Sunday, June 22, 2014

The Witch of November

Huron.  Ontario.  Michigan.  Superior.  Erie.  The Five Great Lakes.  Their glistening waters beckon boaters, fishermen and swimmers on those warm summer days when the sun is just right.  But don’t let them fool you. The shimmering Great Lakes harbor secrets—deadly secrets.  Over the past 300 years, they’ve claimed thousands of ships and countless more men—many consumed by the legendary Witch of November.

Collisions explosions, and fires have all caused shipwrecks on the Great Lakes, but it’s the sudden, lethal storms that are most feared.  Measured only by their wind speed, gales are declared when winds are clocked between 39 and 54 miles per hour (mph).  Gales with greater wind speeds are upgraded to storms—the highest rating given on the lakes.  Since 1835, 20 such storms, with winds blowing more than 73 mph, wreaked havoc across the lakes with the fiercest one gauged at 103 mph.  In the oceans, they would have been called hurricanes, but on the Great Lakes they are simply storms, no matter how deadly they turn.  Nineteen of these twenty tempests battered the lakes during November—the one month the sailors call cursed.  Here are a few reasons why:
November 9, 1861 – The Keystone State disappeared during a wicked winter storm that roared across Lake Huron.  Since she carried no lifeboats, all 33 people on board were lost.

November 16, 1883 – The Manistee encountered a blinding snowstorm on Lake Superior.  After several days of drifting in violent, freezing waters, a lifeboat carrying three of her crew washed ashore.  They described the high seas and strong southwest winds that tore their ship apart sweeping all of the other lifeboats away taking 23 lives with them.

November 30, 1908 –The Carl D. Bradley, a steel freighter, sank in Lake Michigan during a deadly storm when they ran into 70 mph winds, which barely gave the crew enough time to radio for help.  Help, however, did not come in time for the 33 men who perished. 
November 28, 1966 – The Daniel J. Morrell disappeared while heading north on Lake Huron.  All but one man were lost.  The 26-year-old watchman who survived described how the ship broke in two clean across the middle during the violent storm.  The electrical cables snapped and with no emergency backup power, the crew could not signal for help.

November 10, 1975 – The Edmund Fitzgerald was the largest freighter ever lost on the Great Lakes.  She simply vanished in Lake Superior, 17 miles northwest of Whitefish Point, Michigan, during a deadly storm that clocked winds at about 100 mph.  Four days after she sank, sonar detected the wreck.  The ship had broken in two and her bow plummeted 535 feet to the bottom of the lake.  Her stern rolled over and came to rest upside down on top the ship’s midsection leaving no survivors.

On those warm summer days when the lakes want to play, it's hard to imagine the Witch of November and her wrath.  She shows no mercy and grants no favors taking what she wants with a vengeance.  He ruthless nature strikes fear in the bravest of sailors.  Superstition?  Maybe, but the fact remains that many a ship and he crew have lost when the Witch of November emerges.


  1. I didn't know so many ships were lost on the Great Lakes – apart from the Edmund Fitzgerald, of course, as immortalized in the song-that-never-ends by Gordon Lightfoot.

    All of these sound awful, but I think the Daniel J. Morrell would be absolutely ghastly to witness. That poor fellow! It's good he survived, but I wonder what he had to live with as a result?

    1. The Great Lakes are so fascinating. I never get tired of reading about them. There are countless wrecks our there. I just highlighted a handful. Thanks for coming by.