Saturday, November 10, 2012

The Edmond Fitzgerald, Yarmouth Castle and the "Witch of November come early!"

History is the recalling of past events, though most of us will remember early November for its many elections and Hurricane Sandy, Maritime history remembers it for disasters at sea and inclement weather which is many times referred to as “The Witch of November”.

The sinking of the Edmond Fitzgerald on November 10th in 1975 is one such event.  The huge iron ore carrier was lost during a storm with 29 hands that all went down with the ship.  The search on Lake Superior went on and on but no survivors were found only some debris after the Captain had wired that water was coming in.

Many feel the ship was sunk by a phenomenon called the “Three Sisters”, something that is said to haunt Superior’s waters.  These are called on the ocean “Rouge Waves”, and they can reach heights of 90 feet or more.  The existence of such waves was folklore until modern times when waves of these proportions were measured not only on the ocean but also from space.  They can occur at any time and even in calm ocean waters.

These waves of monster proportions can also occur on Lakes, especially Lake Superior. The “Three Sisters” is a series of three large waves forms. The first hits the ship followed by a second wave that hits the ship's deck before the first wave clears. The third wave strikes in close succession adding more water to the two wave loads, which suddenly overloads the ship deck with tons of water forcing it under.  This was thought to have contributed to the Edmond Fitzgerald’s sinking.  Gordon Lightfoot immortalized the saga of this sinking in his ballad “Wreck of the Edmond Fitzgerald”.

Ironically, Lightfoot had years earlier written another ballad, this story was about a ship’s sinking that changed the safety rules which apply to cruise ships today.  It is called the “Ballad of the Yarmouth Castle” a ship which sank on November 13th, 1964.

The Yarmouth Castle was an old boat built in 1927 named the Evangiline that ran passengers from Boston to Nova Scotia.  The boat actually had a number of names and incarnations since in World War II it had become a troop carrier.

The ship changed hands a number of times eventually being purchased by the Chadade Steamship Company, it is at this point that her name was changed to Yarmouth Castle.  The Castle offered service from New York City to the Bahamas for Caribbean Cruise Lines, which had quickly repainted her.

A fire started at 1 am in a room full of mattresses stack to the ceiling touching a light bulb with no sprinkler system. The number of violations the ship had were enormous including no working sprinkler system, only one radio operator instead of two, a fire alarm that did not work, and thick paint covering portholes and ropes to lower life boats plus much more. The most damning thing was however when the fire broke out the crew and the Captain for the most part left the passengers and ship.  Since the top part of the boat was wooden and painted over innumerable times the fire became an instant inferno and none would have been saved except for two other boats that were close by and saw the inferno and wired for the ship mayday!

The first ship on the scene was Finnpulp who picked up the few lifeboats that could be launched only to find them filled with the Captain and crew.  The most famous rescue ship was the heroic Bahama Stars whose Captain and crew who started taking people from the water.  At one time the Bahama Star actually pulled next to the fire-engulfed ship to pull people off.  The ship eventually had to retreat when the paint on its funnels started to blister.  Though many were saved, 90 people went down on the ship or died from injuries, many were unable to get the painted portholes open so they could escape.

After this tragedy new rules were put in place banning wooden topped ships that carry more than 50 passengers, rules for fire drills, safety inspections and more! These new rules were the only saving grace to come from such a tragedy.

Lightfoot’s songs tell the story better than a history book, listen and enjoy!!

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