45.5, @angels_portion, angelsportion, captain, cooper, grass widow, great lakes, lake superior, lutheran, mccarthy, mcsorely, november 10, november witch, old mission lighthouse, review, s.s. anderson, s.s. edmund fitzgerald, scotch, shipwreck, spirit of detroit, straight bourbon whiskey, thoma, two james spirit, Whiskey, whisky, whitefish bay, whitefish point
With venomous fury never before seen by such a tested crew, she spit three-story waves and leveled steely blows against the hull of the S.S. Edmund Fitzgerald.
“Captain,” John McCarthy, the First Mate, said in pale-faced terror, “the witch is hitting us at fifty knots.” His words were unbelievable. Had he been known to the crew as anything less than a moral sailor, one who preached the joys of marriage to all twenty-eight others aboard before each red light temptation in every port of the Great Lakes, they’d have disregarded his reading as poorly placed humor.
“This is the Fitzgerald,” Captain McSorely said, attempting to instill calm. “She can take it.” But as he clutched the radio’s microphone tightly, holding it to his chest, he was betrayed by white knuckles against the midnight blue of his coat.
Just beyond the bridge windows, the S.S. Anderson—a sister freighter that only a few hours before was behind them, but had now taken the lead through the storm—her rig lights were fading as the distance between the two vessels increased. Her captain, Jesse Cooper, knew well that McSorley and his crew had lost communication and were without radar, so he did all he could to preserve his own while keeping within sight. And yet, with each swipe of the Fitzgerald’s sixty-inch wiper blades, the bridge windows were doubly washed by Superior’s thick sprays. The Anderson was a blur, and she faded more and more into black.
When the last and tiniest gleam of the Anderson was swept away by a thirty-five foot wave crashing over the port bow, it was then that a midship crossbeam rocketed its rivets and the superstructure began to buckle. The surrounding steel gave a low moan as the ship twisted between the rising and falling of the lake’s indignation.
“Captain!” a crewman threw open the bridge door and shouted. “A railing and two of the vents are gone,” he despaired, leaning over and resting his palms on his knees. “And now four hatches have blown—from the deck down to cargo. They’ve been ripped from their frames! The Fitz is taking on water!”
“Keep with the pumps,” McSorely said, steadying his gaze against the hurricane blackness. “She’ll hold as long as we need ’er.”
Another crewman followed behind the first. “Sir,” he said, trying to catch his breath, “we’ve been running the pumps. But now the generators are underwater and the pumps are failing.”
“Captain,” McCarthy said, stepping forward to put his hand on McSorely’s shoulder. “Without the pumps, we’ll sink,” he whispered respectfully. “We need to make toward land.” He looked to the terrified men and then back to the Captain. “If you put us leeward,” he said, “this north wind will carry us to Whitefish Point. If we make it to the point, we may have a chance.”
“If we do,” McSorely returned with a poised, but equally quiet hush, “we’ll run aground in the shallows.” Leaving the microphone to dangle and sway with the waves, he leaned into the conversation. “I know those waters, John. The shallows begin a quarter-mile offshore, and with twenty-six thousand tons of ore in the Fitz’s belly, she’ll take those shallows much sooner.” Meeting his friend’s eyes, “Can you swim a half mile in a storm like this?”
“Then we need to keep our heading and make for Whitefish Bay,” the Captain continued. Turning his attention to the other crew members, he called out, “The north shore of the bay will cut the November Witch in half. She won’t take us if we can just get to the bay.” He reached for the swinging transmitter, snatching it midair from an upswing. He dropped it into its slot like a gunslinger dropping his gun into its holster. “Our communications are down,” he said. “But I’ve made this trip a hundred times. I’ll get us through to the bay. Also, Captain Cooper and the boys on the Anderson know we’re right behind them. They’ll get there first, and they’ll make sure folks are ready and waiting for both us and our haul.”
It was then that he did what captains do—he worked to inspire courage.
“And I’ll bet they’ll have some Two James Spirits whiskey already poured, maybe even the Grass Widow edition—three fingers for each of us—or as much as we want through the rest of the night.”
“Aye, Captain,” McCarthy relented. Even though he was never much for anything except communion wine, he knew to follow the Captain’s lead. “I hear the nose of the Grass Widow is a dandy one, too—filled with Bourbon barrel spices and the warm pie crusts any of your grandmothers would make in the fall.”
“And a sip,” the Captain interrupted, “well, just know that it’s worth every bit of terror these gales can muster.” By their eyes, he could see the men’s spirits starting to rekindle, and so he kept on. “Men, a sip holds a mere breeze of cinnamon and wood spice kissing red Michigan grapes. And those grapes—warmed, ripe—probably picked from a vine on the peninsula’s tip near Old Mission Lighthouse, picked by your favorite girl on a sunlit afternoon. I’ve eaten those grapes, men, and like you, I know there’re none so fine.”
“But the finish,” the First Mate added, “it’s there that hope becomes gladness. It’s there in the short fade that you find yourself ready for a new day, a new challenge, a new witch to come up an out of these lakes we know so well.”
“So bring it on,” McSorely said, giving a growl and tipping his hat to the handful of crewmen. “We aren’t meant to drown here. Fifteen more miles to the bay. Fifteen more miles till we drown in a dram of the Grass Widow!”
“Aye, Captain!” the others hollered, the thought of safe harbor and a full glass of Detroit Bourbon in hand stirring them to action.
“No one goes on deck till the bay,” the Captain called to the last of the crewmen through the door. “And put a man at every remaining hatch. Make them as secure as you know how and you’ll get your whiskey.”
The sailor gave a nod to the Captain and a hopeful glance to McCarthy. This was the last they’d see of each other in this life.
On November 10, 1975, sometime around 7:00 PM, Cooper radioed McSorely with the hopes that the Fitzgerald’s communication capabilities had been restored, and to ask the condition of the ship and her crew. Much to his surprise, Captain McSorely’s voice could be heard through the static responding assertively and finally, “We’re holding our own.”
Moments later, the ship broke apart and Lake Superior swallowed every hopeful man on board—all twenty-nine sailors wishing for a sip from a widow, but destined to be widow-makers instead.