With the gales of November upon us and our first winter storm happening today, it’s a fitting time to remember all those who have gone to their rest on the Great Lakes.
This summer I had the privilege of visiting the Marquette Maritime Museum and briefly talking to Dennis Hale, the sole survivor of the steamship Daniel J. Morrell, which went down on Lake Huron on November 29, 1966. I am not a big fan of shipwreck books, but I like to support local events and the museum, and Hale was there signing his autobiography Shipwrecked: Reflections of the Sole Survivor, An Autobiography by Dennis Hale. But what really made me interested was when I heard that Dennis Hale had lived through not only a shipwreck but also a near-death experience, and my constant interest in religion and spirituality propelled me to go pick up a copy of Hale’s book.
I was surprised when I arrived at the museum; there was actually a line to get a copy of Hale’s book–something that doesn’t happen with most book signings I’ve been to in Upper Michigan. I only got to speak to Hale for a minute–I would have asked him a dozen questions if I had thought of them at the time. I certainly had them after I read his fascinating book.
First of all, the book is self-published, but it reads so smoothly and is so full of suspense and so well-organized that I am happy to say it is a shining example of the quality of book a self-published author can produce when he does it right. I was wholly engrossed in this book right from the beginning. Hale retells his experience of the shipwreck with the skill of a master novelist. Part of the reason why the reader never becomes bored is because Hale balances the shipwreck scenes to keep the tension alive with a look back at his troubled childhood of abuse, running away from home, and juvenile troubles with the law, all of which eventually led to his being on the ore boats and ultimately on the ill-fated Daniel J. Morrell.
I will not recount the full details of the book here because I wouldn’t want to deprive the reader from a gripping read, but here are just a few things that stunned me about his experience. First, I was astounded by the fact that the Daniel Morrell was built in 1906–that a sixty-year old ship was still used boggles my mind–that the ship had serious issues that compromised its stability yet that it was still used is even more unbelievable. I was also stunned after the rescue by how Hale was treated. He was interrogated by the company he worked for until he felt like they were accusing him of having done something wrong during the ship’s sinking. He also tried to share his near-death experience with the priest who gave him last rites, only to be told not to talk about it.
While the story alone is fascinating, what I truly found appealing was how introspective Hale was. The psychological aspects of the book were definitely the strongest in a very strong narrative. While waiting to be rescued and wondering whether he would be, Hale began to think God was punishing him for his past behaviors, which then spurred his memories of the past that he shares with the reader. Even after he is rescued, Hale is introspective, questioning why he survived and whether he truly had a near-death experience. He tried to avoid all the publicity that resulted from his being the sole survivor of the shipwreck, and being haunted by the event led to a troubled marriage and substance abuse.
And then, something shifted inside him when he heard about the sinking of the Edmund Fitzgerald. He realized he had a mission and started to advocate for Great Lakes Safety which led to his sharing his story with the public. I suspect the world wasn’t ready in 1966 to hear what he had to say, but by the late 1970s and 1980s they were. At first, Hale was reluctant to speak and found it difficult to find the words when he did, but overtime, he realized people were receptive to his message. He realized he had suffered from PTSD as a result of his experiences, and he became involved with the International Association of Near Death Studies. Giving talks about his experiences eventually defused much of the anxiety he still felt over the past.
Few books have offered a more honest portrait of a man trying to find meaning and answers in his life against a more dramatic experience. I highly recommend Shipwrecked to all readers, and I sincerely hope Dennis Hale has found his peace at last.
Hale’s book is available at Snowbound Books in Marquette and the Marquette Maritime Museum as well as online bookstores. I feel honored to have crossed Hale’s path, even if only briefly.