Recovered from the Wayback Machine.
By the way, Fitzgerald, how are you making out with your problem?”
“We are holding our own.”
“Okay, fine. I’ll be talking to you later.”
So ends the last communication between the ore ship The Arthur M. Anderson and the ill-fated ship, The Edmond Fitzgerald. The Fitz, as it was known, went down with all her hands on the night of November 11, 1975, during a gale on the Great Lakes.
She’s been immortalized by being the focus of the haunting ballad, “The Wreck of the Edmond Fitzgeral”, by Gordon Lightfoot.
History is dotted with stories and sagas of ships lost at seas. Each story touches something within us regardless of how long ago the ship was lost. If you doubt that, consider the uproar over the discovery of the Titanic, and the subsequent film of the same name.
Tales of shipwrecks are tragic, and we grieve over the loss of life. At the same time, though, shipwrecks are mysterious and somewhat romatic, or even heroic, and always fascinating.
Wrecks on the open seas
The open sea is still the body of water that claims the most ships, and the most lives, beginning with probably the most famous of shipwrecks, the Titanic.
The Titanic entered into legends on the 15th of April in 1912 when she went down in the Atlantic after hitting an iceberg. Her crew sent an SOS message with the words “We have struck an iceberg sinking fast come to our assistance”, but help would arrive too late to save the more than 1500 souls lost when the Titanic sank.
To most of us the Titanic is remembered as the greatest maritime disaster of all time though other shipwrecks have taken more lives. However, there’s something about an unsinkable ship going down on its maiden voyage, lost in the cold dark waters of the Atlantic that is haunting. Add to this the ship’s band playing “Nearer my God to thee” as it went down, and you have the stuff of legends.
Probably no shipwreck is as well understood now as that of the Titanic. We know that the captain of the vessel, E. J. Smith, was on his last voyage and wanted to bring the ship in within record time and ordered the ship’s speed increased. Add to this a moonless, dark night, too few lookouts each inadequately equipped, and ignored warnings about icebergs in the area, and it isn’t all that surprising that the ship hits an iceberg.
The Titanic and the loss of life suffered from this shipwreck were all the result of arrogance. Arrogance on the part of the White Star Line (owner of the Titanic) dispensing with the correct number of life rafts because it would spoil the lines of the ship. Arrogance on the part of the Captain to disregard warnings and take even the most basic of precautions.
Arrogance on everyone’s part to believe humanity can ever create an unsinkable ship.
World War II Tragedies
The greatest shipwreck tragedies in history were not the result of icebergs or foul weather or other natural event, but because of war.
On December 7, 1941, the United States entered World War II suddenly when Japanese planes bombed Perl Harbor in Hawaii. Among the lost, the USS Arizona was sent to the bottom with a loss of 1177 crew.
Two shipwrecks during the war caught my attention because, between them, they are the worst shipwrecks in history in regards to loss of human life. The ships were the Lancastria, sunk by German planes on June 17, 1940; and the Wilhelm Gustloff, sunk by Russian planes January 20, 1945.
Little is known about the sinking of the Lancastria, as the information is still held under the Official Secrets Act at the order of Winston Churchill and all official records are sealed until 2040. What is known is that the Lancastria was tapped by England to be a troop carrier after the start of World War II. On June 17, 1940, Captain Sharp was told to aid in a troop and refuge evacuation from the shores of France and to disregard passenger limit laws. Though an exact count of passengers is unknown, an estimate put the number of people on the Lancastria this day between 6000 and 9000 people.
As the ship got underway, German planes appeared in the sky and starting bombing the rescue ship. Another rescure ship, Oronsay was hit first, but the Lancastria was next getting hit by 4 bombs.
People jumped into the water as the ship rapidly started to sink, and the German planes started shooting at the survivors. By the time the action was finished, only 2500 people were pulled from the waters that day — losses were estimated (only estimated) at between 3500 and 5500 souls.
The Allies were not the only ones to suffer losses in the sea. On January 30, 1945, the German rescue ship Wilhelm Gustloff was in the Baltic carrying wounded German soldiers and refuges from Eastern Prussia when it was hit with three Russian torpedoes and sank rapidly. The waters were frigid and most of those who jumped off the ship died from exposure or from being pulled under by the sinking ship. All total, over 7000 souls died with the sinking of the Wilhelm Gustloff.
In one case, the tragedy of the sinking of a ship and loss of life, is compounded by the tragedy suffered by its crew after the ship has gone down. The first tragedy was the sinking of the USS Indianapolis, on July 30, 1945. The second tragedy was how the United States Government and the US Navy in particular handled this shipwreck.
