Sept 23, 2021
By Rod Morris, CCGA crew
Clearing the standing wave Michipicoten River (near Wawa) Eric Rogers photo
The last big freighter to go down on the Great Lakes with a loss of life was the Edmund Fitzgerald, November 10, 1975. 29 crew perished. No bodies were recovered. It is a loss Sault Search and Rescue auxiliary remember, respect, and one that motivates their training and readiness. The Soo’s mid-July 2021 training exercise plan included a pilgrimage to the wreck.
Standard operating procedure: Checking radios prior to heading out Photo Rod Morris
The crew had three objectives that day: (1) Navigate by compass and GPS to a buoy 4nm distant: Identify. (2) Wear and use new portable radio sets to improve communications aboard 19ft. Coast Guard Auxiliary open cockpit RHIB – Argonaut. (3) Ping the Edmund Fitzgerald: Distance – 13nm Whitefish Bay; Depth – 520ft.
The navigation exercise went smoothly. After the radio check the radios worked as expected. However, the crew had to depend on the skipper to identify the West Cardinal Buoy’s – Yellow Black Yellow – “Safe water to the West” message. The buoy marked one of many shoals in Canadian waters that are part of Lake Superior’s north eastern passage. One such shoal is a suspect in the loss of our famous wreck.
There was a light rain as we loaded the lat and long for our search. With current conditions we expected to cover the 13nm distance in under an hour. Superior had other plans. True to its nature it quickly whipped up a near gale. After a 30 minute ride the helmsman confirmed, “…winds over 25 knots with waves 2 metres and building”. Crisp and clear over the radio’s headphones the Canadian Coast Guard then broadcast “Small Craft Warnings for Whitefish Bay” the ship’s resting place and our destination. And added “Thunderstorms possible.” The spirit of Superior had withdrawn the welcome mat.
Any change of course is the coxswain’s call. However lightning limits the options during an auxiliary exercise. We turned back and sought shelter along the coast. During the Witch of November storm in 1975 the Edmund Fitzgerald wasn’t so lucky. The winds reached a rare in-land Category 1 hurricane status at 80+ mph. The waves were over 10 metres. An extended search and rescue effort with both Canadian and U.S. Coast Guard assets only found life jackets and wreckage. U.S. Coast Guard aviators found the ship in Canadian waters. The site was later confirmed with a submersible drone’s camera. Maritime records include over 6,000 shipwrecks on “Big Sea”, Lake Superior’s name in Ojibwe.
The Salmon Derby’s 60 boats are now safely off Lake Superior ahead of the storm Eric Rogers photo
The early November storms are the worst on Lake Superior. Although The Witch of November can appear without warning anytime. She is dark and threatening. She was there on that July exercise day when the waters roiled and the waves and wind appeared to come from every Cardinal direction. It was easy to imagine the evil spirit in that weather.
Sault Search and Rescue continues to go out in all conditions. Weeks later August welcomed the 39th Annual Wawa Salmon Derby at Buck’s Marina. The derby has a 25+ year history with the auxiliary. All the while working with the OPP and MNR – accident free. Over 60 boats participated. Lots of fish were caught but Sunday the derby was called on account of weather on Superior. Plus a small fishing vessel had to be pulled out of a small cove at the mouth of the river. The standing wave and the wind trapped the boat’s bow into the rocky shoreline. Expert boatmanship and towing experience freed the trapped crew and saved the imminent boat damage. It was the same CCGA unit and boat that tested Superior in July heading to Whitefish Bay.
The Sault Search and Rescue unit was commissioned around the same time the Edmund Fitzgerald was built in the late 50’s. At the time, the freighter was the largest ship on the Great Lakes. The historic 1975 loss of crew, captain and ship was tragic. The fact that it is the last freighter to sink with loss of life on our Great Lakes may give some sailors comfort. This auxiliary unit takes small comfort, remembers and stands at the ready.