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Bounty hearing raises questions on ship’s condition

After she rounded Montauk Point at the eastern end of Long Island, N.Y., a little after midnight Oct. 26, the Bounty steered a magnetic compass course just west of south, according to published coordinates of the tall ship’s path.

Bounty first mate John Svendsen testified that he told the captain that officers had concerns with the plan to leave New London, Conn.

Hurricane Sandy was in the Bahamas, heading slowly northwest, spinning off winds of 90 mph. In the three days that followed, Bounty’s captain of 17 years, Robin Walbridge, 63, held his course for a day and a half, then abruptly veered southwest in an attempt to race his lumbering, 50-year-old vessel across Sandy’s path. By that time, the weather system — later labeled a superstorm — had turned to the northeast, still packing 75-mph winds and aiming toward Bounty’s track.

That a lethal collision between ship and storm would happen seemed, to shoreside mariners, unquestionable, according to those who were interviewed in February during a two-week Coast Guard hearing in Portsmouth, Va. That the fury of that collision, described in detail by a dozen of the Bounty’s crewmembers in sworn testimony, would leave any of the 16 aboard alive seemed close to miraculous.

But why would a captain intimately familiar with the 180-foot-overall Bounty — a ship that, according to testimony, had rot in its oak frames and oak and fir planking and had a recent history of unreliable bilge pumps — set to sea with an approaching storm he already knew was nicknamed “Frankenstorm”? That is a question that by the end of the public hearings had no good answer.

Walbridge was never found after the ship broached early Oct. 29 in 30-foot seas, leaving his 15 crewmembers in violently churning waters. The body of crewmember Claudene Christian, 42, was found by Coast Guard searchers a few miles from the still-floating wreckage of Bounty. By then, Coast Guard helicopter crews had rescued 14 survivors — each, like Christian, wearing an immersion suit. The end had come after Bounty’s crew worked heroically for hours in an attempt to empty their ship of the seawater that began filling the bilges two days earlier, according to testimony.

With water above the floorboards of the “tween” deck — the second of three decks, immediately below the “weather,” or top, deck — Walbridge gave an order in the early darkness of Monday, Oct. 29, to don the immersion suits. Less than two hours later, Bounty broached violently, survivors testified. Some crewmembers were thrown overboard. Others chose their time to jump.

Engine and pump trouble

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Before the catastrophic flooding, while water was still below the sole boards in the engine room, survivors testified, several crewmembers struggled to keep the twin diesel propulsion engines operating, as well as the twin diesel generators that powered two electric bilge pumps. But the pumps couldn’t keep a prime, the crewmembers testified.

Operation of the pumps became “constant,” and crewmembers “had to keep working to keep the prime,” Second Mate Matthew Sanders testified. “When the boat would rock, the pump would suck air.”

Volunteer Bounty crewmember Douglas Faunt, 66, had noticed the temperamental pumps even before the ship left New London, Conn., on Thursday, Oct. 25. Bounty had been hauled in Boothbay Harbor, Maine, in September, and about a month later she was relaunched after crewmembers spent many hours caulking. But on the way from Maine to Connecticut, Faunt testified, the pumping “just didn’t feel right. It was my impression the pumps weren’t working right.”

Faunt said he raised his concerns with Walbridge. “I think they were taken seriously, but I don’t know how seriously,” he testified.

There were others who had concerns about Bounty’s seaworthiness. Among them was the yard manager at the Boothbay Harbor Shipyard, where the ship was hauled to, among other things, repair two planks above the waterline that had come loose. When Todd Kosakowski — a shipwright at the yard for more than six years who became yard manager earlier in 2012 — examined the hull, he testified that he thought the planking below the waterline was in “better than average shape.” From the waterline up, however, he found “a lot of seams spitting the seam compound from either working or excessive drying. It looked as though the topsides was in rough shape.”

When Kosakowski looked at the two Douglas fir planks that were to be replaced, he saw that the planks were showing “excessive deterioration” from the inside, two-thirds of the way to the outside, he testified. And the oak framing beneath the planks “was soft and also damp.”

“This didn’t look like typical rot,” Kosakowski told Coast Guard Cmdr. Kevin Carroll, who lead the inquiry. “It was dry or burned or charred-looking. … The only way to deal with it is to remove and replace what’s rotten.

