Stephen Karlson (shkarlson) wrote in 50bookchallenge,
Stephen Karlson


I'm mixing a Sherlock Holmes line with Gordon Lightfoot to introduce Book Review No. 41, The Night the Fitz Went Down. (See The Gales of November, Remembered for previous Fitzgerald Book Reviews and additional background.) The book is a biography of Captain Dudley Paquette, who retired from Inland Steel's fleet in 1980, with particular emphasis on his trip, loaded, from the Twin Ports to Indiana Harbor in November of 1975 at the helm of Wilfred Sykes.

The biographical material includes the experiences of a man who worked his way up from deckhand to pilothouse. Although the Great Lakes fleets probably have more professional mobility within the ranks than the Edwardian merchant marine, and the primary responsibility of the captain is to deliver raw materials dependably, while keeping cohesion among men confined with each other for long stretches at a time, under conditions still not much different from going to jail with a prospect of drowning, the insights into life in crews' quarters and pilothouse fill gaps I complained of in my recent review of The Other Side of the Night. Captain's Table on a lake freighter could easily be a trickier situation than the more prestigious event on an ocean liner: making small talk with stage actors or lesser nobility is not as consequential as hosting the owner of the steel company or a major shareholder, the displeasure of which might culminate in demotion or discharge.

It's the events of November, 1975, however, which give author Hugh Bishop reason to write this book. Captain Paquette learned, early on, the utility of radar and of frequent and careful updating of the weather, no matter how pleasant the sailing conditions might be. Thus, while Fitzgerald and Arthur Anderson were making knots on the most direct course to the Soo and not updating their own weather observations, the crew of Sykes was busy filling in the isobars and the captain was making his own forecast. Sykes left the Twin Ports behind Fitzgerald and kept to the Canadian side of Lake Superior, in order to anchor in Thunder Bay when the nor'easter built up, and in order to have following seas when the wind backed as the low moved north and east.

Edmund Fitzgerald and Arthur Anderson deviated from the direct route, but to seek shelter from the Canadian shore exposed them to the nor'easter, and to steer toward Whitefish Bay exposed them to quartering seas after the wind backed. Wind and waves alone were not enough to sink Fitzgerald. Subsequent investigations found no evidence of shoaling on the rudder or propellor of Fitzgerald or of grounding on Six Fathom Shoal. The hatch covers of Great Lakes ore carriers are watertight even with clamps loosely set. On the other hand, an ore carrier with 7,000 shaft horsepower (many of the lakers of the era ran with 1,000 or 2,000 horsepower, sometimes using diesel engines cascaded from railroad locomotives) driving it might have a hull subject to additional stresses, and if something akin to delamination (a phenomenon in fiberglass racing sailboats that have been driven hard for a long time) happens where the keel is welded to the ribs, bad things happen.

It suffices to note that an observation Mark Twain made about Cunard captains (see Other Side of the Night at 29) is not always true on the Lakes. "It takes [Cunard] about ten or fifteen years to manufacture a captain; but when they have him manufactured to suit at last they have full confidence in him. The only order they give a captain is this, brief and to the point: 'Your ship is loaded, take her; speed is nothing; follow your own road, deliver her safe, bring her back safe -- safety is all that is required.'" On November 9, Captain Paquette noted Fitzgerald's crew still securing hatch clamps as the bridge was ringing ahead full to put those 7,000 hp to work leaving the Twin Ports. On the other hand, Captain Paquette once used his weather knowledge once to deliver 36,000 tons to dockside at Indiana Harbor: there was a norther blowing the length of Lake Michigan, piling water up at the Indiana end, allowing him to get within self-unloader reach of quayside, thence to warp alongside as a lighter boat rode higher, and get bonuses for speedy delivery of additional tonnage. Perhaps on the Lakes, where shore is almost never more than three hours' steaming away, there's more margin for error. On the other hand, that margin can become complacency, and then the bell tolls 29 times.

(Cross-posted to Cold Spring Shops.)

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