OK nautical types - what did that freighter hit in Lake Superior?

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Jul 23, 2012
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This story might get weirder before it gets over - it does seem like maybe it actually hit something?
Old waterlogged logs, normally resting on the lake bottom they can refloat from changing water currents, temperatures, or trapped bacterial gas. They may not break the surface, but float 6-12 feet under the surface.
It would have to have been a big log to do that much damage. It’s possible, but my money would be on a container lost overboard from some other ship last winter.
A few year back I was fishing about 15 miles offshore of the west coast of Vancouver Island (our annual salmon fishing trip). Mild swell with some light wind chop but we were able to run on plane. As we’re running I see something dead ahead that just looks off so came off plane and crept up on it. It was a full size shipping container that was “floating” with about 1 inch of it left above the surface. My boat is 24’ and I have no doubt that we would have gone down quickly had we struck it on plane.
20+ years ago, I heard about a ship that went down in the north Pacific in good weather. When they sent rescue teams looking for it, they found a large quantity of gallon mayonnaise jars floating in the area. There had been a container previously lost off another ship in the area that was filled with mayonnaise jars. So the conclusion was that the missing ship likely struck the barely floating container filled with mayonnaise in such a way that it sunk very rapidly.
A lost container is a perfectly reasonable answer. Darn it!

I was kinda hoping for North Korean narcosubs. I mean everything else is going on these days so why not that?

I have no inside knowledge

Also signed,
You gotta ignore Niagara Falls for this one
Containers not as likely in Lake Superior.
That’s definitely true, but I’m having trouble coming up with something that would make a big enough hole in a ship that size to cause that much list.

A log could definitely make a big hole right in the bow, but that would flood the very forward end of the ship which is likely to flood evenly to port and starboard. Once you get further aft where there are separate port and starboard compartments, a log is less likely to punch a hole.

I’ll ask my colleague who lives in Wisconsin.
I think the ship is a 50's era freighter. It might have some vulnerable areas of its hull. There are a lot of original old-growth hardwood trees that have been petrifying under water for centuries in the great lakes. They can be 10 to 20 feet around or more. There are nasty storms that move that stuff around.
She's a pretty typical laker, built 1952. It looks like she's welded and not riveted (the latter would be more susceptible to damage).

A 72 yo ship with a high probability of hull corrosion and thinning. Just about any impact could result in long cracks in the hull with flooding. The ship speed would also affect flooding. Until we see a picture of the hull breach, it is a guess what it hit.
She's an olde bucket.

Likely hit nothing, just had a major weld or 7, finally let go.

There really aren't any container ships on the lakes. As for the mayo jar thing, containers above deck are linked together. Which makes sense. Crashing into a couple dozen containers is going to be a bad day. But just one......

There's uncharted shallow spots that move around on that lake. Have you ever seen sand between big waves?
My coworker over in Wisconsin suggests that a structural failure is more likely than a collision. There's a link below with a bit more history about the boat. One good thing about being on the lakes is that fresh water keeps the steel mostly in good shape. It's less likely to rust out like an oceangoing ship would. That said, any time a ship is old enough to be eligible for Medicare, you expect some deterioration in the structure.

Fracture! Looks like the ship hit a big underwater pocket of bad luck. It's an old ship, probably not very good metallurgy, it's been working on fatigue cracking for a long time. It could have had a fatigue crack growing, when the crack grows to a certain point then the remainder of the steel can fracture suddenly. That's like pulling on a big rubber band and cutting it, that could create a loud noise that could be interpreted as being an impact.

In college I did some testing of steel bolts. We put them in a testing machine that would pulse 24 hours a day. We could check the status of the bolt with ultrasonic waves sent down the length of the bolt. You could see when a fatigue crack began and check periodically to plot the progress of the crack. When it got to a certain point the bolt would usually fracture all the way through.
Along those lines, my colleague said he thought it was just a matter of time before one of the lakers has a major longitudinal strength incident (aka breaking in half) with as old as the fleet is. They do try to minimize old ships' time in bad weather, but it still happens.

Most likely, the crack was in a ballast tank that they fill and empty pretty regularly, so they might not have noticed a small amount of leakage. Of course until a crack a few inches long suddenly jumps to a few meters long. Being in fresh water might also make it harder to see the cracks during inspections. On seagoing boats, it's really easy to see cracks by looking for the rust streaks. Often those are just places where the paint broke off a sharp corner, but a crack will almost always have a rust streak.