A captain ‘reckless’ at the helm caused Bounty’s doomed fate

02/14/2014 7:00 AM |

The 180-foot Bounty in an undated photo. (Courtesy photo)

Four days before the sailing ship Bounty sank off the coast of North Carolina, longtime captain Robin Walbridge called a meeting of his crew members in port in New London, Conn.

Some aboard the vessel were concerned.

Mr. Walbridge planned to sail the wooden ship to St. Petersburg, Fla., for a scheduled event on Nov. 10, despite forecasts that a powerful storm called Sandy was moving up the East Coast.

The captain was confident in the ship’s ability to weather any storm. Earlier that year, in an interview with a Maine news station, he’d claimed the Bounty “chased hurricanes” and could use the strong winds to its advantage to sail faster.

Mr. Walbridge told the crew that anyone who felt uncomfortable sailing on the Bounty was free to leave; no one would think less of them.

Crew members later said they trusted their captain and that there was a strong sense of camaraderie on board the Bounty.

None of the crew members stayed behind and the ship set sail that night to beat the hurricane.

“One would never know there was a rag[ing] storm out there,” the captain wrote in an email from the ship the next day. “It is a beautiful morning, sun shining, not a cloud in the sky.”

But beneath the decks, a crew member noticed that the Bounty was starting to take on water, though he couldn’t figure out from where.

The Bounty likely sank during Hurricane Sandy because of Mr. Walbridge’s “reckless decision” to sail into the path of the storm with an inexperienced crew, despite knowing that rot had been found in the ship’s wooden hull, federal safety officials announced Monday.

The Bounty, a $4 million replica built for the film “Mutiny on the Bounty” in 1960, took on water and capsized early on Oct. 29, 2012, about 110 nautical miles off the coast of North Carolina.

Of the 16 people aboard — a smaller than normal crew — three were seriously injured, one was killed and the captain went missing at sea. His body was never recovered.

“It was an end to a voyage that should not have been attempted,” states the National Transportation Safety Board’s report on the sinking.

The NTSB called Mr. Walbridge’s decision a “needless risk.” The captain — who was not named in the report — also failed to check that the ship’s pumps were operational before setting off, a fatal error.

“This failure on his part further compromised the safety of everyone on board,” the report concludes. The vessel’s owners also “did nothing” to dissuade the captain from setting sail into the storm.

Investigators determined that even if the Bounty had remained in New London until Oct. 31, it would have been able to reach St. Petersburg in time for the Nov. 10 event.

“Although this wooden ship was modeled after an 18th-century vessel, the captain had access to 21st-century hurricane modeling tools that predicted the path and severity of Hurricane Sandy,” NTSB chairman Deborah Hersman said in a statement. “The Bounty’s crew was put into an extraordinarily hazardous situation through decisions that by any measure didn’t prioritize safety.”

The crew also lacked the experience needed to sail the ship on rough seas. Ten of the Bounty’s crew members had worked less than six months aboard the ship and nine had never worked on a tall ship other than the Bounty, authorities said.

Only Mr. Walbridge and four other crew members had more than two years’ experience aboard a tall ship.

The captain had also failed to properly account for rot that was discovered in the ship’s hull earlier that month. Some of the crew had known about the rot, but new areas had been brought to Mr. Walbridge’s attention.

When asked how to address the rot, Mr. Walbridge “instructed his crew to apply paint to the rotted areas” because time and money constraints made repairs impossible until the following year, the accident report states.

It’s unclear how much the rot factored into the ship’s demise, according to the report. The Bounty’s owner pleaded the Fifth Amendment during hearings on the sinking, to avoid incriminating himself, according to previous news reports.

In this photo by Coast Guard Petty Officer 2nd Class Tim Kuklewski, the Bounty is partially submerged in the Atlantic Ocean during Hurricane Sandy on Monday, Oct. 29, 2012. Of the 16-person crew, the Coast Guard rescued 14 and recovered the body of a deckhand. The captain was never found.

After appearing in the 1962 film, the Bounty spent 21 years in Florida as a dockside attraction before being donated to Fall River, Mass., in 1993. It sat there in disrepair for nearly a decade until it was purchased by the Setauket-based HMS Bounty Organization in 2001.

The Bounty was registered as a “moored attraction vessel” with the U.S. Coast Guard and was meant for youth education and sail training, federal investigators said.

Though she was officially registered in Greenport, the village rarely saw its famous tall ship. She spent most of her time touring the coast, locals say.

When she returned for events like the Tall Ships Challenge, the Bounty was a welcome addition at village docks, said charter boat owner David Berson.

“It was like the old grande dame making her entrance and we loved seeing her,” he said. “It was a bit of eye candy down at the dock … to picture that boat sinking, it breaks your damn heart.”

The ship was never built to handle the open seas, said Mitchell Park Marina manager Jeff Goubeaud.

Even in the best conditions, the Bounty leaked, investigators found. Water would slowly enter the bilge, the lowest compartment of the ship, and was typically pumped out once every four-hour shift.

“It was never meant to last as long as it did,” Mr. Goubeaud said. “It was an old boat that needed a lot of work.”

Three months before she sank, the Bounty sailed up Chesapeake Bay to participate in the 200th anniversary of the War of 1812 and had also recently crossed the Atlantic, investigators said.

Greenport’s dockside community was shocked when news spread of its sinking during Sandy.

