than the charts indicated.

I graduated from the Great Lakes Maritime Academy before attending U of M. I sailed on 5 different freighters in the early 80's, and LORAN C was on all of the ships, and we learned it was the wave of the future at the academy.  Sat Nav turned it into the Betamax of navigational aids.

As far as sinkings in the 50's - 70's, the only big ships lost that I remember were the Carl D. Bradley, Daniel J. Morrell, Cedarville, Nordmeer and the Fitzgerald.  At least one of them was attributed to brittle steel (carbon content?) and another one started the rivets v. welded seams discussion.