The gales of November still rage with controversy and treachery, as shipwrecks and their grisly cargo become the hot new tourist attraction.
A beacon of light shines out from the tip of an eighty-mile stretch of shoreline known as Lake Superior’s Shipwreck Coast. It shines from the lighthouse at Whitefish Point, Michigan, over an area known as the Graveyard of Ships. It’s earned this moniker because more vessels have been lost there than in any other part of Lake Superior. In the graveyard, waves of biblical proportions are whipped up by roaring northwest winds carrying the power they’ve amassed over 160 miles of open water. Raging in from all directions, these murderous waves crash back from the shores with even greater ferocity. They are said to strike harder and more often than any saltwater wave. Brutal as hurricanes, but stealthier, these storms often catch sailors by surprise. Hundreds of ships, including the Edmund Fitzgerald, lie on the bottom of this bay and its vicinity. The Fitzgerald’s bell, recovered and restored, is now displayed at the Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum at Whitefish Point. And as the lore goes, the beacon at Whitefish Point has shone unfailingly for nearly a century and a half, except for the night when the Mighty Fitz went down.
When my son was very small, he was mesmerized by water and fire. Among his first words were “boat” and “candle.” By the age of four, he had developed a fierce interest in all manner of watercraft, disasters, and horrible combinations of the two—in particular, the sinking of the Titanic.
With my perhaps misguided support, my son’s fervor soon directed him to tragedies closer to home, and by the time he was five or six, he could do a crackerjack imitation of Fred Wolff, narrator of our worn-out copy of the cassette tape Stories of Lake Superior Shipwrecks, Volume I. Wolff, a professor emeritus at the University of Minnesota-Duluth, bears the sort of thick Minnesota accent you find only in the far north. On many a long drive during those sleep-deprived years, I relied on gas-station coffee to keep from being lulled blissfully to sleep at the wheel by the familiar drone of Wolff’s stories. My son, however, listened on the edge of his seat. What is it about shipwrecks that called so powerfully to this little boy? What is it about wrecks that pulls at him still, pulls at us all, in one way or another?
Outside, late autumn rain and wind are ripping wet leaves from the trees in great batches, plastering them against the windshields of parked cars and onto the blackened city streets. Rivers of water rush down the gutters toward the sewer drains, begging to be dammed and diverted by schoolchildren in yellow slickers whose mothers watch anxiously from picture windows as October shudders to an end. It’s a nearly perfect backdrop for an enduring sea tale about a terrible witch and her legacy of destruction: the Witch of November, the scourge of our inland seas, who swallows ships whole, steals lives, and strands mourners helpless on the shore.
From the SS Edmund Fitzgerald (whose November 10, 1975 sinking was made famous the world over by Gordon Lightfoot’s ballad), to the twenty ships and 250 lives lost in the “Big Blow” of November 1913, to the tragic wreck of the Daniel J. Morrell on November 29, 1966, which killed all but one man, left shivering in his shorts and pea coat, the Great Lakes have claimed as many as ten thousand ships and more than thirty thousand lives since the wreck of LaSalle’s Griffon in 1679. Encrypted in the sodden debris of these disasters is the story of our lives, literal and metaphorical, and for that we keep coming back to search.
Most of us respond to the alluring and tragic call of the depths by diving only about as deep as the latest news accounts of recent underwater archaeological discoveries, or by renting Titanic. But a brazen and growing subculture of hardy souls respond more daringly, by plunging into the murky waters to explore the treasure troves of history firsthand. The intrepid few who love to dive have a remarkable single-mindedness for exploration and adventure. Some are brave—or crazy—enough to take on the frigid waters of Lake Superior. A few have even gone 556 feet below the surface of Superior to visit the final resting ground of the twenty-nine crewmen who lost their lives on the Edmund Fitzgerald, also known as the Queen of the Great Lakes, the Pride of the American Flag, the Mighty Fitz, the Titanic of the Great Lakes, and, posthumously, the most famous Great Lakes shipwreck of all time.
Terrence Tysall is a Florida-based professional diver and instructor, and the founder of the Cambrian Foundation, which is dedicated to undersea research, preservation, and exploration. He’s been diving since the age of eight and has seen hundreds of wreck sites, including that of the Edmund Fitzgerald. The expedition to the Fitz was the brainchild of a Chicagoan named Mike Zee, who approached Tysall in the mid 1990s with the notion of conducting a scuba dive to the famous wreck. Although the site had been explored via submarine by a handful of others—including Jacques Cousteau’s son, Jean-Michel, in 1980—no one had ever attempted to take on the intense pressure and cold with just a dry suit and air tanks. “Too deep, too dark, too cold,” explained Tysall. But his dual love of history and the sea compelled him to pursue the proposal, and, in 1995, he and his companions became the first ever to scuba dive to the Edmund Fitzgerald. “It turned out to be my deepest dive,” Tysall said. “In fact, I think it’s still the deepest wreck dive by free-swimming scuba divers—but I’m not a big record guy. I think records cheapen things sometimes.” According to Sean Ley of the Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum in Sault Sainte Marie, Michigan, Tysall’s ’95 dive to the Fitzgerald was the first and the last to date. “It seems that everyone is respecting the wishes of the families,” said Ley, alluding to the wreck’s status as an underwater gravesite.