When halos ring the moon or the sun—the weather is coming on the run.
The Marco Beach Boys always celebrate the Southwest Florida change of seasons. When the month of October claims the calendar, the wind changes. No longer are the balmy sea breezes of September dominating our weather vanes, but when autumn in our islands truly does arrive, a strong and mesmerizing easterly wind begins and lasts until the Witch of November rides her broom down from the Northwest and casts a spell that many can never forget.
October is indeed a pattern of wonderful sailing. When one day leads into another and the weather is the same as the day before, it can be easy to be surprised. Of course, every good mariner will scout out the local weather forecasts and make a sailing plan, but as every sailor knows, the wind drives the waves and when our wind changes from easterly to the Northwest the Witch has arrived and no one wants to be caught offshore.
The weather report for my unforgettable November morning was encouraging. The forecasters were reporting light and variable winds with no rain in sight. The dull sunset the evening before and a halo ring around the moon offered a suggestion the weather report might be wrong—but with the wizardry of modern technology—how could anything go wrong?
When the red sky dominated the following morning, the old sailor’s rhyme did make an impression: Red sky at night—sailor’s delight. Red sky in morning—sailor take warning.
The morning was wonderful, and it was easy to forget the old sailors’ warnings and rhymes. The weather was just as the forecasters described. The wind was indeed light and variable with the Gulf of Mexico as calm as a swimming pool. When the high clouds began to ride across the northwestern sky in the early afternoon, there was nothing sinister about the first appearance, but when the wind shifted quickly and began to ruffle the water, everyone aboard felt the first touch of the Witch from the Northwest.
When the Northwest wind began in earnest, and the whitecaps began to curl and break into wavelets, I could not help but remember the forecast from earlier in the day: Wind—light and variable.
After less than ten minutes, I knew we were in for a blow, and I also knew that everyone on board our little sailing ship knew something spooky was coming. We were well offshore and south of the Marco River, and only someone fast asleep could not feel the grip of the cold and growing wind. The white caps that began as an indicator of good sailing soon changed into three-foot waves that were pushing strongly against every boat offshore. When the bows of the catamaran begin to rise and toss salty spray from stem to stern, even the most stalwart of our sailors was becoming concerned. By that time, the waves were as big as a house, the northwest wind was gusting about 30-miles per hour and morale on the little boat was grim. Soon everyone was salt–soaked, the waves were even bigger, and our progress toward the safe haven of the Marco River was painfully slow.
This was when one of the passengers began to sing over the wind and musically tell the story of the Wreck of the Edmond Fitzgerald.
We all laughed, but privately, I wanted to be out of the wind, the growing waves, and the Witch of November. After all, no mariner can know: will it get worse? This is especially true when one of your passengers starts singing about shipwrecks.
Finally, our little catamaran rounded the last channel marker in the gulf and motored up past the Isles of Capri and into calm waters. After that unforgettable day on the water, I will never forget, I now feel obliged to relate the story and the lyrics of the Edmond Fitzgerald.
During the last hundred years on Lake Superior, over 140 ships had been lost to the gales of November. The great lakes in mid-autumn are one of the most dangerous maritime regions anywhere. Meteorologists use the term “weather bomb” for the strong low-pressure systems that feed off the relatively warm waters of the great lakes.
The Edmund Fitzgerald was launched in the 50s. She was 729 feet, and the largest ship on the great lakes until 1971.
“The ship was the pride of the American side.” The following in italics is from the song: “Wreck of the Edmond Fitzgerald” by Gordon Lightfoot.
As a commercial ore carrier, the Fitzgerald’s normal trading route took her between Silver Bay Minnesota, and the steel mills in Detroit and Toledo. On November 9, 1975, she was to deliver 26,000 tons of iron ore from Superior Wisconsin to Detroit Michigan.
“Concluding some terms with a couple of steel firms, when they left fully loaded for Cleveland.”
With ships at sea, time is money, schedules run tight, and sometimes a captain and shipping agents try to push the normal trading season a little too far. The first week of November is traditionally the last trading run for vessels plying the great lakes, but with more than 6000 commercial shipwrecks littering the bottom, perhaps shipping agents should review the history books instead of their ledgers.
“That good ship and crew, was a bone to be chewed, when the gales of November come early.”
Lady Luck was not on board with Captain Ernest McSorley when the Edmund Fitzgerald cast off her lines in Wisconsin and headed into Lake Superior. The Fitzgerald carried two sets of radar gear but only one common antenna; just out of port, the antenna began to fail.
“The wind in the wires made a tattle-tale sound, and a wave broke over the railing.”
The Fitzgerald’s leaking deck hatches had been scheduled for repair in Cleveland, but every man aboard knew the danger of November and a late shipping season. Before the pines of Wisconsin were out of sight, the National Weather Service had issued a gale warning for Lake Superior.
“And later that night when the ships bell rang, could it be the north wind they be feeling?”
The Edmund Fitzgerald continued onward, followed by another ship bound for Gary Indiana. In a gale, the wind speed was between 34 to 40 knots. The waves created by driving wind over open water can be catastrophic. About 2 AM, on November 10, the gale warning was upgraded to a storm warning with wind speeds over 50 knots.
At seven PM, a main hatchway caved in, and he said “Fellas, it’s been good to know ya.”
At approximately 7 PM, the ship bound for Gary Indiana reported losing radar and radio contact with the Edmund Fitzgerald as her lights disappeared beneath monstrous waves.
“And later that night, when ‘is lights went out of sight, came the wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald.”
From another era and remembered by a roadside memorial near Port Sanilac Michigan, the following dedication is inscribed on a State of Michigan historic landmark.
Sudden tragedy struck the great lakes on November 9, 1913, when a storm whose equal no veteran sailors could recall, left in its wake death and destruction. The grim toll was 235 seamen dead, 10 ships lost, and more than 20 others driven ashore. On Lake Huron, all 178 crewmen on the eight ships claimed by its waters were lost. For sixteen terrible hours, gales of cyclonic fury made man and his machines helpless.
The great November storm of 1913 is also known as the Great White Hurricane, the freshwater fury, and the big blow.
In November, multiple storm tracks converge over the Great Lakes quite often. Cold air sweeping down from Alberta Canada clashes into other fronts barreling across from the Rocky Mountains. These cyclonic storms are referred to as the November gales or the Witch of November. Since 1847, at least 25 ship-killer storms have been conjured by the Witch of November.
“The legend lives on from the Chippawa on down. Of the big lake, they call Gitche Gumee. Superior they said, never gives up her dead, when the gales of November come early.”
A northwester in South Florida can produce winds of over forty miles-per-hour and churn our shallow waters into dangerous and battering waves. We experience the last of the artic fury but every November brings radio station refrains and echoing tales of brave mariners who lost their lives on ships at sea.
“And every man knew as the Captain did too, ‘twas the witch of November come stealin’.”
Tom Williams is a Marco Islander. He is the author of two books. “Lost and Found” and “Surrounded by thunder –the Story of Darrell Loan and the Rocket Men.” Both books are available on Kindle and Nook.