On November 9, 1975, Captain Ernest M. McSorely departed the Fitzgerald from the Burlington Northern Railroad Dock № 1 in Superior, Wisc. at about 2:30 p.m for Detroit, Mich. The Fitzgerald was joined by the Arthur M. Anderson, which was leaving from Two Harbors, under the watch of Captain Bernie Cooper.
After gale warnings were issued around 7 p.m. that evening, both captains agreed to take the more northern course across Lake Superior where they expected to be protected by the Canadian shoreline. The gale warning was upgraded to a storm warning at 2 a.m. on the morning of November 10th.
Throughout the day, conditions continued deteriorating. At 3:30 p.m., Captain McSorely reported to Captain Cooper that a fence rail was down and two vents were lost or damaged. At 5:30 p.m., Cooper recorded winds from the NWW at 58 knots with gusts up to 70 knots and waves that were coming in at 18 to 25 feet.
At 7:10 p.m., first mate of the Anderson, Morgan Clark, was the last to be in contact with the Fitzgerald. The seas were high enough that they interfered with the radar system that the Anderson was using to keep track of the Fitzgerald, and at 7:15 p.m., the Fitzgerald disappeared from the radar one final time. 29 crew members were lost at sea.
A group of three rogue waves, typically called “three sisters,” is suspected to be a contributing cause to the sinking of the Fitzgerald is said to be what are called rogue waves. Rogue waves are large, unexpected, and dangerous. They are waves double the size of others and group together during certain wave conditions. Rogue waves are also called freak waves, monster waves, episodic waves, killer waves, extreme waves, and abnormal waves. Rogue waves have multiple causing factors, including wind, strong currents, and shoreline geography.
Due to the nature of the waves traveling so closely together, ships can’t shed water and recover fast enough from the first wave before the others hit. This is what causes the ships to sink. Captain Cooper reported being hit by two 30 to 35 foot waves, which continued in the direction of the Fitzgerald and may have struck the ship at about the same time it sunk.
Chin Wu, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at the University of Wisconsin, Madison and his researcher assistant Josh Anderson have been studying rogue waves and were able to confirm their phenomenon by conducting research on them at the Apostle Islands in 2015.
Because it is difficult to track rogue waves due to their rarity and unexpectedness, Wu and Anderson developed a computer model to calculate 35 years worth of wave conditions on Lake Superior. The found that the overall wave climate has been increasing on the Lake due to less ice coverage and stronger winds in the winter.
In April 2016, northland photographer Christian Dalbec watched monster waves slam up against cliff’s at Tettegouche State Park. Quoted in an article by the Star Tribune, Dalbec said the waves would come in sets of threes (the “three sisters”).
With the 42nd anniversary since the finding of the Fitzgerald coming up, I’d like to travel up the North Shore and talk with some locals regarding these monster waves and any experiences they may have had encountering them. Spring storms will be rolling in soon, and the waves will be high. I’d also like to look into Lake Superior surfers who take on these freak waves.