March 19, 2013

How Maine-linked ship fought Sandy, and lost

The 180-foot Bounty, which was overhauled in Maine last year, sank during the superstorm, resulting in two deaths.

David Zucchino / Los Angeles Times

PORTSMOUTH, Va. — The ship’s engineer was seasick and spitting up his medication. A deckhand had been tossed past the mainmast, breaking three ribs. The captain had been slammed against a cabin table, wrenching his back. He could barely walk.

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The HMS Bounty, a 180-foot sailboat, is shown submerged in the Atlantic Ocean during Hurricane Sandy approximately 90 miles southeast of Hatteras, N.C., on Oct. 29, 2012.

U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 2nd Class Tim Kuklewski

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Deckhand Anna Sprague describes sitting on the deck waiting to abandon ship as she testifies during the U.S. Coast Guard's February hearing into the sinking of the HMS Bounty during Hurricane Sandy.


Additional Photos Below

Capt. Robin Walbridge, sailing the tall ship Bounty from Connecticut to Florida, was trying to outflank Hurricane Sandy, which was roaring toward New York. But instead of slipping around the storm, the ship had crossed directly into Sandy’s path.

It was after dark on Oct. 28, and the three-mast vessel pitched and rolled in the Atlantic 90 miles off Cape Hatteras, its 16 crew members fighting to keep the ship afloat.

The 180-foot Bounty took on water through its leaky oak and fir planking faster than the failing bilge pumps could keep up. Fuel was leaking. The foresail was shredded. The port engine and generator were failing. The Bounty’s lights flickered in the gloom.

The chief mate pleaded with the captain to make a distress call to the Coast Guard. No, Walbridge said, they just needed to get the generators cranking again.

Sometime before dawn on Oct. 29, the Bounty pitched violently on its starboard side and the crew tumbled into the cold Atlantic.

Outlined against a stark black curtain inside a hotel conference room in Portsmouth last month, three Coast Guard officers convened a formal hearing to seek answers to the sinking of one of the world’s best-known ships. Was there, as the Coast Guard phrased it, “any act of misconduct, inattention to duty, negligence or willful violation of the law?”

The Bounty, described as “a wooden sailing ship of primitive build,” was a leaky money pit for its owner, Robert Hansen. He formed HMS Bounty Organization, LLC to handle the ship’s affairs and had put it up for sale last year. Hansen invoked the Fifth Amendment and did not testify.

The ship was moored in New London, Conn., in October. Walbridge was eager to sail it to St. Petersburg, Fla., where it was scheduled to be on exhibit. A replica of an 18th century sailing ship, the Bounty was built in 1960 for the Marlon Brando film “Mutiny on the Bounty” and starred in two “Pirates of the Caribbean” movies.

The Bounty wasn’t licensed to carry passengers at sea. Tourists paid $10 to visit the moored ship in ports in the U.S. and Europe.

A shipyard manager testified that during an overhaul of the ship in Maine last September, workers found widespread rot in the frames and planking. But only two planks were replaced, and the rotting frames were simply covered with recaulked planks.

Crew members declined requests for interviews, but their detailed and often emotional testimony described a beloved and dedicated captain so confident in his sailing abilities that he sent his compromised ship into a hurricane, convinced that he could outsmart any storm.


As Sandy grew more dangerous, crew members received panicked phone calls from family and friends. Walbridge called his crew together and gave them a chance to go home. Everyone decided to stay.

There was little talk of remaining in New London to ride out the storm, though Walbridge himself described Sandy as a “Frankenstorm.” Chief mate John Svendsen, 41, a Bounty veteran, told Walbridge that high seas and devastating winds were predicted; the captain said the Bounty would handle the hurricane just fine.

Walbridge planned to get on the far southeastern sector of Sandy to take advantage of favorable winds, which would blow the Bounty safely away from the hurricane. He said ships in hurricanes were safer at sea than in port.

(Continued on page 2)

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Additional Photos

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Chief mate of the HMS Bounty John Svendsen, answers a question after pointing out where the Bounty was taking on water at a federal safety panel hearing on the sinking of the ship on Feb. 12, 2013, in Portsmouth, Va.


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Matthew Sanders, second mate of the HMS Bounty, is sworn in during the U.S. Coast Guard hearing into the sinking of the ship off North Carolina during Hurricane Sandy. One member of the 18th-century replica ship's crew died and Capt. Robin Walbridge was never found after the ship sank about 90 miles off Cape Hatteras, N.C.


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Jessica Black, former HMS Bounty ship's cook, talks about an electrical switch shorting out because of moisture from the hurricane and causing smoke inside the galley of the vessel, as she testifies during the U.S. Coast Guard hearing into the sinking of the ship.


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