There was no SOS call. There was no word why the ship, whose experienced captain had just radioed that Fitzgerald was "holding our own," abruptly vanished, killing all 29 aboard.
How did the star of the Great Lakes fleet disappear beneath the waves, with her lifeboats lashed to the deck and her radio silent?
Twenty-five years after the tragedy that sparked the "The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald," by Gordon Lightfoot, we have some answers.
So don your life jacket and board your lifeboat. The Why Files is heading into the cold, stormy waters of Lake Superior to learn why the Fitzgerald went down -- and whether it could happen again.
Here's what happened, with thanks to our friends at the Cooperative Institute for Meteorological Satellite Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
did the good ship go down?
While mariners cannot control wind speed or duration, they can reduce fetch, which explains why the two ships headed toward Canada. Unfortunately, crude forecasts concerning wind speed and direction put the Fitzgerald in harm's way. According to Jonathan Martin, assistant professor of atmospheric and oceanic science at UW-Madison, the storm was far more intense than predicted. While the Weather Service forecast winds from 28 to 42 knots, they actually exceeded 70 knots -- hurricane force. Gusts reached 85 knots.
Combine that with the premature shift of wind direction -- and leaks aboard the Fitzgerald that caused her to ride low in the water -- and you have a recipe for disaster.
Educated guesses based on examinations of the wreck indicate that the ship plowed into a wave. Her cargo shifted forward, her stern reared out of the water, and she sank before a radio call could be issued -- let alone before anyone could get into a lifeboat.
A grid is like a sieve. Just as sand falls through a coarse sieve, small, intense storms can fall through a coarse meteorological grid. A finer grid, in contrast, "catches" more storms, and allows finer-grained forecasts.
These improvements were tested precisely 23 years after the Fitzgerald sinking. On Nov. 10, 1998, a Lake Superior storm that Martin describes as "at least as intense, it was almost an exact replica, it developed very rapidly over the exact same path."
This time, however, ships had adequate warning, and "there were no incidents at sea."
In a way, better forecasts are a self-fulfilling prophecy. In 1975, if you were in port and a storm was forecast for tomorrow, you might consider sailing because two-day forecasts were accurate only 50 percent of the time.
Today's two-day forecasts are much more accurate, Martin says. In the same situation, "a person would not put himself at risk."
-- David Tenenbaum
shipwreck tales at The
Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum.
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