The USS Indianapolis carried the first atomic bomb to the an island near Guam, and was sunk by a Japanese submarine on its return trip. Tragedy one. Of the 1196 people on board, 900 survived to make it into the seas. Before going down the crew sent distress calls, but no rescue was initiated; this was the beginning of the second tragedy of this ship.
In the nightmare days that followed the sinking of the Indianapolis, the survivers were killed, one by one, by sharks in the area, or died from drinking the salt water or through their injuries and the exposure. They stayed in the waters for five days, until they were accidentally discovered by a Navy pilot. By this time, only 300 survived to tell this tale.
One of the survivers was her captain, who was then subsequently court martialed, ostensibly because the captain did not use a zig zagging course to make it a more difficult target to hit. Conjecture is that someone had to be blamed for this awful tragedy, and the captain was picked.
The Perfect Storm
Warning: The Perfect Storm Movie Spoiler ahead
It seems that tragedy and boats work well for Hollywood as the release of the movie Titanic and the recent release of The Perfect Storm, have demonstrated. Where the two differ is that the central characters in the Perfect Storm were very, very real, and the tragedy happened in just the last decade.
The Perfect Storm is about an incredible storm (actually three storms melded into one major storm) that hit the coast of New England in November, 1991. The storm was given no name at the time (it spanned more than one storm category), and eventually became known as The Perfect Storm.
During the storm, the Andrea Gail, a fishing boat hailing from Gloucester, Mass, lost its fight against seas with waves towering over 100 feet in height, with the loss of all the crew.
Lake and Domestic Shipwrecks
Not all shipwrecks occur in open seas. This article began with coverage of the Edmond Fitgerald shipwreck, which occurred on the Great Lakes. The Lakes has more than its shares of sunken ships and tragic tales, primarily due to the adverse weather that can hit these lakes.
In 1905, the infamous “Mataafa Storm”, considered one of the worst storms to hit the Great Lakes, was responsible for the loss of 18 ships, including the Amboy, a three-masted schooner, the George Spencer, and the Madeira. The loss of life from this storm was 36 souls, but this number would have been higher if not for an incredibly brave, and quick thinking, sailer on the Madeira.
When the Madeira crashed on to the rocks during the storm, it began to break up. Fred Benson, one of the ship’s crew, jumped from the ship to the rocks, holding on to line he pulled from the ship. He climbed a cliff next to the ship and dropped the line down to the bow, rescuing three men. He then dropped the line down to the stern, rescusing five more. The only person lost was the first mate, who went down with the ship before he could climb to safety.
The Empress of Ireland a Canadian steamer, sank in 14 minutes when she was struck by a Norwegian ship, the Storstad, in the Gulf of St. Lawrence on the 29th of May, 1914. The Storstad had an ice breaking steel bow, and the Empress of Ireland received devastating damage, sinking too quickly for most to reach the lifeboats. Over 1000 souls were lost in this shipwreck.
When we lived on Lake Champlaign, a shipwreck was found that belonged to a fleet headed by Benedict Arnold, as he engaged in a battle with superior British forces on October 11, 1776 (Arnold not having made his fateful decision to switch sides, at the time).
This ship, a gunboat with a 50 foot mast and cannon still in place, was one of several ships lost, including the loss of 10 percent of Arnold’s men. Two ships were sunk by the British, and Arnold sank five himself, to keep them from falling into British hands.
Other shipwrecks that occurred in the past are discussed in the next section.
Shipwrecks Prior to the 1900’s
Some of the worst shipwrecks of all time have occurred in this last century primarily because we build larger ships carrying more people. A ship sinking now can mean the loss of thousands of people, as we have seen with earlier stories. Additionally, it seems as if more people are on the waters than at any other time in history. However, history does have its share of interesting shipwrecks.
The Swedish warship the Kronan exploded and sank on June 1, 1676, just before Sweden was to engage in a battle with with an allied Danish-Dutch fleet. The Kronan took 800 men with her to her watery grave in the Baltic sea.
Another Swedish ship that ended up under the sea and in history is the Vasa, which carried 64 cannons. However, these cannons never saw action because the Vasa sank the day it was launched, in front of a huge crowd of spectators. Not only did the ship sink, it sank so fast that up to 50 people on board the ship were trapped with her when she went down.
The Vasa was discovered in 1956, and salvaged in 1961. A museum was created to house the ship, one of the most complete and best preserved ships of the time. However, the most unnerving aspect of salvaging this ship is that she still contained 25 skeletons of the people who had gone down with this ship.
