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The Weathers Wrath

Guest Shetland Coastie

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Guest Shetland Coastie

An occasional series in which I shall look at two of my favourite subjects, maritime disasters and the weather! Or more particularly maritime disasters in which the weather played either the main or a leading role.

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Guest Shetland Coastie


On 8th June 1958, the Great Lakes Engineering Works of River Rouge, Michigan launched their latest vessel, the SS Edmund Fitzgerald. She was typical of the Great Lakes freighters of the day, with the bridge for’ard and another superstructure housing the accomodation and engine room aft, with a large cargo hold in-between. When launched and right up until 1971, she was the largest of this type of vessel on the Great Lakes. Due to her size she was nicknamed “The Mighty Fitz” or “The Big Fitz.” She was designed to carry taconite ore in bulk for use in the iron industry.

A couple of pictures below of the Edmund Fitzgerald:

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She was 729ft in length, had a beam of 75ft and had a normal crew of 29. She was refitted during the winter of 1971-72 and had her original coal fired steam turbines replaced by oil fired engines. She had a single propellor and a top speed of 14 knots. She was 13,632 Gross Register Tonnes and was named for the Chairman of the Board of the Northwestern Mutual Life Insurance Co, her owners. Her launch was somewhat inauspicious. In front of some 15,000 people, when Mrs. Edmund Fitzgerald attempted to christen the boat by breaking the traditional bottle of champagne across her bow, it refused to break and had to be attempted three times before succeeding. The launch was then delayed a further 36 minutes as the shipyard workers had difficulty releasing the keel blocks and when she finally did launch sideways into the water she then crashed into the dockside.

Under the command of Captain Ernest M. McSorley, the Edmund Fitzgerald set off on her final voyage on the afternoon of Sunday 9th November 1975 with a full cargo of 26,116 tons taconite pellets, bound for the steel mill on Zug Island, near Detroit, Michigan. She set off in company with a second freighter, the Arthur.M.Anderson, which was bound for Gary, Indiana. As the Edmund Fitzgerald was faster, she took the lead with the Anderson not far behind. Heading across Lake Superior at 13 knots they ran into a massive winter storm, with the vessels reporting windspeeds in excess of 50 knots and 35ft waves. Captain McSorley was later to say in one of his last radio transmissions, that the storm was “one of the worst seas I’ve ever been in.”

Because of the appalling weather the Soo Locks at Sault Ste. Marie were closed so the freighters altered their course northwards to try and get in the lee of the Candian coast. They later then turned south-eastward to cross back across Lake Superior to Whitefish Bay and the locks. By this time visibility was poor and the US Coast Guard was advising all ships to find safe harbour.

Below left the courses of the Fitzgerald and Anderson according to their logs and right the NTSB chart of the believed courses of both vessels in the hours just prior to her sinking:

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By the afternoon of the follwing day, 10th November, windspeeds were sustained at over 50 knots across eastern Lake Superior and at one point the Anderson was hit by a 75 knot gust. At 1530 the Fitzgerald made the following radio call to the Anderson "Anderson, this is the Fitzgerald. I have sustained some topside damage. I have a fence rail laid down, two vents lost or damaged, and a list. I'm checking down. Will you stay by me til I get to Whitefish?" To which Captain Cooper on the Anderson replied: "Charlie on that Fitzgerald. Do you have your pumps going?" Captain McSorley responded: "Yes, both of them.” Then at 1610 the Fitzgerald called the Anderson to request radar guidance - "Anderson, this is the Fitzgerald. I have lost both radars. Can you provide me with radar plots till we reach Whitefish Bay?" The Anderson responded: "Charlie on that, Fitzgerald. We'll keep you advised of position." Because the lighthouse and the navigational beacon at Whitefish Bay had been damaged by the storm the Fitzgerald slowed to allow the Anderson to catch up and provide radar guidance. At approximately 1910 the Anderson radioed the Fitzgerald to say she had been struck by several rogue waves (which had been large enough to be picked up on radar) and that they were headed the Fiztgeralds way. She also asked the Fitzgerald how she was getting on. Captain McSorley replied that they were “holding their own.” That was the last that was ever heard of the Edmund Fitzgerald. She sank without any distress signal and was lost with all hands.

Being unable to contact the Fitzgerald or see her on radar, the master of the Anderson contacted the Coast Guard at 2032 to inform them of the possible loss of the Edmund Fitzgerald. At which point an immediate search began. Initially the search involved the Anderson and a second nearby freighter, the SS William Clay Ford. A third vessel, the Canadian Hilda Marjanne, was prevented from assisting due to the ferociousness of the weather. They were joined by three Coast Guard aircraft and the following day by the Coast Guard vessel Woodrush. The search recovered debris, liferafts and lifeboats but no sign of any survivors or the ship.

