John Delach

On The Outside Looking In

Month: September, 2022

Prince Christian Sound, Greenland: July 13, 2010

An excerpt from my vacation log: “Voyage of the Vikings: July17 to August 5”.

I had awakened early in anticipation of the possibility of experiencing a unique crossing through a Greenland sound. Unfortunately, the early morning fog won’t quit. Unless it cooperates, my hope will be dashed, I wait for the MV Maasdam captain’s first  briefing of the day. Shortly after nine, Captain James Russell-Dunford’s booming voice announces:

Good morning, ladies and gentlemen. It’s been quite a night and a rather long one for me. I have only just returned to the bridge having been relieved so I could get a bit of rest. One of our passengers, an eighty-four-year-old man took ill late last night and our doctor determined that he had to be evacuated. We returned to Qaqortoq (Greenland) arriving at 3 am where we lowered him by tender and he was taken to the local hospital with his wife and their baggage. The crew did a superb job and we were on our way back to sea by 3:30. Hopefully, he will be fine and I’ll be able to report his status.

We have made good time and will be approaching an entrance to the (Prince William) sound in a half-hour. Helicopter observations report that the sound is ice-free, but we’ll have to see if the fog persists when we reach the entrance before I can commit to a passage.

I return to my book continuing to sit looking out over the bow from the Crow’s Nest, an observation area above the ships bridge that looks over the bow giving me a panoramic view of what lies ahead of the ship.

When the electronic gong signals another announcement, I look up and there in the distance breaking through the mist directly in front of the ship is a mountain at least 2,000 or 3,000 feet high. “Where did that come from?” I remark to the woman in the next seat.

I rise to leave as the captain announces we were going to start a passage. “I may have to turn around if conditions deteriorate, but right now I am satisfied with visibility and ice conditions.”

Back in our cabin, I put on rain pants over my jeans, a wind breaker, wool vest raincoat and a Tilley’s rain hat and off I go to the bow. I stay only long enough to photograph our entrance into the straits. I move to the stern out of the wind and away from the crowds. Here I stay for the entire passage except for lunch in the Lido and a camera battery change. The rain is heavy and cold but, not only do I survive it, more importantly so does my camera. Whenever possible, I shoot from positions shielded by bulkheads and over hangs that protect my Nikon, and when necessary, I use one of the many cloth napkins I expropriated to keep my camera dry when I have to expose it to the elements.  

What a passage; the most spectacular scenery I’ve ever witnessed. It may have been better had the sun been out, certainly far more pleasant and colorful, but the low clouds and mist add drama that, in my opinion, trump color. Mountains rise to heights in excess of 4,000 feet closing in to the ship as close as 500 feet on either side. At times, layers of clouds wrap around the rock faces, clinging to the sides obscuring them, but allowing crags and peaks to poke through.

Other times, the drab gray, brown and green formations rise free of the mist. Countless waterfalls drain pockets of ice and snow while seven different glaciers descend down the mountains, one directly into the sound. Icebergs of all sizes, shapes and colors drift by. The captain’s enthusiasm grows as we continue and, at some point he silently decides we will complete the journey including a side-trip to a lone Inuit village that clings to a rocky landing in the sound.

Approximately 150 men, women and children inhabit Aappilattoq, ( APE-il

-at- tog) an isolated hamlet of rectangular pre=fabricated houses all with exteriors in bright colors perched precariously on flat rocks  at a junction of two canyons. The inhabitants’ fish for sustenance and hunt seal to make a living. The captain steers Maasdam past the village into a wide basin where we make a 180 degree turn to continue our east – west passage through the second canyon.

The ships horn bellows as we complete the turn calling out fishing skiffs from the village. Four appear, a single man in the first, two men in the second, six in the third including at least three children and three in the last. The boats are all similar, white open skiffs with huge outboards. Two of the drivers stand steering by means of long handles attached to the motors. They wave and take photographs of us as we wave and take photos of them.

Before lunch, Mary Ann brings me a welcome cup of the thick Dutch pea soup being served on several decks. It is so good that I have more with lunch.

