Maci Cornish knows what floats her boat. A walking encyclopedia of Great Lakes Shipwreck history, the Fitz-obsessed first-year engineering student welds as a hobby, works summers as first mate on a tour boat and is studying for her 100-ton captain’s license.
“My love for learning about shipwrecks started early,” Cornish said. Cornish was in middle school when her grandmother gave her a framed print of the Edmund Fitzgerald lying on the bottom of Lake Superior. She brought it with her to hang in her dorm room at Michigan Technological University. “I still love learning about Great Lakes maritime history. It’s always been my weird little niche.”
The Munising, Michigan, native has had plenty of opportunities to expand and share her shipwreck knowledge. She spent the last four summers working for Lake Superior Glass Bottom Shipwreck Tours, starting out as maintenance and dock crew. “I applied for a maintenance job because I thought it would be good prep for mechanical engineering,” said Cornish, who was subsequently promoted to boat crew and worked this past summer as first mate and narrator. “There are 73 shipwrecks in the Alger Underwater Preserve and we try to fit information about all of them in,” she said. “It’s a two-hour tour, give or take, and it’s a good tour — I might be a little biased,” she added, laughing. “The main part of my job is talking over a mic to large groups of people. I like leadership positions.”
The tour boat goes out rain or shine, so Cornish is used to handling whatever Mother Nature delivers on a summer day. But by the time the infamous Witch of November comes calling, pleasure boating season on Lake Superior has long ended. The Witch, sung of by Gordon Lightfoot in “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald,” is what mariners call the intense winds and extreme waves created by seasonal weather systems swooping fiercely down on vessels and crews caught unaware on the lake. Such a storm claimed the Fitzgerald, a 729-foot ore carrier and her 29-man crew, Nov. 10, 1975. The Fitzgerald is the largest shipwreck by length in Great Lakes history, made all the more devastating by the total loss of life.
Remembering the Fitz
Commemorations around the Great Lakes region will take place Thursday, Nov. 10, including a memorial beacon lighting at Minnesota’s Split Rock Lighthouse. The Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum at Whitefish Point, which houses the Edmund Fitzgerald’s ship’s bell, will not hold a public ceremony, but will livestream a memorial service at 7 p.m. The annual memorial service at Mariner’s Church of Detroit will be streamed live at 3 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 13.
Getting Ready to Captain Her Own Ship
Cornish, whose childhood nickname was “Little Fish,” has always felt at home in and
on the water. Being raised lakeside and finding a summer job that got her out on the
water every day also proved inspiring. Capt. Theresa Karr, who recently retired after 28 years with the Shipwreck Tours, encouraged Cornish
to pursue her 100-ton captain’s license.
The coursework is nearly as rigorous as a Michigan Tech education and the fieldwork is as hands-on as it gets, requiring documentation of 360 days of sea service working on deck or in the engineering department of a vessel. Cornish is undaunted. She doesn’t expect it to be easy. She’s preparing, just as she did before coming to Tech, and plans to get the bulk of the written coursework completed over MTU’s holiday break.
Off the Water and Settling In on Campus
Cornish easily made good grades in high school. She knew Tech would require her to level up because her dad, Bill, earned his bachelor’s and master’s in mechanical engineering at Tech. In order to pave the way for success, Cornish attended the Summer Youth Programs’ Women In Engineering (WIE) experience the summer before her first year at MTU. “I loved it so much,” she said. “I went with friends, and a lot of them are here with the incoming class.”
"I’d been planning on going to Tech since middle school. After SYP, I knew for sure that this is the place I want to go and where I want to spend a lot of time."
Cornish also took advantage of the College of Engineering’s Prep4Tech program, designed to help incoming Huskies refresh their math, time management and study skills. Prep4Tech students move into the residence halls prior to Move-In Day. “It was really nice, moving in early,” she said. “The program covered Algebra I all the way up, so it was really helpful.”
Staying on top of her studies is a priority. “I’ve already checked out the learning centers to make sure I don’t sink,” she said. But she’s also finding the activities that make her feel at home, like playing sousaphone in the Huskies Pep Band. And she hasn’t given up favorite hobbies like welding.
“Just for funsies, I took Intro to Construction Trades my senior year in high school,” she said. “That’s where I learned stick welding and dabbled in MIG (metal inert gas welding, a subtype of gas metal arc welding). My grandfathers know how to weld and it’s kinda fun to be passing that on.”
Cornish keeps three kinds of calendars going, including a pocket planner in her backpack. She maintains a separate portfolio focused on her captain’s coursework and exam. “One of the nice things about always being involved in high school is that I learned to balance my activities,” she said. “I like to see everything visually laid out. I’m a big fan of lists.”
Cornish lives closer to home than some Huskies, but opted to hang out on campus her first several weekends here to settle in. “I knew there was ‘community’ here,” she said, making air quotes. “But everyone up here is actually so happy to be here — it’s better than I imagined. I want to stay here and make memories. My dad has so many stories!”
Her family, including mom Jennifer and her 16-year-old brother who is also considering going to Tech, traveled up earlier in the fall semester for a favorite treat: root beer floats and pizza at the Ambassador. Four-wheeling in the Keweenaw is another family tradition.
Living the Good Life in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula
Bring it on, winter! Cornish is ready. Her family lives in the middle of a national forest and she’s used to navigating sporty weather conditions. “I’ve got my dad’s old Ram truck. I’m fortunate to have good winter tires and know how to drive here,” she said.
"I’m born and raised in the U.P. and happy to be where there’s snow. I really like the cold. Winter is my favorite season."
“I’m still getting my work-life balance set,” said Cornish, who wants to get further acclimated to life at Tech before she takes on any other extracurricular activities. She’s set her sights on joining SENSE (Strategic Education through Naval Systems Experiences) Enterprise, based at Michigan Tech’s Great Lakes Research Center (GLRC). “I went to the team orientation and had a Center tour with Dr. Havens,” she said. Timothy Havens is the GLRC’s director.
One day she hopes to pilot Michigan Tech’s fleet. “I’d love to get in as a GLRC captain,” Cornish said.
For now, she’s letting the fact that she’s really here sink in.
Cornish said it’s a little embarrassing to admit, but she showed up super early for the first gathering of Michigan Tech’s incoming class in MacInnes Ice Arena for Orientation Week 2022. “In the arena, I sat there, wearing the hockey jersey I just bought, for hours before the presentation,” she said. “I was just thinking, ‘I made it.’”
Michigan Technological University is a public research university founded in 1885 in Houghton, Michigan, and is home to more than 7,000 students from 55 countries around the world. Consistently ranked among the best universities in the country for return on investment, Michigan’s flagship technological university offers more than 120 undergraduate and graduate degree programs in science and technology, engineering, computing, forestry, business and economics, health professions, humanities, mathematics, social sciences, and the arts. The rural campus is situated just miles from Lake Superior in Michigan's Upper Peninsula, offering year-round opportunities for outdoor adventure.