The wreck was eventually found by a Coast Guard vessel and surveyed during 14-16 November using side-scan sonar which revealed she was in two parts in approximately 530ft of water. The bow section was lying upright on the muddy bottom, with the stern section lying upside down, not far away. This suggested that the vessel had fractured on hitting the sea floor and had not been as a result of the action of the sea and therefore the cause of her sinking.

Below is the NTSB sketch of the wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald on the sea floor:


The actual cause of the loss of the Edmund Fitzgerald has never been completely proven. An initial Coast Guard report suggested that the cargo hatches had not been properly secured. This had allowed a gradual ingress of water into the hold which led eventually to loss of buoyancy and stability, which then caused the ship to sink suddenly. This was disputed and it was then suggested that because they had lost their radar, the crew of the Fitzgerald had relied on inaccuarte charts. A documentary investigation by the Discovery Channel suggested the cause was rogue waves. Using wave tank and computer simulations, they recreated the sea conditions of the time. Their conclusions tied in with the known fact that the Anderson had herself reported being hit by enormous rogue waves which were heading in the Fitzgeralds direction. The investigation suggested that the Fitzgerald had been hit, in rapid succession, by three huge waves. The first two had damaged the hatch covers and had allowed the ingress of a large volume of water. This had unbalanced the ore cargo and stressed the ships hull to the point at which, when she was struck by a third large wave, the vessel plummeted to the bottom, with no chance for the crew to get off a distress signal.

The type of storm which hit the vessels were well known on the Great Lakes. These “fresh-water snow-filled hurricanes” have been responsible for numerous losses on the Great Lakes and indeed the previous largest Great Lakes Freighter, the SS Carl.D.Bradley had suffered exactly the same fate in 1958. Indeed, in the same general area as the Edmund Fitzgerald sank, between 1816 and the loss of the Fitzgerald, some 240 other vessels had been lost. Every year, the Mariners Church in Detroit holds a memorial in honour of those lost on the Edmund Fitzgerald and the Split Rock Lighthouse in Silver Bay, Minnesota, emits a light in their honour.

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  • Location: Derbyshire Peak District 290 mts. Wind speed 340 mts
  • Weather Preferences: Rain/snow, fog, gales and cold in every season
  • Location: Derbyshire Peak District 290 mts. Wind speed 340 mts

    A fascinating account, I look forward to more of these.

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    Guest Shetland Coastie

    19 December 1981 – MV Union Star

    A brand new min bulk-carrier, the MV Union Star set out from her builders yard at Rinkobing, Denmark on 11 December 1981 on her maiden voyage. In command was Captain Henry Moreton, also on board having been present at the launching ceremony was his wife Dawn, his two teenager daughters and four crew.

    They proceeded to the Dutch port of Ijmuiden to pick up her first cargo of fertiliser which was to be discharged in the Irish port of Arklow. The Captain and his family were looking forward to being home in Ireland for Christmas.

    Whilst on passage the weather steadily worsened so that by the afternoon of the 19 December, in a position 8 miles east of Wolf Rock the Union Star’s problems began. Her engines stopped and she was unable to restart them. A nearby tug, Noord Holland, offered to take the Union Star under tow under a Lloyds Open Form contract but Captain Moreton refused, as he was unwilling to commit to paying an undetermined amount for salvage. The map below shows the area of south-west Cornwall, with the village of Mousehole circled:


    The problems then worsened with the winds approaching hurricane force, the vessels fuel supply became contaminated with sea water. Winds were now 80mph gusting to 95mph and the Union Star was being driven towards rocks at Boscawen Cove near Lamorna. At this point Captain Moreton put out a Mayday call which was received by Falmouth Coast Guard. Below is the 00Z chart for 20 Dec showing the low pressure system that caused the weather conditions experienced at the time:


    The initial response was to launch a Royal Navy Sea King search and rescue helicopter from the nearby RNAS Culdrose naval air station, but conditions were so bad that the helicopter could not get the crew off, despite making several attempts.

    The Coast Guard then launched the 47ft Watson Class Penlee Lifeboat, RNLB Solomon Browne, based at the lifeboat station on Penlee Point, close to the village of Mousehole. Despite the absolutely appalling conditions that day, all 12 of the crew responded to the alert. They decided to take 8 crewmen, ensuring that only one man from each family went out, given the atrocious weather conditions. The lifeboat launched into the heaving seas under the command of Coxswain Trevelyan Richards who put her head into the weather and proceed toward the stricken Union Star. Pictured below the Penlee Lifeboat RNLB Solomon Browne.


