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Bounty’s owner declines to testify at hearing

PORTSMOUTH, VA. — Robert Hansen, the Long Island, N.Y., businessman whose non-profit corporation owned the tall ship Bounty, exercised his Fifth Amendment rights Tuesday when called to testify before a Coast Guard hearing in Portsmouth, Va., that is investigating the Oct. 29 loss of the Bounty 90 miles off Cape Hatteras, N.C.

The Bounty sank after sailing into Hurricane Sandy, taking the lives of its captain, Robin Walbridge, and crewmember Claudene Christian. The remaining 14 crewmembers were plucked from 30-foot seas by Coast Guard search-and-rescue crews manning two helicopters and two C-130 cargo planes.

The hearing has been called, in part, to determine why Walbridge and his crew left Oct. 25 from New London, Conn., knowing that the hurricane was heading in their direction in the North Atlantic.

Bounty Chief Mate John Svendsen, 41, second in command on the fateful voyage, testified under oath that he had told Walbridge in New London that at least two crewmembers were concerned about the decision to set sail. He said he urged the captain to remain in port. He said Walbridge told him the ship would be safer at sea and that with his experience aboard the vessel he believed that the Bounty was up to the challenge Sandy posed.

Svendsen said Walbridge’s plan was to sail “south by east” to give the storm room. But two days into the trip, he said, Walbridge gave orders to turn west and cross in front of the approaching hurricane. The plan, Svendsen said, was to “get in the lee of Cape Hatteras.”

Investigating officer Cmdr. Kevin M. Carroll repeatedly asked Svendsen to comment on a video posted on YouTube in which Walbridge apparently boasted that his crew “chased hurricanes.” Svendsen said the comments were true to Walbridge, but he said he didn’t think Bounty did chase the storms.

Today’s first witness is scheduled to be Tracy Simonin, director of HMS Bounty Organization LLC, Hansen’s non-profit corporation. Testimony from Coast Guard rescuers and Bounty survivors is planned to continue until Feb. 21 at the Portsmouth Renaissance Hotel.

— Douglas A. Campbell

Editor’s note: Douglas A. Campbell, a former Soundings senior writer, is in Portsmouth covering the Bounty proceedings for a book he is writing with Michael Tougias that will be published by Simon & Schuster in 2014. He will periodically file reports.