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Captain faulted in report on the Bounty sinking

The Bounty’s last voyage should never have been attempted, and its captain’s “reckless decision” to sail the 108-foot wooden square-rigger into the forecast path of Hurricane Sandy was the probable cause of the 52-year-old ship’s October 2012 sinking, according to the National Transportation Safety Board.

Capt. Robin Walbridge's 'reckless decision' to sail put the Bounty crew in an 'ectraordinarily hazardous situation,' according to the NTSB.

In a report released in February, the NTSB held the Bounty’s 63-year-old captain, Robin Walbridge, mainly responsible for the sinking, which occurred 110 miles southeast of Cape Hatteras, N.C. However, the report also says HMS Bounty Organization LLC, which owned and operated the ship, “did nothing to dissuade the captain from sailing” and contributed to the sinking by failing to exercise effective safety oversight.

“Although this wooden ship was modeled after an 18th-century vessel, the captain had access to 21st-century hurricane modeling tools that predicted the path and severity of Hurricane Sandy,” NTSB chairwoman Deborah A.P. Hersman says. “The Bounty’s crew was put into an extraordinarily hazardous situation through decisions that by any measure didn’t prioritize safety.”

Built in 1960-61 for the movie “Mutiny on the Bounty,” which starred Marlon Brando, Bounty sank in 20-foot seas and 50- to 60-knot winds gusting to 90. Walbridge, Bounty’s master of 17 years, and crewmember Claudene Christian, 42, great-great-great-great-great-granddaughter of Fletcher Christian, the master’s mate who seized command from Capt. William Bligh in the 1789 mutiny on the original Bounty, died in the sinking. The Coast Guard rescued Bounty’s other 14 crewmembers from two survival rafts and the sea nearby.

“To set sail into an approaching hurricane introduced needless risk,” the report says. “Further, most of the crew were inexperienced, and their complement was smaller than usual. In addition, despite the fact that Bounty took on water even in good conditions — and that wood rot had been discovered [during a September shipyard layup] — the captain gave no order to ensure that all on-board pumps were fully operational before departing, even though he knew that the vessel was sure to encounter rough seas during the voyage. This failure further compromised the safety of everyone on board.”

The NTSB’s grim account of the succession of events that led to the loss of Bounty tells of poor decision-making, a ship whose leaky seams couldn’t take the pounding of a hurricane packing storm-strength winds stretching over a 1,000-mile diameter, and engine, generator and bilge pump breakdowns that left the ship and its struggling crew at the mercy of wind and waves.

Among the NTSB’s findings:

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• During a month’s layup at Boothbay Harbor Shipyard in Maine in September, Bounty’s crew — nine of whom had less than six months’ experience sailing a tall ship — did most of the maintenance and repair under Walbridge’s supervision, including reseaming and caulking the wood hull. Shipyard workers judged the reseaming “adequately done” but questioned the captain’s choice of household sealants not intended for immersion in water.

• Shipyard staff found rot in the hull, but Walbridge said that because of time and financial constraints he would have to deal with it later and told his crew to paint over it. Yard workers’ opinions differed about whether the rot affected Bounty’s structural integrity.

• The captain decided to leave New London, Conn., for St. Petersburg, Fla., on the evening of Sept. 25 as forecasters were issuing warnings along the East Coast that Sandy would emerge from the Caribbean as a major hurricane, churn offshore up the Southeast coast, then turn west to make landfall between the Delmarva Peninsula and New York Harbor. The Bounty organization — owner Robert Hansen and director Tracie Simonin — did not try to dissuade Walbridge from sailing because the captain had “sole discretion” in making day-to-day operational decisions, the NTSB says. He decided to leave, although there appeared to be no pressure to make St. Petersburg by Nov. 10 as scheduled and open the ship for dockside visits. The event could “easily have been postponed,” according to the report.

• The crew and their families back home were understandably concerned about the Bounty sailing with a hurricane tracking up the coast. An hour before casting off, Walbridge gathered his crew and expressed confidence that Bounty could handle the rough weather, but he gave anyone who wished permission to opt out of the voyage and rejoin the ship in Florida with no repercussions. The NTSB says the crewmembers were by and large inexperienced. They knew the ship was sailing short-handed with 15 (excluding Walbridge) instead of its usual complement of 20 to 25, and they admired and respected the captain, so in a spirit of camaraderie no one chose to walk away from the voyage.