    By this time the Union Star was close to the rocky cliffs. The lifeboat made her approach and made several attempts to get alongside. On at least two occasions the lifeboat was physically hurled onto the Union Star’s deck and was also slammed into the vessels side. By late evening the lifeboat had managed to get 4 people off who had jumped from the Union Stars wheelhouse whilst the lifeboat was alongside. At the time the swell (rise and fall of the sea was some 15m = 50 feet!). Having recovered the 4 people the Solomon Browne informed Falmouth Coast Guard they were turning back to have another go at getting the remaining 4 people off. Their final radio message said: "We've got four men off, hang on, we have got four at the moment. There's two left on board..." at that point the radio went dead. A few minutes later the lifeboats lights disappeared and at about the same time the Union Star keeled over. Below, two pictures of the upturned and wrecked Union Star:

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    No one knows what actually happened to the lifeboat, possibly she was again thrown onto the Union Star’s deck and then crushed as the Union Star keeled over, or perhaps the wooden hulled lifeboat was rent on the rocks, no one really knows. Sennen Cove, St.Marys and The Lizard lifeboats all took part in the following search and in the process The Lizard lifeboat also sustained damage in the ferocious conditions. An extensive shore search was also conducted by Coast Guard teams and was assisted by Navy helicopters from Culdrose. Both vessels were lost with all hands.

    Of the 16 souls lost that night only 8 bodies were recovered, 4 from each vessel. The wreckage of the lifeboat was found scattered along the shore and the Union Star lay capsized below the Tater Du Lighthouse. The result of the public enquiry into the disaster was that it was an “Act of God” caused by the severe weather conditions. One of the recommendations was that HM Coastguard should be given the power to compel a master to be taken under tow in situations where he either prevaricates or refuses to do so. That was followed through and we now have that power, under the authority of the Secretary of States Representative (SOSREP).

    The lifeboat station at Penlee Point now stands empty as a memorial to the dead crew and every 19 December the Christmas lights in Mousehole are turned off at 8pm as an act of remembrance. Pictured below the old Penlee Lifeboat station showing the ramp down which the lifeboat was launched that fateful day:


    The crew of the Penlee Lifeboat were:

    William Trevelyan Richards (aged 56) Coxswain; James Stephen Madron (aged 35) Second Coxswain/Mechanic; Nigel Brockman (aged 43) Assistant Mechanic and fisherman; John Blewett (aged 43) Emergency Mechanic and telephone engineer; Kevin Smith (aged 23), Barrie Torrie (aged 33) fisherman; Charles Greenhaugh (aged 46) landlord of the Ship Inn in Mousehole; Gary Wallis (aged 23). The crew are pictured below:


    The current lifeboat is a Severn Class boat based in Newlyn, the Coxswain is Neil Brockman, son of Nigel. Neil was also one of the 12 who turned out on that fateful day but was left ashore. The RNLI posthumously awarded Coxswain Richards its highest award, the Gold Medal and the rest of the crew were posthumously awarded the bronze medal. There is a permanent memorial to the crew in the Parish Church of Paul, just about a mile up the road from Mousehole.

    Also lost were the crew of the Union Star and Captain Moretons family:

    Captain Henry Moreton, Mate James Whittaker, Engineer George Sedgwick, Crewman Anghostino Verrissimo, Crewman Manuel Lopez, Captain Moretons wife, Dawn and his two step-daughters Sharon and Deanne.

    This story is a testament to our brave, volunteer lifeboat crews of the RNLI, who daily put their lives at risk to save others. May the crews of the Solomon Browne and the Union Star rest in peace.

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    Guest Shetland Coastie

    6 May 1902 - SS Camorta

    The SS Camorta was built by A & J Inglis of Pointhouse for the British India Steam Navigation Co. Registered in the port of Glasgow, she was 2119grt and was a general purpose vessel, carrying both cargo and passengers.

    Pictured below the SS Camorta (left) and a painting by Tom Robinson (right):

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    She plied her trade on the Madras Staits and Bay of Bengal routes. Late in Apirl 1902 she departed Madras bound for Rangoon in Burma with 655 passengers and 82 crew. She was due to arrive in Rangoon on the 6th May.

    By the 13th May there was no sign of the Camorta and she was reported as overdue.

    Map below of the Bay of Bengal, an area notorious for Tropical Cyclones:


    Very little is known about the exact fate of this vessel but it is believed that she was struck by a Tropical Cyclone on 6 May when crossing an area called the Baragua Flats, just off the Irrawaddy Delta.Other British India vessels were sent to search for her. Initially a lifeboat was found near the Krishna lightvessel. The wreck was subsequently found by the SS Purnea on 4th June, lying in 15 fathoms of water with the top of her mainmast just showing above the water.

    Given that so little is known about her fate, the SS Camorta is the fourth worst loss of life for a British registered vessel after the Titanic, Lusitania and the Empress of Ireland.

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