RALEIGH, N.C. – More than a week before Hurricane Sandy became a superstorm that would zero in on New York and New Jersey, the captain of the tall ship Picton Castle decided to play it safe and stay home.
It was scheduled to leave Nova Scotia on Oct. 22 but delayed by 12 days, said Susan Corkum-Greek, general manager of the ship’s operator, Windward Isles Sailing Ship Co. Ltd.
Capt. Daniel Moreland thought it better to stay put than sail south while the storm could be churning north.
Another captain sailing roughly the same route headed out to sea. The HMS Bounty sailed dead into the path of Sandy. Amid 30-foot waves, the diesel engines died and the ship took on water. The crew abandoned ship, and the Bounty sank 90 miles southeast of Cape Hatteras on Oct. 29.
One crew member died. The captain was never found.
This week, a federal safety panel will open a hearing into the fatal sinking of the Bounty — a replica 18th-century tall ship built for the 1962 film “Mutiny on the Bounty” and used in other seafaring dramas.
The Coast Guard and the National Transportation Safety Board have scheduled eight days of testimony in Portsmouth, Va., to hear from crew members, people from the shipyard where the Bounty underwent work weeks before sinking, and captains of similar multi-mast sailing ships.
“It’s really the first time the public will get a better understanding of what happened,” said Ernest DelBuono, a retired Coast Guard commander who once inspected U.S. vessels. “This is a unique case because the person who probably everybody would like to hear from was a casualty.”
Capt. Robin Walbridge, 63, of St. Petersburg, Fla., is presumed dead. Claudene Christian, 42, was confirmed dead. The other 14 crew members were rescued.
The hearings are an opportunity to hear from survivors and people who spoke to the captain before the ship left New London, Conn., for St. Petersburg, Fla., said DelBuono.
Moreland is expected to testify by phone from the South Pacific, where the Picton Castle is cruising. A likely line of questioning is what led to the decision to postpone while Sandy was still days away, Corkum-Greek said.
“There was no dissent among our team of mariners that postponing was the correct thing to do,” Corkum-Greek said.
Coast Guard Cmdr. Kevin Carroll, the hearing’s lead officer, is scheduled to open the hearings by questioning the Bounty’s operators, the HMS Bounty Organization of East Setauket, N.Y.
The ship’s Facebook page acknowledged the risk in the days before the sinking. “This will be a tough voyage,” read one posting.
More than a day before the Bounty was lost, another post read: “Rest assured that the Bounty is safe and in very capable hands. Bounty’s current voyage is a calculated decision … The fact of the matter is … A SHIP IS SAFER AT SEA THAN IN PORT!”
But another tall ship captain said he’s mystified by what Walbridge was thinking.
Jan Miles, captain of the clipper ship Pride of Baltimore II, is scheduled to testify and said Walbridge apparently knew he was headed toward an unpredictable hurricane moving faster than his ship.
The public also will hear from officials with Boothbay Harbor Shipyard in Maine, which posted on its blog less than three weeks before the Bounty sank that the ship had been undergoing minor repairs for about a month.
Though the hearing isn’t a criminal proceeding, any evidence of wrongdoing would be referred to federal prosecutors, Coast Guard Chief Petty Officer Nyx Cangemi said.