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Ric Mixter's book tells tales of Great Lakes and other shipwrecks beginning in 1913.

Witches of November Climbing on Their Brooms to Sweep Great Lakes

Ric Mixter Book, The Wheelsmen, Recalls Water Disasters of Past

November 7, 2010       Leave a Comment
By: Dave Rogers

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November storms on the Great Lakes, dubbed "witches" by meteorologists and Gordon Lightfoot's haunting song about the sinking of the ore carrier Edmund Fitzgerald, have made gruesome history over the years.

Some of this history is recalled by Ric Mixter, 46, of Saginaw, primarily known as a videographer and speaker, in his recent book, "The Wheelsmen."

Ric recounts the adventures of four wheelsmen, some he interviewed over the years, other survivors of the lake storms and relatives of the men who steered the plunging behemoths in raging seas.

This is not just another book about the storms, written from news accounts. It makes history itself. The book is amazing in detail about the storms and the ships and crew members. The author actually located and interviewed a 98-year-old wheelsman who survived the monumental storm of 1913. And he located and talked to one of three survivors of the sinking of the Coast Guard Cutter Escanaba by a German sub in 1943. For a Great Lakes shipwreck student, and a naval history enthusiast, this is an invaluable and exciting study.

Besides the personal accounts from interview, Mixter himself dove on some of the wrecks and his "dive logs" add more fascinating detail to the stories.

Ric Mixter parlayed a job as a television reporter into an adventure-filled business reporting on the history of Great Lakes storms and shipwrecks.

Mixter's interest in shipping and shipwrecks was sparked by a TV-5 assignment to cover the tankship Jupiter disaster in Bay City in 1990.

"I spent the night on the scene as the tanker burned and only days later I was walking its melted deck and was instantly hooked on shipwreck stories," wrote Mixter.

After 12 years of reporting and producing TV news, Ric left commercial television to learn industrial video as the producer of a show for Dow Chemical.

In 2000 Ric started his own "Airworthy Productions." He has appeared on PBS over 30 times and also has been featured on shipwreck shows on the History and Discovery channels. Ric was awarded the 2009 Award for Historic Interpretation by the Association for Great Lakes Maritime History.

Among Mixter's interviews were those with Lloyd Belcher, wheelsman on the Novadoc in the Armistice Day storm of 1940, and Howard Goldsmith, a crew member, in 2003. Belcher has since died.

The 260-foot freighter rolled in a trough off Muskegon in gale force winds when Capt. Don Steip ordered a turn to run back for Chicago. The ship wouldn't respond when the wheel was turned, Belcher remembered. "You had to hang onto something at that point."

Goldsmith, a fireman, said "it's terrifying because you can't see what's going on and the boat is turning every way but upside down."

Mixter wrote: "When the Novadoc snapped its back on a sandbar off Pentwater, Michigan, it divided the crew into two sections. The forward crew huddled in the captain's quarters, warmed slightly by broken furniture burning in a metal waste basket. The crew aft wasn't so fortunate. They huddled in the highest shelter they could find, the oiler's room. Lake Michigan flooded the quarters and the crew survived 36 hours soaking wet before rescue by local fishermen."

Mixter's book also recounts the 1913 "King of Storms" through the viewpoint of 98-year-old Edward Kanaby who at age 18 was wheelsman on the 270 foot H.B. Hawgood.

In an amazing flash from the past, Kanaby told Mixter that he believed he saved the Hawgood in a 90-mile per hour gale when he disobeyed the captain's order to head out to sea and beached the wounded craft near Sarnia, Ontario, Canada.

Shoals were looming, recalled Kanaby, "so he says we're going to go into deeper waters. I said to myself, oh no you don't; not as long as I'm wheelsman. And I gave her a port wheel and threw the ship out of control on purpose."

When the storm calmed, the water receded and the ship's bow was high and dry in the sand, wrote Mixter, noting that the captain never mentioned the disobedient wheelsman's actions in news reports.

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Kanaby sailed another season and joined the U.S. Army as a flying medic in World War I. He returned home from France, married a girl he had met in Florida during training, worked for Otis Elevator and eventually owned two farms near Croswell -- ironically only a short distance from where ships went down during the 1913 storm. He died in 1993 at age 98 shortly after Mixter had interviewed him.

Another history-making interview in the book is with Len Gabrysiak, who was steering the Cedarville when it was hit by the Norwegian freighter Topdalsfjord in the Straits of Mackinaw in May 1965. Ten men went down entombed with half the ship. Divers found they had chipped at the steel doors with jacknives in desperate attempts to escape as their air ran out. Over the years all the remains have been recovered except one crewman who was never found.

A fascinating book bonus is a report of the 1943 sinking by a German torpedo of the Defoe-built Coast Guard cutter Escanaba. Ray O'Malley, helmsman on the "Esky," one of three survivors of the sinking, gave details on the sinking to the local author.

O'Malley and his son were photographed with Mixter by Ron Bloomfield of the Bay County Historical Society, who is also a diver. O'Malley died in 2007 at age 87 and his ashes were scattered by Mike O'Malley off the Escanaba III Coast Guard vessel.

Perhaps the most famous November storm was the Edmund Fitzgerald storm of Nov. 9-10, 1975. That howler sent the giant ore carrier to the bottom of Lake Superior, taking all 29 aboard to watery graves.

Meteorologist Mace Bentley detailed the Edmund Fitzgerald storm in an article in the November 1998 issue of Weatherwise magazine.

It was the last storm that took lives on the lakes, but one that is recalled on Nov. 10 each year with a ceremony at the Mariner's Church in Detroit.

But even the Edmund Fitzgerald storm wasn't the deadliest November Witch, recalled USA Today. Eight Great Lakes ore carriers sank, with 250 deaths, during the Great Storm of 1913, sometimes called the "Freshwater Fury." It is said to have been the worst natural disaster ever on the lakes.

"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," said a report by the Lake Carriers Association.

The storm created winds of more than 60 miles per hour; it struck Nov. 8-9, taking its greatest toll in Lake Huron and eastern Lake Superior. More than 50 vessels were damaged.

The Nov. 11, 1940, Armistice Day storm, experienced by Belcher and Goldsmith, killed 59 sailors in shipwrecks, primarily on Lake Michigan.

"Invariably the big storms occur in November, which has always been a stormy month on the Great Lakes," wrote Val Eichenlaub in his book "Weather and Climate of the Great Lakes Region."

The nation's first storm warning was issued from Chicago Nov. 8, 1870, by the U.S. Army Signal Service, later the National Weather Service. Professor Increase Latham issued the warning for the Great Lakes region.

Atmospheric circulation heightens and temperature contrasts between the cold expanses of Canada and warmth of the Gulf States cause turbulence, concluded Eichenlaub.

Ric was born on an Air Force base in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. The eldest of 7 children, Ric attended a one-room school in Sands and graduated from Gwinn High School in 1982. He started in the news business on radio while still in high school and hired on at WLUC-TV during his second year of college. He soon moved to the Great Lakes Bay region for work in television that has progressed to his own business. Access to Ric's work is available on or

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Dave Rogers

Dave Rogers is a former editorial writer for the Bay City Times and a widely read,
respected journalist/writer in and around Bay City.
(Contact Dave Via Email at

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