“We were devastated,” Mr. Goubeaud said. “It was an unfortunate mistake that [the captain] left New London.

“You don’t sail into a hurricane,” he said. “It’s a death wish.”

COURTESY MAP | A National Transportation Safety Board accident report map shows the last voyage of the Bounty.

COURTESY MAP | A National Transportation Safety Board accident report map shows the last voyage of the Bounty.

Aboard the Bounty later on Oct. 27, 2012, the weather began to worsen, wiping away the clear morning Mr. Walbridge had described. Forecasts predicted Sandy, with winds 1,000 miles across, would head up the coast and veer west toward New Jersey.

Despite deteriorating weather and alarming forecasts, Mr. Walbridge sailed the ship to Sandy’s west — instead of sailing northeast, around the storm — in an attempt to squeeze between it and the coast. None of the crew knew why the captain decided to take that risk, investigators found.

As the Bounty crashed through seas as high as 15 feet, water began to spill into the bilge more rapidly. Those onboard heard “hissing sounds” as the waves struck the wooden hull, according to the report.

Some of the leaks became so big that plastic sheeting was applied to the inside of the hull to keep the sleeping bunks dry.

The morning of Oct. 28 brought even rougher seas. The Bounty endured waves up to 30 feet high and winds of 90 knots, investigators said. A port engine stopped working by mid-afternoon and the crew was overcome with seasickness and fatigue from lack of sleep, the report states.

Winds ripped apart one of the ship’s large sails and crew scampered up the rigging to repair it. Mr. Walbridge himself was injured in a fall, but was able to walk and tried to restart the port engine.

The starboard generator started “fluctuating” as the seas worsened and had to be turned off several times, investigators said. Each time, the water in the bilge rose higher.

At 6 p.m., chief mate John Svendsen suggested that Mr. Walbridge call the Coast Guard for help.

“He felt that the best thing to do was focus on getting the generators ready,” Mr. Svendsen testified during a Coast Guard hearing in early 2013. Meanwhile, another crew member fell during the night and suffered “broken ribs, a separated shoulder and a spinal injury,” the NTSB report states.

As the storm intensified, members of the crew, their loved ones and business partners exchanged a flurry of emails.

“I am sure that you are giving the crew quite the sailing lessons on this one!!!” Tracie Simonin, director of the HMS Bounty Organization, wrote to the captain. “Stay Safe!!!!”

But by 8:45 p.m., four feet of water had risen into the ship. Mr. Walbridge contacted the vessel’s owners to call for help.

“We are in distress,” he wrote in an email. “Ship is fine. We can’t dewater. Need pumps.”

About 90 minutes after the initial notification, the Coast Guard launched a C-130 aircraft to fly to the Bounty’s last reported location. The guardsmen found the ship 150 nautical miles west and slightly north of the eye of the storm.

The Bounty lost power about 9:30 p.m., its port generator still broken. Second mate Matt Saunders and a deckhand waded through waist-high water in the engine room to the stricken generator and managed to restart it, investigators said.

But the high water and electrical equipment threatened to electrocute the crew, so the engine room was abandoned. By midnight the room was flooded and both the port generator and starboard main engine failed for the final time.

The Bounty was now powerless and adrift, at the mercy of the hurricane.

As 10 feet of water sloshed around the lower decks, Mr. Walbridge called an all-hands meeting in the ship’s navigation room.

“He asked for some brainstorming [to figure out] at what point did we lose control,” crew member Laura Groves testified during a Coast Guard hearing. “I don’t know that anybody had many ideas.”

The crew donned immersion suits, designed to help shipwreck survivors last in harsh, cold seas, and clipped themselves together with rope.

Twice around 4 a.m., Mr. Svendsen suggested they abandon ship on the Bounty’s two inflatable life rafts while the vessel was still upright, but Mr. Walbridge ordered the crew to stay aboard as long as possible, thinking they would be safer on the Bounty than in the water.

Less than a half-hour later, a huge wave buried the Bounty’s bow and rocked her onto her starboard side. The crew and its captain were tossed into the churning sea.

For two hours, the crew struggled to stay afloat and swim away from the sinking ship. Some clung to the life rafts that had been inflated and two sailors nearly drowned when they became snared in the ship’s tangled rigging.

Coast Guard helicopters pulled one crew member to safety from the water and rescued 13 others from the rafts.

The body of deckhand Claudene Christian — who claimed to be a distant relative of Fletcher Christian, a mutineer on the actual HMS Bounty — was found about eight nautical miles from where the vessel capsized, investigators said. Though Coast Guard personnel tried to revive her, she was pronounced dead at a North Carolina hospital.

Captain Walbridge was last seen standing on the deck of his ship as the Bounty capsized. The Coast Guard called off the search two and a half days after the sinking.

NTSB officials placed blame for the disaster on Mr. Walbridge’s decision to set sail, which “subjected the aging vessel and the inexperienced crew to conditions from which the vessel could not recover,” according to the report.

Mr. Berson, who serves as a editor of Ocean Navigator magazine in addition to running his Greenport business, said he had met Mr. Walbridge before the incident and “had the greatest admiration for his ability to sail that ship.”

Mr. Berson believes that Mr. Walbridge’s experience might have made him over-confident.

“Sure he’d been through storms before, but he’d never been through a superstorm,” Mr. Berson said. “You have to ask: What the f—? What was he thinking?”

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