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Troubling clues emerge

The Bounty master’s attitude and appreciation of a hurricane’s wrath are exceedingly far from my own

Mariners are part of a separate and unique community. When a vessel goes down and souls are lost, we mourn a little differently than most of our brethren who are tied to the land. Why? We know that but for the grace of God it could have been us.

Sandy has been called the biggest storm ever to form in the Atlantic Basin.

The loss of the HMS Bounty and two crewmembers during Hurricane Sandy reminded me how truly vulnerable we are when we go to sea. Going to sea is always a bit more risky than staying ashore. Going to sea in the face of a hurricane is a lot more risky.

Vessels never sink without a reason. If there is a legacy from the Bounty tragedy it is that if we understand why she sank, some of us might avoid the same path.

There are three principal reasons that vessels sink: environmental causes, equipment failure (hull and mechanical), and human error. Rarely is there just one. Often one precipitates another. One of my responsibilities while on active duty with the Coast Guard was the direct supervision of the National Motor Lifeboat School at Cape Disappointment, Wash. The three-week heavy weather coxswain curriculum had one fundamental objective: ensuring that all graduates become aware of their capabilities and limitations and those of the boat they are on.

Heavy weather, especially in hurricane conditions, can be unforgiving. There is an old adage in the Coast Guard: “You have to go out; you don’t have to come back.” One unstated objective of the school was that every coxswain that graduated had the wherewithal to come back. This brings us to the HMS Bounty. Did the master realistically know his own capabilities and limitations and those of his vessel?

Seaworthiness is a relative term. It means the vessel was fit for her intended purpose. This not only includes the material condition of the vessel but also the number and capabilities of the crew she carries. An unseaworthy vessel has a much greater chance of sinking than one that is seaworthy. Was the HMS Bounty seaworthy enough to go offshore in a hurricane?

As I write this, only two weeks have passed since she sank. Much remains to be learned, but we do know enough, albeit most of it anecdotal, to put this tragedy into an initial perspective. What is not clear at this time is the heavy-weather fitness of the vessel. It is known that the master intentionally ran his vessel into harm’s way, presumably with the belief that he and the ship would prevail. So long as the wood remains solid, the fastenings hold and the caulking remains in place, the hull remains sound. The Bounty was recently drydocked for repairs. Apparently recaulking was part of the refit.

There is evidence that the HMS Bounty was taking on water during the storm for some time before she sank. Was it the shaft logs, the rudder posts, had some of her caulking come adrift? An email that one of the crewmembers sent before the vessel sailed on her final voyage opined about the reliability of the engines and generators. It is known that there was a generator failure before she sank. Did the generator simply quit because of mechanical failure? Was there sludge in the fuel tanks that came adrift in the heavy weather? Did they simply become inundated?

What is known is that the vessel took on water progressively over some period until she succumbed. Had taking on water been an ongoing issue, or was it merely the result of the rough seas from the storm? Were there prior problems with the generators and bilge pumps before she sailed? If any of these were prior conditions, the decision to get under way with a hurricane forecast along the route introduces the possibility of human error.

It is known that the vessel carried ample amounts of survival gear, and the crew frequently trained in its use. This is probably the reason there were so many survivors. The flight crews at Coast Guard Air Station Elizabeth City, N.C., had something to do with their survival, as well. Bravo Zulu.

The Bounty’s home office lost communication with the vessel Sunday evening. The office alerted the Coast Guard to the vessel’s distress, as did an EPIRB signal from the ship. As the evening wore on, messages on Bounty’s Facebook page said a ship’s generator had failed and that the vessel was taking on more water than they would like. Three hours later another Facebook entry stated, “Your prayers are needed.”

Something was seriously wrong. The master was communicating with someone, probably the Coast Guard. Were those communications timely, and did he accurately relay to the Coast Guard the nature and severity of the Bounty’s difficulties? The Coast Guard has the capability of dropping portable dewatering pumps to vessels in need. Was a pump drop even discussed?

Much recent press and Internet discussion has centered on the master’s decision to get under way in the face of the hurricane forecast. A presumption is that the vessel’s hull should have been reasonably fit, having just weeks before undertaken a yard availability in Maine. Even so, why chance the lives of your crew and your vessel to the uncertainties of a hurricane? Two clues have emerged: a 30-minute television interview that the master gave in Belfast, Maine, in August, and his Facebook postings.

The HMS Bounty’s master was a very experienced mariner, with more than 17 years at her helm. With 45 years at sea, there was nothing in his biography to question his qualifications to command the HMS Bounty. Yet he chose to set sail in the face of a hurricane and then neglected to seek safe refuge when the situation started to deteriorate.

In his Belfast TV interview, the master provided insight into his attitude toward heavy weather and, more specifically, hurricanes. He opined that there is no such thing as bad weather, just different kinds of weather. Asked whether he had ever been in stormy seas, he volunteered, “We chase hurricanes.”

He told the interviewer that you try to get as close to the eye as you can. You stay in the southeast quadrant, and when it stops, you stop. You don’t want to overrun it. The master went on to admit that the biggest waves he had been in were 70 feet, coincidentally while on board the HMS Bounty. Those waves, he added, were actually swells from a hurricane a couple hundred miles to his south. Even though they were very large swells, the ship motions were not at all uncomfortable.

These comments are troubling. This master’s attitude and appreciation of a hurricane’s wrath are exceedingly far from my own. Although I’m not an expert on hurricanes, I’ve been through several. One typhoon, in particular, in the western Pacific was quite dramatic. Winds blew from 160 to 190 knots for six hours, and the glass dropped to 27.26 inches (923 millibars). Accordingly, I have an overriding appreciation and respect for the devastation that such storms can cause, especially to vessels at sea.

The Bounty’s Facebook postings provided additional insight into the master and his frame of mind toward hurricanes. One posting less than 48 hours before the Bounty sank reflected some of the criticism addressed to the decision to put to sea and the master’s response. He said the decision was calculated and not at all irresponsible, adding, “The fact of the matter is … a ship is safer at sea than in port.” Although that’s generally true, being at sea and being at sea in a hurricane are not quite the same. Prudent mariners usually go to sea to avoid a hurricane, never to get up close and personal with one.

What makes hurricanes so dangerous is not just high winds and huge seas; it is also that their direction and speed of advance are so unpredictable. The closer a vessel gets to the eye, the more significant these relative course and speed changes become, as there is less sea room and time to take effective evasive action. Steering toward the path of a hurricane greatly diminishes a master’s options to discharge his ultimate responsibility: safeguarding his vessel, passengers and crew.

Less than 24 hours before the HMS Bounty sank, her master could have changed course to seek safe refuge in Chesapeake Bay. He pressed on. In hindsight it appears that he failed to understand the capabilities and limitations of his vessel and himself. Few would consider an old wooden sailing vessel without much or any compartmentation suitable for hurricane operations. The design and condition of the ship notwithstanding, the master, even with more than 45 years of seagoing experience, apparently failed to recognize his own capabilities and limitations.

He and his ship and another crewmember paid the ultimate price.

Richard Dein has more than 50 years of commercial and recreational maritime experience, including 24 years of active duty in the Coast Guard. Since 1979, he has served as a maritime expert in federal and state court for marine accident reconstruction, navigation rules, seamanship, search-and-rescue, and towing. He has held a Coast Guard master’s license continuously since 1962.

See related article:

- The loss of the Bounty

January 2013 issue.