I return to the stern for the remainder of our passage. We leave the sound just after 4 pm.

I stand down from my self-imposed watch. I need dry clothes and a nap. Even so, I’m pleased to discover that I took over 250 photos over the seven hours that I spent on deck. My first edit reduces this number to 127. Eventually, I reduce the number to under 100.

 What a fabulous day! For sure, my best ever, better even than transiting the Panama Canal. This passage was a hoot and a half. 

The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald

The legend lives on from the Chippewa on down

Of the big lake they call Gitche Gumee

The lake it is said, never gives up her dead

When the skies of November turn gloomy

Gordon Lightfoot: “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald.”. 

At 7:20 on the evening of November 10, 1975, The Laker, Arthur M. Anderson lost the radar profile of the Edmund Fitzgerald. The Big Fitz had disappeared beneath those waves generated by the hurricane like storm that enraged Lake Superior. Nineteen-minutes later, Captain Bernie Cooper, the Anderson’s skipper contacted the Coast Guard on Channel 16, the emergency distress frequency. The operator treated his call as non-essential and asked him to call back on Channel 12 to keep Channel 16 free for distress calls.

Cooper couldn’t contact the Coast Guard again on Channel 12 until fifteen minutes later at 7:54 pm. In the meantime, Cooper was able to contact an ocean-going ship, Nanfri, whose captain confirmed that Big Fritz had also disappeared from their radar.

True, the Coast Guard was slow to respond, but the storm had crippled the USCG Station, taking out masts, communications and radar at the same time that they were inundated with distress calls. It wasn’t until 10:30 that the USCG accepted the ugly truth that the largest boat in history of sinkings on the Great Lakes had been lost.

The Coast Guard requested that all commercial vessels in or near Whitefish Bay commence a search for the Big Fitz or any survivors. They also dispatched a helicopter and a fixed wing aircraft. Once daylight returned, all the searchers found were lifeboats, rafts and other debris that belonged to the Big Fitz.

It wasn’t until November 14th, that a US Navy aircraft equipped with a scanner designed to detect magnetic anomalies located the wreck about seventeen miles from the entrance to Whitefish Bay. The wreck was resting in 530 feet of water.

The following spring, the Navy surveyed the wreck of the Big Fitz using an unmanned submersible. Between May 20 and May28, The CURV III found the ship’s remains lying in two pieces. The ship had split almost in half. The forward section starting at the bow measured 276 feet in length and rested upright, while the 253-foot stern section bottomed at a 50-degree angle.

The evidence suggests strongly that the Big Fitz split in half. But why? All the king’s horses and all the king’s men couldn’t give a definite cause of loss. All we have is hypotheses as to why The Big Fitz was lost with all hands.

They might of split up or they might have capsized

They might have broke deep and took water

And all that remains is the faces and the names

Of the wives and the sons and the daughters.

Mariners Church in Detroit

 In a musty old hall in Detroit, they prayed in the maritime sailors’ cathedral. The church bells chimed twenty-nine times for each man on the Edmund Fitzgerald.

The original wooden church was built in 1841 on land bequeathed to the Anglican Church of North America  to serve the spiritual needs of Great Lakes mariners. The completion of the Erie Canal transformed how goods and passengers could travel between the mid-west and New York City and the entire Northeast. The current edifice, a Gothic Revival stone church, replaced the original structure in 1849.

The church was a stop on the Underground Railroad assisting fugitive slaves to cross the border into Canada and freedom.

In 1955, the church was saved from being demolished by George Stark, a reporter with the Detroit News who led a crusade to raise enough funds to move the church 880 feet away from its site condemned for an urban renewal project.

The story of these men and their ship may have slipped into history had not Gordon Lightfoot memorialized them in his haunting ballad. The Mariners’ Church has an annual service to recall the 30,000 men and women lost across the Great Lakes. It is not a coincidence that this service is held on the Sunday in November closest to the 10th.

In 2020, the 45th Anniversary of the sinking, Reverend Jeffrey M Hubbard, the church rector noted: “It’s stuck in the memories of folks in Michigan, and the Great Lakes. (They) are so integrally connected to our area. Hearing the story of the brave men who lost their lives resonates with the people.”

