The Ultimate Storm


All of these peculiarities of construction mean that the lakes sailor has a few problems the saltwater man does not meet. With some modifications, the old design is still followed. The boat is very long and narrow and, when heavily loaded with ore or coal, it has a low freeboard; if it falls into the trough in a heavy seaway, it rolls infernally. It may roll all the way over, in which ease it is eventually posted as “lost with all hands.”


So you stay out of the trough or, if you get in it, you get out of it as quickly as possible, but in the ultimate storm, accidents can happen.

Another item. When the bridge and pilothouse are very close to the stem, a really tremendous head sea can drive waves—not spray, but tons of water—right up against or clear over them. In that case something is likely to give, and the whole command position (along with the people commanding) can get thrown off into the windy dark. Bits of wreckage usually come ashore after a week or two. A similar wave may drive along the entire length of the open deck, putting an abnormal strain on hatch coamings and covers; in 1913 the various improvements that make today’s hatches almost stormproof had not yet been devised.

A BOAT RUNNING before the wind faced a similar danger at the engineer’s end. If the craft got “pooped,” the wave might not only wash out the galley and living quarters but also could smash in the engine-room skylights and send solid water down into the engine room, which meant interesting times for the black gang and, in an extreme case, could mean total disaster for everyone. It ought to be added that in 1913 hardly any freighters had wireless, and none had direction finders or radar.

The great storm of 1913 was enough to try the staunchest vessel to the limit.

The Lake Carriers’ Association, which speaks for ship-owners as a group, issued a statement afterward that discusses the big blow almost with awe, as if the men who wrote it found the English language not quite adequate to say what they wanted said.

“No lake master can recall in all his experience a storm of such unprecedented violence with such rapid changes in the direction of the wind and its gusts of such fearful speed,” they said. “Storms ordinarily of that velocity do not last over four or five hours, but this storm raged for sixteen hours continuously at an average velocity of sixty miles per hour, with frequent spurts of seventy and over. … The testimony of masters is that the waves were at least 35 feet high and followed each other in quick succession. … The wind and sea were frequently in conflict, the wind blowing one way and the sea running in the opposite direction. … It may be centuries before such a combination of forces may be experienced again.”

THE FREAKISH NATURE of the storm seemed to hint that all rules were off. On the night of November 6, before the storm warnings went up, the steamer Cornell was heading west on Lake Superior, forty miles out of the Soo Locks, a mild southeast breeze following. Suddenly, toward midnight, the Cornell encountered tremendous waves from the northwest; the following breeze died, there were confused puffs and blasts from nowhere for a few minutes, and then a whole gale came driving in from the northwest bearing blinding snow and freezing temperatures.

On the same evening, the J. H. Sheadle battened down her hatches on a cargo of grain at Fort William, some two hundred miles northwest of the Cornell ’s position, and set out for the lower lakes. Upon clearing Thunder Cape she met such a sea and wind from the southwest that her captain pulled back to shelter and waited until the morning of November 7, when the wind swung around to the north and he could go on with his voyage.

While the Sheadle was waiting for better weather, the L. C. Waldo sailed from Two Harbors with iron ore and got the worst of it—towering following seas that smashed pilothouse, steering wheel, and compass and drove the blinded vessel onto a reef off the tip of Keweenaw Point. The Waldo was broken in half; by some prodigy of good luck and rugged self-help, her crew survived for ninety hours in the forward end until shore people were able to come out and take them off.


On Lake Michigan the barge Plymouth anchored near St. Martin’s Island to ride out the storm, icy waves breaking over her but never quite able to take her down. When rescuers finally reached the barge, they found an eerie scene: the crew of seven had lashed themselves to rail and rigging to keep from going overboard—and all of them had frozen to death.