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The Man who Survived 38 Hours in a Life Jacket

Adrift for 38 hours in a life jacket, a Navy peacoat and his underpants, Dennis Hale was the sole survivor of one of the worst shipwrecks in Great Lakes history.

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Christopher Winters

The North is shaped by the Great Lakes, which affect the geography, weather, industry, culture and people of the region. Christopher Winters is a maritime historian and photographer who has spent the better part of his professional life documenting the North. His Faces of the Lakes portrait series is a decades-long effort to track down, photograph and tell the stories of significant personalities who, like the Lakes themselves, have helped shape the region. His collection of portraits, a work in progress, is exhibited in galleries around the region and is currently on display at the Olive Craig Gallery at Alberta House in Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan. As part of the North Journal, we will occasionally feature portraits from Faces of the Lakes. – Jason Heaton

“…they know what shipwrecks are, for out of sight of land, however inland, they have drowned full many a midnight ship with all its shrieking crew.” – Herman Melville, Moby Dick

Pounding through a blizzard on November 30, 1966, the iron ore freighter Daniel J. Morrell suffered a catastrophic brittle fracture of her hull midship. Upbound on her last run of the shipping season, the 603-foot Morrell broke in half and foundered in Lake Huron, taking 28 of her 29-man crew down with her. Her forward end was swallowed up by 30-foot seas in less than eight minutes, before an S.O.S. could be sent. Incredibly, the stern section of the vessel remained afloat and under power, sweeping the bow section aside and nearly steamrolling terrified crewmen fighting for their lives in the water. The severed stern of the Morrell continued churning up the lake for over an hour after the initial disaster, lights blazing, “like a great, wounded beast with its head shot off,” as historian William Ratigan famously penned.

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Asleep in his cabin prior to the sinking, crewman Dennis Hale was flung into the lake as the bow section plunged, and managed to thrash his way through the howling blackness and 40-degree water to the ship’s forward life raft. Clad in a kapok life jacket, a Navy peacoat and his undershorts, he joined three shipmates being alternately drenched by breaking seas and frozen by shrieking storm winds on the open raft. All of Hale’s companions died of exposure during the first 12 hours of the ordeal.

The severed stern of the Morrell continued churning up the lake for over an hour after the initial disaster, “like a great, wounded beast with its head shot off.”

The Coast Guard was alerted only after flotsam and drowned sailors wrapped in Morrell life jackets were seen by ships getting underway after the storm. A massive air and sea search launched, and Dennis Hale was discovered 38 hours after he was flung from the sinking ship, frozen to the life raft, surrounded by his dead shipmates. He had blown aground near Harbor Beach, Michigan and was near death and hallucinating.

Not surprisingly, Hale gave up sailing the Lakes to pursue safer work ashore, and refused to talk about his ordeal for decades until discovery of the wreck’s bow section spurred renewed interest. Having made peace with the ghosts of his past, he is now a legend among boat nerds and wreck divers alike, retelling his harrowing tale a dozen or more times a season at maritime events around the region. As a feat of ritual emancipation, he finally summoned the courage to return to the deck of a lake boat, sailing for a week-long trip aboard US Steel’s flagship Roger Blough in July of 1998. Dennis Hale, sole survivor, now lives in Ashtabula, Ohio, a safe distance from the lake.

UPDATE: Dennis Hale passed away on September 2, 2015, after a tough battle with cancer. It is a cruel irony that the sole survivor of one of the Great Lakes’ worst shipwrecks was felled by a disease that claims millions. But Hale’s story will live on as an example of man’s will to live, and a source of inspiration and awe. Fair winds and following seas, Mr. Hale.

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