Mighty Fitz

I’m on target to at least match my book tally from 2011.  My new and (not) improved goal is to do one book better.  One of my most recent reads is Michael Schumacher’s Mighty Fitz: The Sinking of the Edmund Fitzgerald, which tells the story of the sinking of the freighter in Lake Superior in a winter storm in November of 1975, as well as the subsequent attempts to determine the cause of the sinking and bring closure for the family of the 29 crew members that died.  I picked it up on a whim from the library and it turned out to be one of the best books I’ve read all year.

I kind of have a thing for stories of ships and shipwrecks.  Usually, it’s sea voyages that really trip my trigger, so the fact that the story of the Edmund Fitzgerald did not occur on the open seas had me a bit skeptical.  Still, I knew next to nothing about it save the Gordon Lightfoot AM radio staple “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald” so it was with an interest in learning more about this sinking that I approached this book.

So what did I learn?  Well, here’s a few things I picked up.

  • I had no idea that the sinking of the Edmund Fitzgerald was semi-contemporary.  I was always under the assumption that it was something that happened in the 1860s or some equally remote date in America’s past.  Finding out it happened in 1975 was icing on the cake because of my love for reading historical accounts from the 1970s.
  • As it turns out, a sinking ship on Lake Superior in the middle of a blinding winter storm is not all that different from a ship sinking in the middle of the ocean.  I think for those of us that don’t live on the Great Lakes, we tend to forget just how much water is contained in them.  Try 20% of the fresh water in the world on for size.  That figure kind of blows my mind.
  • Shipwreck divers are one competitive bunch of guys.  Between some of them, there just is not much love lost.
  • This isn’t news to anyone, but it’s amazing how people can look at the exact same forensic evidence (in this case, the wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald at the bottom of Lake Superior) and come up with completely different reasons as to why the ship sank.  Whether the Edmund Fitzgerald went down because of shoddy maintenance resulting in it breaking apart in rough water or if it ran aground in Six Fathom Shoal or if damaged hatch closures caused it to take on water the world may never know.  But those are three different theories as to why the Fitz went to the bottom of Lake Superior all based on evaluation of the wreckage.

This was a well written book that reminded me a lot of The Perfect Storm – a book I wouldn’t mind rereading sometime.  It did so much more than tell the story of the sinking.  It provided great background on the history of Great Lakes shipping, the unpredictable weather of the region, especially into November, and of other famous shipwrecks on the Great Lakes.  Amazingly, some 240 ships sit at the bottom the Great Lakes.  But still, the centerpiece of the book is the sinking of the Mighty Fitz, a ship that, much like the Titanic, was thought to be unsinkable.  When will we, as humans, stop saying that about ships?  It’s almost like we’re shaking our fists at the universe, daring it to prove us wrong.

Recommended for anyone who loves to read about sinking ships and shipwrecks but would prefer to not be in one.  So in other words, a perfect book for me.

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