Shipwrecked With Just a Pea Coat

Imagine you're on a ship that is laboring in heavy seas on a November night, when you're roused from your bunk by a foreboding noise at 2:00 a.m. After a second bang, the power is out. The general alarm sounds, and your cabin is a metal box like a carnival ride in which the walls and floors move chaotically as you scramble to find clothes in the dark. In one of your tumbles, your hand seizes your wool pea coat, which you don. Long pants and footwear would be helpful, but in this emergency a winter coat will have to be enough clothing to investigate the situation.

Image: Daniel J. Morrell under steam; Detroit Publishing Co.

Other crew members on the front end of the Great Lakes freighter have also scrambled on deck, where a horrific scene unfolds. You watch as the vessel literally sheers in half midship. The back half of the boat, where all the machinery and propellers and engine crew are located, continues to steam forward, like a beast charging onward despite its upper trunk being severed. Under its own power, the stern plows forward, pushing your decapitated half of the vessel aside. Metal grating against metal wails with the howling wind as the ship cleaves apart. The aft half then disappears into the night, last seen plodding northward.

The bow of the vessel--with you on it--will plunge in minutes. With a handful of crewmen who are destined to die this night, you plan an improbable alternative. You and three others lash yourselves to a life raft--not some nicely enclosed lifeboat, but an exposed raft--and wait for the ship to sink underneath you, into the cold depths. Imagine 40-foot waves, frigid water, 60 MPH wind, and no one even knows your vessel is in distress, much less sunk. All you're wearing is a pair of shorts, a pea coat, and a life jacket.

Such was the fate of Dennis Hale.

November 29, 2016, marks the 50th anniversary of the sinking of SS Daniel J. Morrell, a 603-foot freighter that broke in half during a storm on Lake Huron in 1966. Of the 29 crew members, only Hale survived to tell the story of the Morrell's demise. Hale endured 38 hours afloat on an exposed raft on Lake Huron before being rescued.

See the book Sole Survivor: Dennis Hale's Own Story. In a rare 2014 interview, Hale relates his harrowing story, concluding, "When things are at their worst, there's an extra strength to draw from."

Dennis Hale died of cancer in September 2015.

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