• Walbridge left New London planning to sail southeast and go around Sandy’s east side, which he did for a day and a half. On the morning of Oct. 27 — with Sandy now forecast to make landfall in New Jersey — he inexplicably turned southwest so Bounty would pass ahead of and west of the storm. Sandy’s projected New Jersey landfall “should have confirmed to the captain that he should stay east and that any movements west or southwest would only increase the risk of encountering the storm,” the NTSB says. “Turning west toward the storm would risk pinning the boat between the storm and shore.”

• In an email to his shore operation, Walbridge wrote, “It looks like [Sandy] will lay offshore enough [for] us to squeak by. Thx.” In turning west, he also would avoid sailing into the teeth of Sandy’s winds on the storm’s east side while gaining the advantage of a following wind on the west side to propel Bounty southwest toward Florida. The NTSB surmised that the captain “may have focused too much on the eye and missed the storm’s enormous expanse.” Sandy’s gale-force winds spanned 500 miles in every direction, and the area he was headed into already was under tropical storm warnings, with conditions forecast to worsen. “Still the captain seemed to believe he could outrace the storm,” the NTSB says.

By Oct. 28, Bounty was slugging it out in 90-knot winds and 30-foot seas off North Carolina’s Outer Banks, and the ship was losing the fight. Crewmembers reported water entering the ship through leaky seams when waves pounded her sides. Sails blew out; machinery broke down. Two main electric dewatering pumps, powered by a pair of 35-kW generators, had not been up to par since the ship left New London. They were running constantly, losing suction and struggling to keep up with the rising water — now 2 to 3 feet deep in the bilge.

Bounty’s crew tried to bring online two hydraulic pumps powered by the starboard 375-hp John Deere diesel, but only one of them worked. The port generator and port main engine began to act up. By that evening, the starboard generator also was failing.

“From this point on, the challenge to keep critical equipment — engines, generators, pumps — running and to reduce leakage of water into the bilge was becoming insurmountable,” according to the NTSB.

Later that night, only the starboard main engine, one hydraulic pump and the starboard generator were working. At 8:45 and with 4 feet of water in the bilge, Walbridge radioed the home base and told Simonin to advise the Coast Guard of Bounty’s situation. By a little after midnight on Oct. 29, the port generator and starboard main engine had failed. Bounty was adrift without propulsion or dewatering capability.

Meanwhile, most of the crewmembers were seasick. All of them were exhausted. They hadn’t been able to sleep in the raging seas, and they were falling and injuring themselves in the tumult as the ship climbed and fell off the other side of waves. The engineer had broken his right hand. The captain had injured himself. Another crewmember had fallen and separated a shoulder, broken several ribs and suffered a back injury.

The Coast Guard sent a C-130 to shepherd the stricken vessel and its traumatized crew through the night. Walbridge planned to abandon ship at 8 a.m., with Coast Guard Jayhawk helicopters hovering to pull them out of the water. The crew had donned immersion suits, PFDs — for backup buoyancy — and climbing harnesses with lanyard and clip to fasten themselves to each other as Bounty sank deeper and deeper into the sea.

At 4:26 a.m. the ship heeled hard to starboard and buried its bow in a wave, throwing the crew into 20-foot seas and with winds still blowing 50 to 60 knots, gusting to 90. Several crewmembers struggled to free themselves from rigging as it reared up and fell down in a pendulum motion. Thirteen of the crew made their way to two life rafts, although climbing into the rafts in immersion suits was a life-or-death struggle. A 14th crewmember was floating nearby in the water. The first rescue helicopter arrived at 6:41 a.m. to begin hoisting survivors from the water. Walbridge was lost in the darkness; Christian’s body was later recovered.

“We had a good crew, but the systems just failed,” crewmember Jess Hewitt said in an interview with investigators. The NTSB investigation concludes that their captain failed them as well, along with their aging ship. Neither was a match for Hurricane Sandy.

May 2014 issue