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Wednesday, November 09, 2005

Thirty years ago tonight, the Queen of the Great Lakes began her journey into a hurricane.

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 - 26,000 tons more
Than the Edmund Fitzgerald weighed empty
That good ship and true 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 the Captain well seasoned.
Concluding some terms with a couple of steel firms
When they left fully loaded for Cleveland
And later that night when the ships bell rang
Could it be the North Wind they'd been feeling.

The wind in the wires made a tattletale sound
And a wave broke over the railing
And every man knew, as the Captain did, too,
T'was the witch of November come stealing.
The dawn came late and the breakfast had to wait
When the gales of November came slashing
When afternoon came it was freezing rain
In the face of a hurricane West Wind

When supper time came the old cook came on deck
Saying fellows it's too rough to feed ya
At 7PM a main hatchway caved in
He said fellas it's been good to know ya.
The Captain wired in he had water coming 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 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 ruins 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.

In a musty old hall in Detroit they prayed
In the Maritime Sailors' Cathedral
The church bell chimed, 'til it rang 29 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 say, never gives up her dead
When the gales of November come early.

So goes the immortal song by Gordon Lightfoot.
The last words ever heard from the Edmund Fitzgerald came from her captain, who said "We are holding our own" in response to a query from the Arthur Anderson, another ore carrier that was tailing the Fitzgerald in the late evening of November 10th.
The mixed bag that is the Detroit News has offered some fine coverage of the sinking of the ship, including an interview with one of the two Captains whose ships courageously went out into the teeth of the storm to look for their missing brothers. The crews of the William Clay Ford and the Anderson deserve more renown for their heroic actions of that night, volunteering to head back into the ferocious storm (several other ships, including two stronger ocean-going vessels, refused). The Captain of the Ford asked for a vote by his crew, who agreed to leave safe harbor.

Speaking of brave sailors: if you are ever in the area, stop by Mariners' Church--it is definitely worth a visit. Anglicans will be pleased to note that it is an oasis of '28 BCP sanity.

Why did the Fitzgerald sink? We'll likely never know in this vale of tears, especially since the Jacques Cousteau dive of the wreck didn't provide any new evidence. The two most likely theories are (1) a loose hatch cover or covers (there is documentation of the ship having this problem), which allowed water into the cargo hold, slowly and almost imperceptibly robbing the ship of bouyancy, and (2) the ship getting lost in the weather and straying over some dangerous nearby shoals. Frederick Stonehouse's indispensible book on the subject leans toward Theory #1 (at least in my printing).

What is heartening is that there hasn't been a major ship loss on the Lakes since the Fitzgerald (previously, there had been one every decade as long as records have been kept). However, it is heartening, sobering and appropriate to remember that every mariner experiences what the Psalmist records in Psalm 107, and that most of them these days are delivered of it:

23Some went down to the sea in ships, doing business on the great waters; 24they saw the deeds of the LORD, his wondrous works in the deep. 25For he commanded and raised the stormy wind, which lifted up the waves of the sea. 26They mounted up to heaven; they went down to the depths; their courage melted away in their evil plight; 27they reeled and staggered like drunken men and were at their wits' end.
28Then they cried to the LORD in their trouble, and he delivered them from their distress. 29He made the storm be still, and the waves of the sea were hushed. 30Then they were glad that the waters were quiet, and he brought them to their desired haven. 31Let them thank the LORD for his steadfast love, for his wondrous works to the children of men!

Most, but tragically not all. Take a moment to remember the crew and families of the Fitzgerald, and all who go down to the sea in ships this day.

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