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A life ring and life vest hang in an exhibit along with a painting of the Edmund Fitzgerald in rough Lake Superior waters in a display at the Lake Superior Maritime Museum in Duluth, Minn. (Jim Mone/AP)
A life ring and life vest hang in an exhibit along with a painting of the Edmund Fitzgerald in rough Lake Superior waters in a display at the Lake Superior Maritime Museum in Duluth, Minn. (Jim Mone/AP)

The Edmund Fitzgerald's legend lives on … but with a major change Add to ...

In the first episode of Dive Detectives, a new series for History Television, the father-and-son diving team of Mike and Warren Fletcher from Port Dover, Ont., conclude that a gigantic, 50-foot rogue wave - not human error - was responsible for sinking the Edmund Fitzgerald. The conclusion has had an effect on Gordon Lightfoot, who intends to change the lyrics to his famous song.

The tragedy

Carrying 26,000 tonnes of iron ore, the Edmund Fitzgerald - at 220 metres long, one of the largest boats ever built for Great Lakes transport - left Superior, Wisc. on the evening of Nov. 9, 1975, bound east for a steel mill on Zug Island, near Detroit. The next day, it encountered a fierce early winter storm, with hurricane-force winds in excess of 50 knots.

For hours, it was buffeted by sea and wind, eventually taking on water, losing radar, and beginning to list. Captain Ernest M. McSorley, struggling to get the freighter to the Canadian coast, said over the radio it was "one of the worst seas I've ever been in." Seventeen miles offshore, it sank 160 metres to the muddy bottom.

Twenty-nine lives were lost - the greatest disaster in the history of the Great Lakes.

The investigation

Conducting a marine casualty report, the U.S. coast guard concluded that the boat sank because the cargo hatches were "improperly serviced." In other words, the crew left them open, allowing the holds to fill with water and dooming the ship.

Families of crew members, other Great Lakes captains and marine engineers have long disputed the verdict. The first response to a storm as savage as the one the freighter faced, they note, would have been to secure the metal clamps that sealed the cargo holds.

Pointing the finger at "human error" prevented lawsuits against the boat's owners, Northwestern Mutual Life Insurance Co. of Milwaukee, or its operators, Oglebay Norton Corp.

But other theories have also been suggested, including the suggestion that the ship may have been damaged by running aground or been victimized by a rogue wave.

New theories about the sinking of the fabled freighter

The rogue wave evidence

Once regarded as maritime myths, rogue waves, scientists now say, occur when a group of waves, travelling in different directions and speeds, coalesce into a single new wave, maximizing destructive power. Any wave 2.6 times the height of a significant wave could be regarded as a rogue wave. Such waves, sometimes known as "three sisters," were spotted on the lake the day of the disaster by other ships.

Using the Institute for Ocean technology in St. John's, the Fletchers deploy wave-generating technology to simulate the conditions faced by the Edmund Fitzgerald. Their tests demonstrate how the force of the freak wave, crashing down on the mid-section of the boat - already low in the water because of its heavy cargo - might have caused it to split in two. Captain Chris Hearn, director of the Centre for Marine Simulation at Memorial University, says such a wave, in combination with the age of the vessel and its heavy load, is the most likely cause of the catastrophe.

The Lightfoot factor

Preparing the film, Yap Films producer Elliot Halpern asked singer Gordon Lightfoot for permission to use his iconic song, The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald, as part of the score. After viewing the footage, Lightfoot consented.

"I'm happy for the families," Mr. Lightfoot said in an interview. "There's been lingering doubt about whether the hatch covers had been left open. This disproves that theory and ends the uncertainty. I think it's definitive."

His song, which reached No. 2 on Billboard's charts in 1976, contains the words, "at 7 p.m. the main hatchway gave in." Mr. Lightfoot said he does not intend to re-record the song, but will change the following lyric for all future performances.

When supper time came the old cook came on deck /Saying fellows it's too rough to feed ya /At 7 p.m. a main hatchway caved in /He said fellas it's been good to know ya.

The episode of the Edmund Fitzgerald airs on History Television Mar. 31.

Share your own version of the new verse, or sing your favourite verse from the song with our audio comment feature

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