Tuesday, July 20, 2010

"Deadliest Catch", the Newt Suit, and an amazing Edmund Fitzgerald exhibit at the Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum

Campus of the Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum, looking out over dangerous waters.
Image taken from shipwreckmuseum.com.

Before starting to watch Deadliest Catch a few years back, I guess I thought shipwrecks were a thing of the past—which is silly, because we still have plane crashes and car crashes, so I don’t know why I would think that a ship would magically no longer be in danger or sink out at sea. I guess I just hadn’t really heard about it, so I hadn’t really thought about it happening.

A particularly rocky moment from The Deadliest Catch on Discovery Channel.
Image taken from in.com.

Then I started watching Deadliest Catch and I realized that it is definitely still happening. For those of you who may not be familiar, it's a show on the Discovery Channel that focuses on about six different boats during crab fishing season, and the hardships these men face in the Bering Sea. The weather conditions are insane, and the hours they're forced to work to make the necessary quotas (and still get back to port by deadline), push human endurance to their limit—and beyond—which is, of course, the fascination. It was while watching this show that I learned that vessels large and small sink quite regularly.

The USS Edmund Fitzgerald on the water.
Image taken from zotzelectrical.com.

The Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum has an exhibit focusing on the most significant recent shipwreck—and probably the most famous, thanks in part to the song by Gordon Lightfoot—to occur on the Great Lakes: the sinking of the U.S.S. Edmund Fitzgerald.

Local press coverage of the Fitzgerald loss.
Image taken from live.com.

The Fitzgerald was one of the largest freighters traversing the waters of the Great Lakes throughout the 1960's and 70's, and though it had been moving iron ore for a good 17 years, the ship was known for breaking speed records and carrying the heaviest loads (both qualities frequently attributed to the ships on Deadliest Catch, albeit on a smaller scale and with more edible cargo). CAPTAIN ERNEST M. SORLEY had thirty years of experience when he and his ship left Superior, Wisconsin and headed for Zug Island near Detroit, Michigan. En route, they were hit by a devastating gale with winds in excess of 55 miles an hour, as well as gusts of up to 75 mph. Because the locks at Sault Saint Marie were closed, and the waves in the bay to the south were known to be even stronger, the Captain took the ship on a path north, closer to Canada, to what he hoped would be safer waters. It was November 10, 1975.

Whitefish Bay on Lake Superior, looking north.
The land mass in the distance is Canada.

At 3:30 p.m. Captain Sorley reported to the Anderson that he had lost his radar and the freighter was listing slightly.

Radio communications between Sorley and the Anderson, which had been following not far behind the Fitzgerald, provide some clues to the fate of the Fitzgerald, as well as the recorded comments of Captain Bernie Cooper and First Mate Morgan Clark of the Anderson:

“He’s in too close to that six-fathom spot.”
Note: a fathom is six feet. This is in reference to the Carabou Shoals; a shoal is a sandbank.
“He sure does, he’s too close. He’s closer than I’d want this ship to be.”

At 5:30 p.m. Captain Sorley reports to another nearby ship, the Avafors, that he had a bad list, no radar, and seas washing over his decks. "One of the worst seas I've ever been in," Sorley said.

At 7:10 p.m. Sorley sent the message "We are holding our own," to the Anderson. This was the last message received.

At 8:32 p.m. the Anderson could no longer detect the Fitzgerald on the radar and Captain Cooper could no longer see her lights.

Image taken from pastforward.ca

Reading this text in the museum, I was reminded of Deadliest Catch and the tension of the boat captains when another ship is in danger or waiting for the U.S. Coast Guard to make it to a sick or injured man. It seems that being out to sea is similar to being in a war: the intensity, the proximity to peril, and the challenges of doing a job in those circumstances creates a brotherhood, a bond. There is a loneliness to life at sea, and yet they aren’t alone, because all those who work there share an understanding of the waters, her boats, and the kind of life it demands, and they all have each other’s backs. You certainly don’t want to be the one that goes down, but you also don’t want to be the one who, like Captain Cooper on that night 35 years ago, looks out where to the Fitzgerald had been holding her own, and, instead of her lights, sees only darkness.

Diver in a Newt Suit looks into the deck of the Fitzgerald wreck.
Image taken from epicfu.com

For many years these audio recordings were the only tangible evidence we had to try and piece together what forced the Fitzgerald's crew into Superior’s frigid waters. If she was indeed at the six-fathom spot, then she was in only 36 feet of water; the "depth" of the ship, from the bottom of the hull to the deck, was 39 feet. Hitting a shoal could have damaged the hull, allowing water into the hold. There are other hypotheses, however: one is that a rogue wave—or a series of waves known as a "Three Sisters"—may have been involved. A Three Sisters, where a big wave comes from behind followed quickly by one from each side, doesn't allow a boat time to right itself, driving it under. The Anderson reported being hit by two such waves. Another theory is that one of the hatches wasn't properly secured, and water from the waves coming over the deck gradually filled the hold, which already contained a heavy load of iron ore, resulting in a sudden catastrophic loss of buoyancy that plunged the ship to the lake bottom before the crew had a chance to react.

Newt Suit on display in the Edmund Fitzgerald exhibit at
the Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum.

In 1995, a diving crew using the NEWT SUIT underwent a mission to retrieve the ship’s bell of the Edmund Fitzgerald (the Newt suit is an atmospheric pressurized diving suit, originally developed by Canadian engineer Phil Nuytten). In its place, they left a bell engraved with the names of the 29 men that were lost with the ship. A ceremony was held, ringing the bell for each of the 29 men, and then a 30th time for the 6,000 ships lost in the Great Lakes.

Original ship's bell rescued from the wreckage of the Edmund Fitzgerald.
On display at the Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum.

The wreck site of Fitzgerald will no longer be explored, and will remain a memorial to all those who have lost their lives in the Great Lakes., bell

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