In September of 1653 Oliver Cromwell sent troops to crush the Scottish royalists as they faught for Charles II. Among the ships was the Speedwell of Lyn. Upon arriving at Scotland, the soldiers found that the Scots has left the coast and moved inland to a stronger castle. However, before the ships could leave, a gale hit the anchored ships and the Speedwell of Lyn was capsized taking 23 men. According to a report from Colonel Liburne, in charge of the expedition, the ship went down “…in sight of our man at land, who saw their friends drowning, and heard them crying for help, but could not save them.”
Another shipwreck has an interesting history, not so much for when the ship sank, as what caused the ship to sink. This is the wreck of the Maine, an event that ultimately led to a war between the United States and Spain. In fact, a rallying cry during the war was “Remember the Maine and the hell with Spain”
During tensions between Spain and the United States over Cuba at the end of the last century, President McKinley sent the Maine to Cuba in January of 1898, to show an American presence in the area. On the night of February 15, a huge explosion destroyed the Maine, and killed 250 men instantly, with 16 others dying over time from injuries related to the explosion.
An investigation of the Maine at the time led to the belief that the Maine was destroyed by a mine, though there was no direct accusation was levied against Spain. However, anger about the Maine was strong and eventually we were in the midst of the Spanish-American war.
In 1911, engineers were to evacuate the water from around the Maine and an investigation was again made about what sank the Maine. Again, investigators believed that the explosion was a result of a mine or some other externally applied explosion. We’re now done yet. In 1974, Admiral Hyman Rickover opened yet another investigation of what cauesd the Maine to sink. This time the investigation came to a conclusion that the explosion on the ship was from an internal, not external source; something such as a coal bunker near the weapons.
No, not at the end of this story yet. In 1998, the National Geographic and Advanced Marine Enterprises (AME) also investigated the Maine evidence and their finding was that it was most likely a mine that sank the Maine. However, since there are some who dispute this finding, the true story of what sunk the Maine is a story still being told.
Archeology of Shipwrecks
We know much about the history of shipping through written accounts and paintings and drawings of ships from the past, but we are learning more through the use of underwater archeology. Thanks to advances in deep sea exploration equipment, we have seen the Titanic in its final resting place, explored the wrecks of historic fleets off the coast of Florida, as well as discovering the remains of Napoleans fleet.
Underwater archeology combines archeological techniques with modern diving equipment, exploring wrecks in both shallow waters and deep. It can be a particularly dangerous occupation, considering that many wrecks are in deep waters, and the very nature of the wrecks present danger, with sharp metal edges and wreckage that can entangle a diver.
Regardless of the danger, underwater archeology is an important tool to finding out more about our past.
There is one specific archeological find that is considered significant for the history of the United States, and this is the discovery of the Henrietta Marie. This ship went down in heavy seas in 1701, and it wasn’t an important ship, nor one that figured, greatly, in history. However, it became a famous shipwreck because it was the only North American slave ship ever to be found and studied.
The finding of the Henrietta Marie brought part of our historical past into clear view. One finds that it’s hard to be impersonal about a time in the past when viewing, in person, the iron shackels of a slaveship.
At times archeology of shipwrecks gets blurred with treasure hunting of shipwrecks. Treasure hunting is an interest in finding portable (or making portable) sections of the ship or its cargo that can be brought on shore and sold. Treasure hunters have been responsible for finding many lost ships. Unfortunately, they are also, sometimes, responsible for disturbing significant sites. However, it is a known “treasure hunter” Mel Fisher, who discovered the Henrietta Marie, though it was left to others to discover what he found. He and other treasure hunters, such as Art McKee, also helped to discover and explore the Spanish Treasure Fleet of 1733, as well as other significant finds.
There can be controversy surrounding treasure hunting, or archeology, however you want to refer to it. The Titanic is a classic example of this. Many folks thought that the Titanic should be left alone, a fitting memorial for all of her lost souls. When the organization that found the Titanic, RMS Titanic, Inc. started bringing up pieces of the ship, and selling them (and you can buy pieces at the company’s site), the lines between salvaging to reclaim part of our history, and salvaging to make a buck can be a bit blurred.
In all the discussion of ships in this article, not once did I mention pirates. However, you can’t talk about sunken ships and treasure without mentioning the recovery of the infamous Black Beard’s ship, Queen Anne’s Revenge.
Blackbeard was a pirate with a short history and a bad reputation. His real name was Edward Teach, and he became a pirate captain in the year 1716, at about the age of 36. Blackbeard sailed the Atlantic outside of the Virginia and North Carolina’s coast, until his death at the hands of Robert Maynard of HMS Perl in 1718, two short years after Blackbeard started his pirating career.
In 1996, divers found a sunken ship in 20 feet of water off the coast of North Carolina. Identification placed this ship as the Queen Anne’s Revenge.
Pirates and piracy. Now that’s another interesting topic for another tale from the sea someday.