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Trust and tragedy

The seas and wind had been building Oct. 27 when, on night watch aboard the tall ship Bounty, able-bodied seaman Adam Prokosh noticed something he considered “alarming.”

On the AIS screen, where the positions of other nearby ships would be indicated, he saw — as Bounty headed toward advancing Hurricane Sandy — nothing.

“It was pretty lonely out there,” Prokosh, 27, testified last week at a Coast Guard hearing into the Oct. 29 loss of the Bounty and her captain and the death of a 42-year-old female crewmember during the storm.

The eight-day hearing, which ended last Thursday in Portsmouth, Va., was the public portion of a Coast Guard investigation headed by Cmdr. Kevin Carroll. Its purpose was “to determine the cause of the casualty and the responsibility to the fullest extent possible” and to gather information to prevent or reduce the effects of similar incidents.

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Prokosh, who testified under oath by telephone, was one of a dozen of the 14 Bounty survivors that Carroll’s hearing panel questioned.

Capt. Robin Walbridge (left).

Bounty owner Robert Hansen, a Long Island, N.Y., businessman, was at the hearings every day, but through his lawyer he refused to testify, asserting his constitutional right against self-incrimination. His lawyers were able to question each witness, as were the lawyers for the parents of Claudene Christian, the crewmember who died. Bounty Chief Mate John Svendsen, 41, second in command aboard the Bounty when she went down, also was deemed a “party in interest” and questioned the witnesses.

The overriding question the hearings asked was: Why did Capt. Robin Walbridge, who had been the Bounty’s skipper for 17 years, leave New London, Conn., late on the afternoon of Oct. 25, knowing that a hurricane was headed up the East Coast?

Two intriguing comments, one made by the captain seven weeks earlier and the other posted on Bounty’s Facebook page, drove much of the questioning.

In an Aug. 8 interview in Belfast, Maine, Walbridge had said, in part: “We chase hurricanes.”

And when Bounty was at sea and tangling with Sandy, the Facebook page justified the voyage, saying “ships are safer at sea.”

Svendsen, in his sworn testimony, said he initiated a private conversation with Walbridge in New London, urging him to keep Bounty where it was or seek another safe haven. Svendsen testified that Walbridge rejected his suggestions and that Walbridge did not raise his concerns when the captain later addressed the crew about a half-hour before casting off.

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Other testimony revealed that Walbridge told crewmembers that if they were worried about the coming “Frankenstorm” they could leave the ship with no hard feelings.

Svendsen, among the crewmembers who testified, was the only one who said he had told the captain he had qualms that Thursday afternoon. The rest of the crew uniformly said they trusted Walbridge’s experience and, thus, his decision.

Third mate Dan Cleveland was asked by Carroll about Walbridge’s “chasing hurricanes” comment and said he had not heard the captain use those words. But Cleveland, 25, the longest-serving Bounty crewmember after Walbridge, said he thought the skipper was describing a practice of following hurricanes after they had passed, using the good trailing winds and smooth seas to advantage.

None of the expert witnesses and other tall ship captains questioned by Carroll’s panel supported the notion, in Bounty’s case, that a ship was safer at sea in a storm.

Two managers of Boothbay Harbor Shipyard, where Bounty was hauled in September for significant work, testified that there was rot in the frames and planking. One of the managers testified that he told Walbridge all of the planking should be removed to determine the extent of the rot. When the captain “shot down immediately” that suggestion, Todd Kozakowski said, he urged Walbridge to avoid rough seas.

Bounty met its end when the crew could not halt severe flooding that malfunctioning bilge pumps allowed.

Despite hours of working on a system that included two diesel generators powering two electric bilge pumps and two hydraulic pumps that ran off the twin diesel propulsion engines, the crew watched as seawater submerged the engine room and the crew quarters and began flooding the “tween deck” above the engine room.

Boatswain Laura Groves, 28, described a moment on Sunday night when the “only thing that was clear was that there was an open seam in the engine room on the port side,” Bounty’s windward side. “You could hear the water coming in.”

Earlier that day, the Bounty, which had followed a course from Long Island just east of south, made an abrupt turn at about the latitude of the entrance to Chesapeake Bay, sailing southwest. Crewmembers testified that Walbridge thought he could race the cumbersome 180-foot wooden replica ship across the track of oncoming Sandy and get “in the lee” of Cape Hatteras, N.C.

The hearings were held in Portsmouth, Va.

But by Sunday evening, with the bilge water rising, Walbridge gave the order to heave-to, a maneuver that should have leveled the ship and made pumping more effective. For some reason, the crew could not maintain a prime on the bilge pumps, and the water rose.

By this time, with seas in the 25- to 30-foot range and winds at hurricane strength, both Walbridge and Prokosh had been injured. In the lurching ship, they were thrown across the interior and struck fixed objects.

In the early hours of Oct. 29 Walbridge called the crew together, Groves testified, and asked: “At what point did we lose control?”

Not long afterward, the captain ordered the crew to don their immersion suits on the tween deck. In about an hour they began to assemble on the weather deck, prepared for an orderly evacuation into two large life rafts stowed on the aft deck, according to testimony.

The sea and the storm combined with a different plan. Bounty rolled on its starboard side, throwing some crew overboard in the darkness while others jumped.

Walbridge was last seen crouching on deck, according to testimony. The ship’s spars rose and fell in the violence of the storm, a tomahawk-like chopping of the sea and the struggling survivors. In that thrashing chaos, none of the survivors saw Christian, they testified.

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Editor’s note: 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.