Off Course: Extreme conditions on the Great Lakes

A winter storm rages on the Great Lakes- Lake Ontario pictured:

Every once in a while I like to go “Off Course” to mention something that is relevant, if only tangentially, to boating or things nautically or historically relevant. Here is an interesting one about the Great Lakes, as it is not just the oceans where mariners run the risk of deadly storm conditions at sea. It frequently happens on the Great Lakes as well. Don’t believe me? Just ask anyone who knows the story of the Edmund Fitzgerald, a huge iron ore carrier which sank in rough conditions on Lake Superior this week 37 years ago.

While the Great Lakes are not exactly relevant to Boston Harbor area boating, I am writing this post in response to the frequent total disbelief that I encounter when telling New England boaters that wave heights of 15-20 feet can easily be attained on the Great Lakes during rough weather. The reason is wind fetch- the lakes are large enough do that wind blowing over them can get enough unobstructed area to create these huge waves, similar to the ocean. Remember that wave height is a function of wind speed, wind sustainability, and fetch. There are scientific formulas to predict wave height, and they can be seen here.

Here is proof. The photo at the top of this page is of Lake Ontario during a winter, near Oswego, NY. Those below are of Coast Guard ships training in a November gale near the same location, on Lake Ontario’ southwest shore. Look at those brutal conditions:

Below are some Coast Guard boats training on the lake:

The Edmund Fitzgerald was a massive Iron Ore carrier that was lost in Lake Superior 37 years ago this week. The Ship carried the Ore from where it was mined up on the North side of Superior to steel mills on the other side of the lakes, in places near Detroit of Cleveland. These steel mills are strategically located in that they were near the major end market (the Auto Industry) and can access steelmaking raw materials (Iron ore from the North side of Superior, and metalurgical coal from places like Ohio, Pennsylvania and West Virginia). While in the process of making such a run, the Edmund Fitzgerald hit a storm so brutal on the lake that the big ship allegedly broke apart and sank.

Here in this link is an an actual photo of the Edmund Fitzgerald from the NOAA.

Below are some photos I took of a similar vessel, the Cuyahoga, pulling into Cleveland on the shores of Lake Erie:

Close up at dock:

The big ship heading out onto Lake Erie on a calm day:

great lakes

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