Near the end of the service, a performer sang a rendition of The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald.

The Last Watch ceremony followed and the Steeple’s bell chimed thirty times, twenty-nine for each of the crew who lost their lives to Superior’s gales of November and one for the Edmund Fitzgerald.

My interpretation.     

SS Edmund Fitzgerald

Part One

Gordon Lightfoot’s  poignant and profound poetry fills his lyrics of The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald. Lines like: The lake it is said never gives up her dead when the skies of November turn gloomy.

The SS Edmund Fitzgerald was named after the president of its owner, Northwestern Mutual Life. Ordered in 1957, she was an investment for that life insurance company. When completed in 1958, the “Fitz,” was the largest ore carrier operating on the Great Lakes, a distinction the ship would carry until 1971. This US flag laker had several other nicknames, Mighty Fitz, Big Fitz, Pride of the American Side, Toledo Express. And regrettably, Titanic of the Great Lakes. Northwestern signed a 25-year contract with Oglebay Norton, a major lakes carrier to operate this lake boat. The operator designated the Big Fitz as the flagship of their American fleet.

The Big Fitz left Superior, Wisconsin at 2:35 pm on November 9, 1975 with a full load of treated iron ore called taconite. The ship sailed under the command of Captain Ernest M. McSorley with  a crew of 29. These twenty-nine consisted of the captain, three mates, five engineers, three oilers a cook, a wiper, two maintenance men, three watchmen, three deckhands, three wheelmen, two porters, a cadet and a steward. They ranged in age from 20, (watchman, Karl A. Peckol), to 63, Captain McSorley. Their route  would take them across Lake Superior to Detroit, through the Soo Locks to a steel mill on Zug Island.

Capt. McSorley decided to join the laker, Arthur M Anderson captained by Bernie Cooper in an informal convoy of mutual protection. The National Weather Service (NWS) predicted that a storm would pass just south of Lake Superior by 7 am on November 10th.

The wind in the wires a tattle-tale sound and a wave broke over the railing. And every man knew and the captain did too t’was the witch of November came stealin.

Another laker, SS Wilfred Sykes, loaded opposite the Big Fitz. Its captain, Dudley J. Paquette, didn’t trust the NSW forecast and predicted a major storm was coming. He decided to take a more circuitous route across the lake staying closer to the shelter of its north shore. By radio, they learned that the Big Fitz and the Anderson’s masters had decided to make their runs out in the middle of Superior.

At 7 pm the NWS altered its forecast issuing gale warnings for the entire lake. The two lakers altered course northward seeking that same shelter of the north coast before the storm struck at one am on November 10. The Fitz and the Anderson  reported winds of 60 mph and waves 10 feet high. At about the same time, Capt. Paquette of the Sykes heard Capt. Mc Sorley tell the Anderson that he had hit a rough patch and “You are walking away from us… I can’t stay with you.”

Despite that transmission and the NWS’s early morning update upgrading wind speed to neat hurricane speeds of 58 mph, McSorley had a change of heart and his faster laker pulled ahead of the Anderson around 3:00 am. About the same time, it began to snow. A half-hour later, McSorley radioed the Anderson that the Big Fitz was taking on water through two vent covers blown away by the wind and the high seas. The Big Fitz had developed a list, but, fortunately, two of the ships six bilge pumps were up to the task of controlling the flooding.

The storm compounded the Big Fitz’s dilemma. Both radars were blown away so the captain slowed his boat so the Anderson could get close enough to guide the now blind giant. With the Big Fitz in peril, McSorley chose to head for the shelter of Whitefish Bay on the Canadian side. He used the radio to ask for help from other ships in the area about the condition of navigation aids leading to this possible shelter.

Captain Cedric Woodward of the laker, Avafors, communicated with McSorley between 5:00 and 5:30 pm. Woodward later testified that he overheard McSorley say: “Don’t allow nobody on deck.” McSorley also told Woodard, “I have a ‘bad list.’ I have lost both radars, and am taking heavy seas over the deck in one of the worst seas I’ve ever been in.”

