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

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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.


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Most of the Bounty’s crew were certified seamen, but six had virtually no sailing experience. The cook, Jessica Black, 34, had signed on just a day earlier and the engineer, Christopher Barksdale, 56, had joined the month before. Barksdale had no professional engineering credentials.

Walbridge, 63, wore a ponytail and hearing aid. He had skippered the Bounty for 17 years. People joked that he spent more time with the ship than with his wife. He loved teaching sailing and seafaring; he called his crew “future captains of America.” They considered him intelligent and intuitive; he was a skilled chess player and gifted mechanic who once repaired an onboard generator with microwave parts.

The captain had an impetuous streak. In August, he told a TV reporter in Maine: “We chase hurricanes. You try and get up as close to the eye of it as you can, and you stay down in the southeast quadrant.”

Like many seamen, Walbridge was superstitious about leaving port on a Friday. He made sure the Bounty left New London late in the day on Thursday, Oct. 25, his birthday.

The weather was beautiful that Friday — fair and clear. But by the end of the day, Sandy’s winds and waves buffeted the ship as the storm blew north.

Walbridge plotted on a chart the Bounty’s position in relation to the gathering hurricane. Tracie Simonin, the sole full-time employee of the HMS Bounty Organization on Long Island, copied and pasted updates from the National Hurricane Center and emailed them to the crew every few hours.

Walbridge was a stickler for safety drills, rigid deck watches and redundancy. The ship had two engines, four bilge pumps, four fuel tanks, plus an emergency hand-held gasoline pump.

By late Friday, he was running both engines hard. The ship, which normally sailed at 4 to 5 knots, was speeding along at 14 knots. (A knot is 1.15 mph.) “Right now we don’t want to get between a hurricane and a hard spot,” Walbridge emailed the home office.

Sandy was now 1,000 miles wide.

On Saturday, the seas turned rougher, cresting 8 to 12 feet with winds at 25 knots. A generator sputtered and belched black smoke. In the engine room, the bilge pumps struggled.

Adam Prokosh, 27, a seaman who’d spent eight months on the Bounty, noticed on the tracking system that no other ships were anywhere near. “It was pretty lonely out there,” he testified.

By Sunday morning, the storm was upon the ship. Seas surged to 25 feet. Winds blew up to 50 knots. The ship rocked and pitched.

Claudene Christian, 42, had been an unpaid volunteer since May and became a $100-a-week deckhand on Oct. 18. A former Song Girl at USC, Christian was considered the most upbeat person on board.

But now she told another deckhand: “I’m seeing things that make me uncomfortable.”

At midday, the winds blew out the foresail. Barksdale, the engineer, jammed his right hand as he was tossed about the deck, then gashed his arm in the engine room.

The rough seas slammed Prokosh across the deck. He broke three ribs and crushed a vertebra; Christian tended to him in his bunk. Walbridge was thrown into a bolted table, wrenching his back. He was in agony.

Below deck, the tank gauge ruptured, shutting down the port engine and generator. The lights went out. Matthew Sanders, the second mate, worked furiously and restarted the generator. But water kept pouring in.

Around 5 p.m., Walbridge ordered the ship to “heave to,” essentially go dead in the water. The captain turned the bow into the pounding seas to avoid broadside hits. That ended all chances of the Bounty outrunning Sandy.

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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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