Sole Survivor

Back in 1966, Dennis Hale had been sailing for three years, all of them on the 580-foot freighter Daniel J. Morrell. The Morrell was in its sixtieth year, one of the oldest of the many freighters plying the Great Lakes. The ship had just finished its already long season, but when another freighter developed engine trouble, the Morrell was sent in to carry the load. It was late November.

On the 29th, the Morrell rounded the thumb of Michigan and was hit by a Huron storm that pitched waves of twenty-five feet over its hull. At 2:00 a.m., Hale was awakened by a loud bang. At first he thought it was the anchor hammering against the bow, but when it came a second time he jumped out of bed and headed for the deck. Wearing only undershorts, a life vest, and a pea coat, he soon found himself standing in ice and water, clinging to the deck rail, and inching toward a lifeboat.

The winds were blowing sixty-five miles per hour. Two flares went up from a group of men huddled at the stern, but they were unaware that a broken antenna had never allowed for a distress signal to go out. As Hale and thirteen of his fellow crewmen waited for their raft to float free, the Morrell suddenly heaved, twisted, and ripped in two. “I can still see the sparks and the tearing steel,” Hale remarked quietly from his home in Ashtabula, Ohio. “The next thing I knew, I was in the water. When I came to the surface, I saw a raft and swam over to it. By the time I got there, two other men had climbed aboard, and we then helped a fourth man on. It was freezing cold and snowing. All I could do was hang on. The storm was over by 5:00 a.m., but by then, two of the men were already dead. The other one died later on.” Throughout that long day no sign of rescue came in sight. “I didn’t expect to make it. For the last twenty-four hours I was more or less just waiting to die. When you’re in a situation like that you don’t care. You just want it to end. It wasn’t important anymore.”

After thirty-eight hours in the raft, Hale was found and rescued by a Coast Guard helicopter. His ankle was broken and his feet were frostbitten, but otherwise, he had sustained only minor injuries. His lack of clothing had actually been a blessing; had he been covered in freezing wet pants, like his shipmates, hypothermia would have set in and, inevitably, he too would have met his end. “That amazes me still,” he said.

Of the Morrell’s twenty-nine-man crew, Hale was the sole survivor. In fact, Dennis Hale is the only man to have survived a modern Great Lakes shipwreck. “That makes me kind of an odd person, I guess,” he said, brightening. “There’s got to be some reason I survived. Maybe I’m supposed to give others hope. Maybe hearing my story inspires people. I talk at these shipwreck conferences.” He’s done eight this past year and has four more to go. “People are real interested. It puts a shift in their perspective.”

In 1999, after twenty-three years on dry land, Dennis Hale accepted an offer to sail out on Lake Huron. “It took a long time to accept the invitation. It was a beautiful June day, but I still had to really think about it.”