Does anyone know where the love of God goes when the waves from minutes to hours?

By late afternoon, the Arthur M. Anderson sustained wind speeds as high as 67 MPH and wave heights of 25 feet. At 6 pm, this lake boat suffered through wind gusts of between 81 and 86 MPH and rogue waves of 35 feet.

At 7:10 pm, Capt Cooper radioed the Big Fitz and asked McSorley, how he was doing? McSorley replied: “We are holding our own.”

These were the last words ever heard from the Edmund Fitzgerald. No distress signal was received. Ten-minutes later, the Anderson lost both radio and radar contact with the Big Fitz. The big laker was gone.

And all that remains is the faces and the names of the wives and the sons and the daughters.

To be continued.    

Wyckoff Heights Hospital

I first wrote this piece in 2002 and included it in my 2011 anthology, The Big Orange Dog and Other Stories, that pre-dated my blog.

In the last quarter of the Twentieth Century, Wyckcoff Heights Hospital grew to become a medical center occupying a complete city block. It came to serve a broad area of northern Brooklyn including Bushwick, Williamsburg and Greenpoint and Ridgewood and Glendale in Queens. The center has six different and distinct buildings built between 1903 and 1985.

Stone steps led to the long closed main entrance to the original building. A stone arch framed the old entrance  with the hospital’s original name  carved into this stone: The German-American Hospital. That  name reflected the nationality of the people who developed Bushwick, Brooklyn and Ridgewood, Queens at the turn of the Nineteen Century when these neglected areas developed into the new neighborhoods as rapid transit in the form of the Myrtle Avenue Elevated subway opened providing service to Downtown Brooklyn and Manhattan.

The hospital’s name was changed to Wyckoff Heights during World War I as part of the frenzy of anti-German sentiment once we entered the conflict. This same sentiment led to a local street, Hamburg Avenue, being renamed, Wilson Avenue and calling sauerkraut, victory cabbage as the brutality and carnage of The Great War became apparent.

These neighborhoods remained basically German until after the 1930s when Italians joined the mix. Blacks started arriving during World War II displaced from the south by the invention of the automatic cotton picker and the promise of jobs in the war effort. In 1948, Puerto Ricans started to arrive via Trans Caribbean Airlines’ surplus Army Air Force C-54s that provided cheap transportation to New York. The Italians retreated north out of Bushwick and into Ridgewood victims of fear and prejudice against these new residents.

Wyckoff Heights also set its sights north ignoring these newcomers in favor of its historic population. At least it did in the 1950s and 1960s. The black and Hispanic people utilized Bushwick Hospital and other small neighborhood facilities until they were closed when the City of New York consolidated their operations into a new giant, Woodhull Hospital, located at the junction of Broadway (Brooklyn) and Flushing Avenue.

But Woodhull quickly developed a terrible reputation. Then, as the violence of the 1970s escalated and Bushwick was consumed by acts of arson, residents demanded that ambulances responding to their emergencies, take them to Wyckoff Heights. As the German and Italian population aged, or moved away, Wyckoff Heights became a curious mixture of elderly European widows being treated for illnesses brought on by old age lying on gurneys in an over-crowded emergency room, side-by-side with young black and Hispanic men who had been shot, stabbed or who had OD’ed.

I found myself drawn to this scene on several occasions as I responded to my mother’s emergencies. When I arrived for my last visit, I found her in a bed squeezed into the Emergency Room right next to a young man who was cuffed on his ankle to his bed.

Fortunately, a semi-private room became available the next day freeing her from this nightmare. When she was well enough, I begged her that whenever she felt the need to go to a hospital, that she contacted me first so I could arrange for an ambulance to take her to St. Francis Hospital in Port Washington. She agreed and I never returned to Wyckoff Heights again.

But, as I left that night, I passed a security guard occupied by an inebriated man attempting to enter the hospital. The guard was telling him, “You cannot come in, you are drunk. Come back when you are sober.”

Over my shoulder, I heard the drunk respond, “Sure, but by then visiting hours will be over.”

I smiled in spite of myself as I walked out the door.