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BREE'S BLOG: In The Wake of the Fitzgerald

Hatches blamed for sinking


You have to be impressed with the ore boat's massive hatch covers -- so heavy at 14,000 pounds each that they require a permanent crane to heft them about and close them. On a clamshell design, which presses them tighter to the hatch coamings, they are massively built and held in place by more than two dozen special clamps. The hatch covers were initially blamed for the Fitzgerald's sinking on November 10 but this arose from a misunderstanding of the Coast Guard report investigating the sinking. One night in the Apostle Islands, at anchor while I was cruising in Persistence, I studied the CG report and I noted that the report cited not one single suspected cause of the sinking but several, including that of failure of the hatch covers. It was in a short cover letter introducing the report that the CG commandant specified the hatch cover failure as the sole cause of the Fitz's demise. That caused a fuss, since other of their vessels utilize the same type of hatch cover. I also studied the lake carrier's response to the CG report, citing that the Fitz carried the very latest type of hatch covers and that she never arrived in port with water in her holds. They cited that other of their boats used this type of cover and none of them sank. It also cited that prior to its sinking, the Fitz reported no damage to its hatch covers, although after passing over Six Fathom Shoals, Capt. McSorley had reported fence rail down, broken vents, and, most telling of all, that the 729-foot steel vessel had developed a sudden list. But no problems with hatch covers. The mystery deepened.
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