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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

Walbridge plotted on a chart the Bounty's position in relation to the gathering hurricane. Tracie Simonin, the sole full-time employee of the HMS Bounty Organization on Long Island, copied and pasted updates from the National Hurricane Center and emailed them to the crew every few hours.

Walbridge was a stickler for safety drills, rigid deck watches and redundancy. The ship had two engines, four bilge pumps, four fuel tanks, plus an emergency hand-held gasoline pump.

By late Friday, he was running both engines hard. The ship, which normally sailed at 4 to 5 knots, was speeding along at 14 knots. (A knot is 1.15 mph.) "Right now we don't want to get between a hurricane and a hard spot," Walbridge emailed the home office.

Sandy was now 1,000 miles wide.

On Saturday, the seas turned rougher, cresting 8 to 12 feet with winds at 25 knots. A generator sputtered and belched black smoke. In the engine room, the bilge pumps struggled.

Adam Prokosh, 27, a seaman who'd spent eight months on the Bounty, noticed on the tracking system that no other ships were anywhere near. "It was pretty lonely out there," he testified.

Late that Saturday, Walbridge abruptly turned the Bounty southwest, hoping to go "over the top" of the storm, as he told the crew,

The ship's progress was updated on the Bounty's Facebook page — by the father of a deckhand, who posted from his home in Illinois. "Rest assured the Bounty is safe," he wrote.

By Sunday morning, the storm was upon the ship. Seas surged to 25 feet. Winds blew up to 50 knots. The ship rocked and pitched.

Claudene Christian, 42, had been an unpaid volunteer since May and became a $100-a-week deckhand on Oct. 18. A former Song Girl at USC, Christian was considered the most upbeat person on board.

But now she told another deckhand: "I'm seeing things that make me uncomfortable."

At midday, the winds blew out the foresail. Barksdale, the engineer, jammed his right hand as he was tossed about the deck, then gashed his arm in the engine room.

The rough seas slammed Prokosh across the deck. He broke three ribs and crushed a vertebra; Christian tended to him in his bunk. Walbridge was thrown into a bolted table, wrenching his back. He was in agony.

Below deck, the tank gauge ruptured, shutting down the port engine and generator. The lights went out. Matthew Sanders, the second mate, worked furiously and restarted the generator. But water kept pouring in.

Around 4 p.m., Sanders and other crew members made a last-ditch effort to get the bilge pumps working. The water was 4 feet deep in the engine room, and rising fast.

The Bounty Facebook page posted: "The crew and Bounty are safe."

The chase ends

Around 5 p.m., Walbridge ordered the ship to "heave to," essentially go dead in the water. The captain turned the bow into the pounding seas to avoid broadside hits. That ended all chances of the Bounty outrunning Sandy.

Svendsen begged the captain to make a distress call to the Coast Guard and to Hansen, the owner. But Walbridge said there was still time to get the generators working properly and pump out the water.

Three hours later, with Sanders reporting more water in the engine room, the captain relented. Svendsen fought his way to the weather deck and punched in numbers for the Coast Guard and Hansen. He screamed into a satellite phone against pounding wind, rain and waves. He couldn't tell whether he was talking to an answering machine or a person.

Hansen heard him and called Simonin at about 8:30. He told her to call the Coast Guard and relay the ship's coordinates. By 11 p.m., a C-130 plane had taken off from North Carolina in search of the Bounty.

Around 9 p.m., Sanders got the port generator running again, and the lights came back on. He was working in water up to his waist. Debris clogged the filters to one of the bilge pumps. Prokosh grabbed a colander from the galley and tried to strain out debris.

The flooding triggered dangerous electric sparking and arcing. Seawater overwhelmed the starboard generator and it shorted out and died. The lights went out for good.

Around midnight, the starboard engine died after it was flooded. The ship lost all propulsion.

There was one final hope: The crew unpacked the ship's hand-held, gasoline-driven emergency pump and hauled it up to the weather deck. It wouldn't start. Someone found the instructions and, finally, the pump roared to life. But it wasn't able to pump the water from below deck.

The water in the engine room was chest-high now, rising at two feet an hour. Someone pulled out a hand-held anemometer, which registered winds at 90 knots before the device shattered in the storm.

Around 3 a.m., the captain called everyone together on the tween deck. Walbridge was fond of what he called brainstorming, in which the entire crew chewed over a problem. He asked: "At what point did we lose control?"

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