Despite the many miracles of modern navigation which have assisted in reducing the number of marine accidents through the introduction of numerous time- and manpower-saving devices, the waters of this world continue to take their toll on our ships and crews. As far as our own Great Lakes are concerned, this toll has gradually been reduced, but we have not as yet been able to render completely safe those waters which normally present, to the professional seaman and to the yachtsman alike, such a calm face. There remain with us still three basic factors which we cannot eliminate completely from the scene, these being human error, mechanical failure, and the unpredictability of these waters which we believe we know so well.
As cases in point, we should not forget the loss by foundering on Lake Superior on May 20, 1953, of the steamer HENRY STEINBRENNER (I); the sinking by collision on Lake Superior of SCOTIADOC on June 21, 1953; the stranding near Marquette, on September 12th of the same year, of the Bethlehem steamer MARYLAND; the 1954 loss by collision in Lake Michigan off Milwaukee of the Oranje Lijn motorvessel PRINS WILLEM V (I); the foundering on November 18, 1958, of the self-unloader CARL D. BRADLEY (II) in Lake Michigan; the loss by collision, on May 7, 1965, of the self-unloader CEDARVILLE in the Straits of Mackinac; the foundering on November 29, 1966, in Lake Huron, of the Bethlehem steamer DANIEL J. MORRELL and the retirement and eventual loss on salt water of her sistership EDWARD Y. TOWNSEND as a result of hull damage sustained in the same storm; and the disappearance in eastern Lake Superior, on November 10, 1975, with all hands, of the Columbia Transportation steamer EDMUND FITZGERALD.
These tragedies, plus others of a less severe nature, bring sharply to our attention the fact that we may never take the Great Lakes for granted, nor feel complacent about our relationship with these familiar waters. If we have ever been faced with such complacency, it has been at least temporarily banished by these well-known accidents and should once again have been chased from our minds by the near-loss of the Canadian motorship LABRADOC (II) on Lake Erie in the major windstorm of April 6th, 1979.
LABRADOC (II) was the fifth of eight combination lake and coastal carriers built in the sixties and seventies by Canadian shipyards for the Thunder Bay firm of N. M. Paterson and Sons Ltd. She was constructed as Hull 656 of Davie Shipbuilding Ltd. at Lauzon, Quebec, and was commissioned in 1966, as was her sistership, PRINDOC (III). Powered by two twelve-cylinder Fairbanks Morse diesels, she measures 299.0 (315.0 overall) x 49.0 x 26.5, 3610 Gross and 2239 Net. LABRADOC is a stemwinder, equipped with four large hatches and fitted with two sets of kingposts and cargo booms. She has operated in both lake and coastal service, and her career has been generally uneventful until this spring.
LABRADOC spent Thursday, April 5, 1979, lying at the Pillsbury elevator at Huron, Ohio, where she loaded a cargo of approximately 160,000 bushels of corn which she was to deliver to Cardinal, Ontario. Despite the forecast of severe winds and the posting of warnings, LABRADOC, under the command of Captain Ray Chambers, sailed from Huron in the late evening of Thursday.
The ship made her way down Lake Erie en route to Port Colborne and, by 3:15 a.m. on Friday, April 6, she was in a position some 25 miles north of Fairport and about 30 miles northwest of Ashtabula. It was about this time, as she was battling her way through heavy seas, that her cargo began to shift and she soon took on a list of about 25 degrees to port. In this condition, her port rails were under water and the seas breaking over her began to pound even harder upon her big hatches.
Capt. Chambers immediately roused all members of the crew and sent out radio calls for assistance. He received the same from the Upper Lakes Shipping Ltd. bulk carrier CANADIAN MARINER which was in the immediate vicinity and which took up a position to windward of LABRADOC so as to provide some shelter for the smaller vessel. The U.S. Coast Guard tender MARIPOSA was sent to the scene from Detroit, but she could not reach the area for some few hours and then could do little in the heavy seas that were running. The U.S.C.G. also sent a rescue boat from Ashtabula, but the large swells and heavy accumulations of ice on the boat forced it to turn back and four of its crew required treatment for exposure upon their return. The Canadian Coast Guard dispatched its icebreaker GRIFFON from Port Colborne, but the storm had packed the lake ice into the eastern end of Lake Erie and, after she had made only two miles headway in six hours, GRIFFON was ordered to return to her berth. Canadian and U.S. rescue helicopters were dispatched to the scene as well.
The crew stayed aboard LABRADOC through Friday morning in the hope that the vessel might be saved, but by noon it had become apparent that her condition was worsening in the continuing windstorm. Fifteen members of the crew were removed then but the master and four others remained aboard until about 3:30 p.m. when they, also, were forced to abandon their efforts to save the ship. All of the crew members were removed by Air National Guard and U.S. Coast Guard helicopters and were taken to the Cleveland area where two were treated for minor injuries.
With her crew having abandoned her, LABRADOC was pretty well given up for lost and, indeed, several radio newscasts contained the information that she had foundered. The ship, however, was not about to give up as easily as that and she continued to fight the storm, even without human assistance. During Saturday, April 7th, the McQueen Marine Ltd. tug ATOMIC, which had been sent from Amherstburg, managed to get a line aboard LABRADOC and began the long tow to the shelter of Point Pelee. She was assisted in her efforts by the tug GLENBROOK.
LABRADOC eventually grounded between Pelee Island and Point Pelee and, with the help of the tugs MALCOLM and BARBARA ANN, she was safely secured in sheltered waters. McQueen Marine wrecking equipment was summoned to the scene and, in due course, the vessel's list was corrected and she was brought back to a proper trim. Eventually, she was made ready to sail and was floated free of the shoal water. She was finally given Coast Guard permission to continue her interrupted voyage.
LABRADOC passed down the Welland Canal under her own power on Thursday, April 19th, two weeks to the day from the beginning of what had almost proven to be her last voyage. She was taken down as far as Port Weller and there she was placed on the drydock for full inspection and for the repair of any damage suffered during her escapade on Lake Erie. She was expected to remain on the dock for at least three weeks, there being considerable work to be done on her bottom on the port side where she had pounded on the lake floor whilst grounded.
Seldom do we ever see a ship in such dire straits live to sail another day. It is a credit to the builders and crew of LABRADOC that she survived her ordeal. But let her near-loss serve as yet another reminder that our Great Lakes are not millponds, and that they deserve considerable respect and caution from those who come in contact with them. Even Lake Erie can be a power with which to be reckoned.
Reproduced for the Web with the permission of the Toronto Marine Historical Society.