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A wreck is discovered in Lake Superior. The behavior of its captain remains a mystery.

As the SS Arlington, a Canadian wheat ship crossing Lake Superior, began to sink in stormy weather on May 1, 1940, its crew climbed into a lifeboat and beheld a strange sight.

There, across the stormy waters, was their captain, Frederick Burke, known as Tatey Bug, waving at them from the deck of the Arlington, moments before going down with his ship.

The strange behavior of the captain, a solitary character left alone after his men fled, remains a mystery. And it’s likely that an explanation, like that of the ship itself, will never surface, according to researchers at the Great Lakes Shipwreck Historical Society, who announced Monday that the Arlington had been found off the coast of the Upper Peninsula from Michigan.

“The question is whether he was saying, ‘Hey, hold the lifeboat,’ or whether he was saying goodbye,” said Dan Fountain, a researcher who volunteers with the historical society and was the first to detect the anomaly in the lake bottom that led to the discovery of the Arlington. Last year.

Hundreds of ships sank in the Great Lakes, threatened by stormy waters while carrying goods. Many wrecks have been found over the years, slowly appearing from the dark depths using sonar or satellite technology.

As with the Arlington, the wrecks are visible, but details of the ships’ final moments are often never discovered.

Lake Superior, the largest freshwater lake in the world by surface area, has been an important commercial shipping corridor for centuries. Hundreds of shipwrecks are estimated to be found in this nearly 32,000 square mile lake.

As the silt at the bottom of the lake is disturbed by currents and time, the wrecks become known in stages. Lake bottom disturbances appear in remote sensing data and then are confirmed by side-scan sonar, which sends and receives acoustic pulses that help map the lake bottom and detect submerged objects. Then, remotely controlled vehicles retrieve the details.

Artifacts, ship hulls or steering wheels appear. Ships are rarely brought to the surface because it is too expensive and against Michigan law. Surviving manifests and crew lists are combed for clues about life aboard the ship.

Some keep their secrets to themselves. The Edmund Fitzgerald disappeared in the driving snow of Lake Superior in 1975, taking 29 men with it and becoming a cultural legend thanks to Gordon Lightfoot’s haunting folk ballad. The schooner Atlanta, lost in 1891 and found in Lake Superior in 2022, brought to life the story of the six crew members who clung to their lifeboat, only two of whom survived after capsizing.

The Arlington has so far kept its best-kept secret, carrying with it any explanation for Captain Burke’s behavior in the ship’s final distressed moments as 10-foot waves crashed over her heel deck.

“The stereotype is that the captain goes down with the ship,” Bruce Lynn, executive director of the historical society, said Monday. “But this captain had plenty of time to get out of his cockpit and be part of the crew that was going to be rescued.

“So I think it’s the mystery of what the captain was doing that makes this unique,” ​​he said.

Loaded with wheat, the Arlington departed from what is now Thunder Bay, Ontario, on April 30, 1940, for Owen Sound, Ontario, with a crew of 16. The ship and a nearby cargo ship, the Collingwood, encountered heavy fog. As night fell, the ships were hit by a storm, the Great Lakes Shipwreck Historical Society said in a statement.

Captain Burke, who had made numerous trips on the lake, had made decisions since the storm began that disconcerted his crew, the historical society and Mr. Fountain said, citing contemporary reports from the time of the sinking of the ship.

As the Arlington began to take on water, its the first lieutenant, Junis Macksey, gave the order to skirt the north shore, hoping to protect themselves from the wind and waves. But Captain Burke demanded that the ship stay on course for open waters.

On May 1, around 4:30 a.m., the Arlington’s chief engineer, Fred Gilbert, raised the alarm as the ship began to sink. The crew began abandoning ship in the absence of orders from their captain and reached the Collingwood, the historical society said.

Mr Lynn said the captain spent a lot of time in the Arlington’s cockpit because the ship was in distress, and there was confusion as to why he was waving. Some crew members said they thought he was ill or had fallen and could not board the lifeboat.

“The last man in the wheelhouse just said he wasn’t coming,” Mr. Lynn said. “There is speculation about this veteran of the lakes. Why was he acting the way he was? What happened in these last moments?

Mr. Fountain, the researcher, detected an anomaly at the bottom of the lake, about 35 miles north of Michigan’s Keweenaw Peninsula, in 2019. Since then it has been confirmed to be the Arlington, partly standing and largely intact, attempted to trace the crew’s descendants to Midland, Ontario.

“It solved a mystery, saying we now have an ‘X’ on the map instead of a blur in that area,” he said. “We are happy to have found it. But it’s also sobering when you realize it’s also Captain Burke’s grave.

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