Your Saturday Listen: The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald, a haunting song and a lesson learned

This week’s Saturday Listen takes you for a wild ride aboard one of Canada’s best-known shipwreck ballads. We offer it up in honour of all workers who risk their lives at sea to move our goods.

The sinking of the Edmund Fitzgerald wouldn’t have been a particularly famous tragedy beyond the Great Lakes had a news story about it not caught the eye of Gordon Lightfoot, one of our country’s most beloved folksingers. But it did, and he responded with one his best-known works, a song whose images of bitter winter winds and the powerful rage of the sea resonated deeply with Canadians.

For our readers outside of Canada, there’s a video version of the song below that includes the lyrics.

The Fitzgerald was an American ore freighter, the largest of her kind to work the Great Lakes when she was launched in 1958. She was well-known to boat watchers but mostly worked quietly, ferrying ore from Minnesota to iron works in ports along the Lakes.

In November of 1975, in a wicked winter storm on Lake Superior, she disappeared in Canadian waters, taking a crew of 29 to their graves without a single distress signal sent.

But the ship had reported some weather problems and related damage earlier on the voyage, so the sinking isn’t a total mystery. The US National Transportation Safety Board investigation concluded the likely cause was sudden, massive flooding of the cargo hold after one or more of the hatch covers collapsed — and that there had already been flooding in from covers that weren’t weather-tight.

Lightfoot penned a moving folksong. The NTSB penned a similarly moving portrait of men likely condemned to their deaths by a series of regulatory and operational decisions designed to save the industry money. We would note that such regulations are often drafted in useful form, but watered down under pressure from industry.

A number of problems came to light during the investigation, some of them more critical than others. The navigation charts placed an important shoal in the wrong spot. The ship had no watertight bulkheads, although they had been recommended (but not required) 10 years earlier for ships of that kind. A number of useful instruments were available but not mandatory and weren’t aboard: a fathometer to read depth, for example. (In 1975, this ship was still using hand soundings, taken with a weighted rope tied in knots at intervals and lowered overboard to measure depth). There was no way to measure water in the hold and no way to pump it out when carrying cargo. There was no draft-reading system to let crew know when they had lost freeboard. There was no emergency beacon, or EPIRB, on board, because ships on the Great Lakes didn’t need them. (Without an instant emergency signal, it took a second ship sailing with the Fitzgerald an hour to realize she was missing.) The nearest coast guard unit capable of responding in that weather was 300 miles away. And finally, ships were being allowed to sail deeper, and with insufficient draft in some ports, were experiencing small groundings and scraping with some berthings – meaning stress and damage to the hull. By the time she sank, the Fitzgerald’s hull was held together with a crazyquilt of patches.

Some good came of the investigation. By the next year, bigger ships were required to have depth sounders. Survivals suits for all crew came three years later. So did the LORAN-C positioning system for navigating the Lakes, with GPS to follow in the 1990s. EPIRBS are required on all vessels now, regulations on load lines reduced freeboard loadings, nav charts have been improved, and every year, the coast guard conducts a pre-November inspection of all hatch and vent covers and lifesaving equipment.

It shouldn’t take the repeated death and injury of crew to force industry and regulators to do the right thing. But to this day, it seems to.

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