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How the ship Bounty fought Sandy, and lost

At a Coast Guard hearing, crew members of the tall ship relive its doomed battle with the hurricane.

March 15, 2013|By David Zucchino, Los Angeles Times

PORTSMOUTH, Va. — The ship's engineer was seasick and spitting up his medication. A deckhand had been tossed past the mainmast, breaking three ribs. The captain had been slammed against a cabin table, wrenching his back. He could barely walk.

Capt. Robin Walbridge, sailing the tall ship Bounty from Connecticut to Florida, was trying to outflank Hurricane Sandy, which was roaring toward New York. But instead of slipping around the storm, the ship had crossed directly into Sandy's path.

It was after dark on Oct. 28, and the three-mast vessel pitched and rolled in the Atlantic 90 miles off Cape Hatteras, its 16 crew members fighting to keep the ship afloat.

PHOTOS: The Bounty succumbs to Hurricane Sandy

The 180-foot Bounty took on water through its leaky oak and fir planking faster than the failing bilge pumps could keep up. Fuel was leaking. The foresail was shredded. The port engine and generator were failing. The Bounty's lights flickered in the gloom.

The chief mate pleaded with the captain to make a distress call to the Coast Guard. No, Walbridge said, they just needed to get the generators cranking again.

Sometime before dawn on Oct. 29, the Bounty pitched violently on its starboard side and the crew tumbled into the cold Atlantic.

Seeking answers

Outlined against a stark black curtain inside a hotel conference room in Portsmouth last month, three Coast Guard officers convened a formal hearing to seek answers to the sinking of one of the world's best-known ships. Was there, as the Coast Guard phrased it, "any act of misconduct, inattention to duty, negligence or willful violation of the law?" The findings are expected in a few months.

The Bounty, described as "a wooden sailing ship of primitive build," was a leaky money pit for its owner, Robert Hansen. He formed HMS Bounty Organization, LLC to handle the ship's affairs and had put it up for sale last year. Hansen invoked the 5th Amendment and did not testify.

The ship was moored in New London, Conn., in October. Walbridge was eager to sail it to St. Petersburg, Fla., where it was scheduled to be on exhibit. A replica of an 18th century sailing ship, the Bounty was built in 1960 for the Marlon Brando film "Mutiny on the Bounty" and starred in two "Pirates of the Caribbean" movies.

The Bounty wasn't licensed to carry passengers at sea. Tourists usually paid $10 to visit the moored ship in ports in the U.S. and Europe.

A shipyard manager testified that during an overhaul of the ship in Maine last September, workers found widespread rot in the frames and planking. But only two planks were replaced, and the rotting frames were simply covered with recaulked planks.

Crew members declined requests for interviews, but their detailed and often emotional testimony described a beloved and dedicated captain so confident in his sailing abilities that he sent his compromised ship into a hurricane, convinced that he could outsmart any storm.

Braving the weather

As Sandy grew more dangerous, crew members received panicked phone calls from family and friends. Walbridge called his crew together and gave them a chance to go home. Everyone decided to stay.

There was little talk of remaining in New London to ride out the storm, though Walbridge himself described Sandy as a "Frankenstorm." Chief mate John Svendsen, 41, a Bounty veteran, told Walbridge that high seas and devastating winds were predicted; the captain said the Bounty would handle the hurricane just fine.

Walbridge planned to get on the far southeastern sector of Sandy to take advantage of favorable winds, which would blow the Bounty safely away from the hurricane. He said ships in hurricanes were safer at sea than in port.

Most of the Bounty's crew were certified seamen, but six had virtually no sailing experience. The cook, Jessica Black, 34, had signed on just a day earlier and the engineer, Christopher Barksdale, 56, had joined the month before. Barksdale had no professional engineering credentials.

Walbridge, 63, wore a ponytail and hearing aid. He had skippered the Bounty for 17 years. People joked that he spent more time with the ship than with his wife. He loved teaching sailing and seafaring; he called his crew "future captains of America." They considered him intelligent and intuitive; he was a skilled chess player and gifted mechanic who once repaired an onboard generator with microwave parts.

The captain had an impetuous streak. In August, he told a TV reporter in Maine: "We chase hurricanes. You try and get up as close to the eye of it as you can, and you stay down in the southeast quadrant."

Like many seamen, Walbridge was superstitious about leaving port on a Friday. He made sure the Bounty left New London late in the day on Thursday, Oct. 25, his birthday.

The wind picks up

The weather was beautiful that Friday — fair and clear. But by the end of the day, Sandy's winds and waves buffeted the ship as the storm blew north.

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