“The recommendation that I gave [Walbridge] was that we try to inspect the rest of the boat to see how far this degradation goes and to dig out the most severe rot and replace with white oak,” he testified. That recommendation “was shot down immediately,” he said. “It would have involved a significant amount of time.” Kosakowski testified that he recommended Walbridge avoid sailing Bounty in heavy weather.

Later, the yard manager said, Walbridge “said he told Bob Hansen [Bounty’s owner] that he should get rid of the boat as soon as possible.” Hansen, owner of Long Island-based Islandaire, an air-conditioning manufacturer, bought Bounty in 2001. He refused to testify before Carroll’s hearing, asserting his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination.

Officers had concerns

Despite Faunt’s misgivings about the bilge-pumping system, Bounty arrived in New London on Tuesday, Oct. 23. On Thursday, Oct. 25, Bounty gave a free daysail to a sub crew from the Naval Submarine Base on the Thames River. The short voyage on Long Island Sound went off without a hitch, according to testimony, and then Bounty’s crewmembers got a tour of the sub.

After the Bounty crew arrived back at their ship in the late afternoon, Walbridge called an all-hands meeting by the vessel’s capstan. He climbed a small cabin top to speak. At the Portsmouth hearing, several crewmembers testified that Walbridge told them he had heard that some crewmembers had received messages from family and friends who were worried about the hurricane brewing in the Bahamas that was predicted to become a monster storm.

Deckhand Joshua Scornavacchi, 25, testified that he had received such a call from his mother. When they were about to set sail, she made him promise not to die.

Faunt told Carroll he first became aware that Hurricane Sandy was serious when Walbridge called the capstan meeting and said, “I know some of you have gotten emails and text messages.”

How did Walbridge explain what was ahead, Carroll asked?

“He said the storm was coming up basically along the Gulf Stream,” Faunt replied. “Our plan was to go east of the stream in any case. Hopefully we were going to go all the way out and around [the storm], hopefully stop at Key West.”

First Mate John Svendsen, 41, testified that before the capstan meeting, he knew of Walbridge’s plan and about concerns some of the other officers had with it. “I pulled Robin off the boat after we returned from the Navy tour and said, ‘Here are the concerns,’ ” Svendsen testified. As the ranking surviving ship’s officer, he was a “party in interest” at the hearings who could question other witnesses. “I had brought up staying in New London, and [Walbridge] said he thought the ship was safer at sea.”

That notion, later repeated on Bounty’s Facebook page, along with another statement of Walbridge’s eight weeks earlier, were presented to most of the witnesses in Portsmouth for their consideration. The second statement came in an interview for public access television in Belfast, Maine, on Aug. 8. Walbridge was asked about sailing in rough weather. In part, he replied: “We chase hurricanes.”

Carroll wanted to know what Walbridge may have meant by this. “He doesn’t mean chasing them around, looking for them,” Third Mate Daniel Cleveland answered. “If one is in the vicinity, we want to follow it” and get the fresh, fair winds and smooth seas in the storm’s wake, Cleveland suggested. “You don’t want to be in its path.”

Carroll called two seasoned tall ship captains to testify at the hearing. Jan Miles, co-captain of the Pride of Baltimore II, confirmed that he still believed, as he did weeks after the Bounty was lost, when he wrote in an open letter to Walbridge: “It was recklessly poor judgment to have done anything but find a heavy-weather berth for your ship.”

“I still cannot believe that the choice was made to head out from New London,” said Capt. Daniel E. Moreland, skipper of the tall ship Picton Castle. Walbridge’s decision was, Moreland testified, “shocking, mind-boggling.”

There was one hint in the testimony of the motivation that may have sent Bounty into Sandy’s path. Faunt noted that “New London was not a particularly good place to spend time. We were going to St. Petersburg [Fla.].”

A dock in that city at which, for many years, Bounty had been tied as a “dockside attraction” was being demolished and this final visit was special, Faunt testified.

Also, an event had been planned aboard Bounty at the dock in early November for a Down syndrome organization, Faunt said.

The Bounty crew understood the connection between Bounty and St. Petersburg, Faunt said. Had the Bounty stayed in New London, “we would have disappointed all the people in St. Pete.”

Douglas A. Campbell, a former Soundings senior writer, covered the Bounty proceedings in Portsmouth, Va., for a book he is writing with Michael Tougias that will be published by Simon & Schuster in 2014.

May 2013 issue