How the Bounty took on Sandy ... and failed

David Zucchino / Los Angeles Times /

Published Mar 20, 2013 at 05:00AM

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 into its 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.

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.

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

Last month, three Coast Guard officers convened a formal hearing to seek answers.

Was there, as the Coast Guard phrased it, “any act of misconduct, inattention to duty, negligence or willful violation of the law” in the sinking of one of the world’s best-known ships?

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. Hansen had invoked the Fifth 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.

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.

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.

Walbridge, 63, had skippered the Bounty for 17 years. He 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.

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.

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.

By late Friday, Walbridge 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.) 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 smoke. In the engine room, the bilge pumps struggled.

At midday Sunday, the winds blew out the foresail.

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 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 outrunning Sandy.

Chief mate John 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.

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.

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

Around 3 a.m., Walbridge decided that the crew would prepare for the possibility of abandoning ship by getting into life vests and survival suits. Two inflatable life rafts were readied.

As the crew helped one another into the survival suits, chief mate Svendsen tried twice to convince the captain to make the call to abandon ship. Walbridge refused.

Sometime before 4 a.m., with the ship listing at a 45-degree angle, he changed his mind.

Crew members crawled on their hands and knees, trying to assemble on the weather deck, as water raged across the boards.

Suddenly, chief mate Svendsen yelled that the bow was under water.

“We gotta go!” the captain hollered.

Moments later, the Bounty was struck by a massive wave. The ship heaved abruptly starboard, dumping most of the crew into the Atlantic. Others jumped in as the ship began to slip under the waves.

Just after dawn, two Coast Guard helicopters dropped swimmers into the water to rescue them. A video shows 14 crew members being hoisted into the helicopters.

Walbridge and a deckhand, Claudene Christian, were missing.

The Coast Guard found Christian’s body later that day, about a mile from where the ship went down.

Walbridge was never found.

For the crew, the final memory of their captain was of a man bent over in terrible pain, his glasses askew, making a final check on everyone before half-walking, half-crawling toward the life rafts as the waves washed over the sinking deck.