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Bounty's sinking result of 'reckless' decision in Hurricane Sandy

National Transportation Safety BoardHurricanes and Tropical StormsHurricane Sandy (2012)Tour Operations IndustryMGM Inc.U.S. Coast GuardTransportation Industry

The captain went down with his ship.

The body of Capt. Robin Walbridge, a stubborn and profane seaman who often said he feared no storm, was never found after the tall ship Bounty sank in the Atlantic Ocean after being pummeled by Hurricane Sandy on Oct. 29, 2012.

The ship's sinking can now be laid at the feet of its dead captain. It was largely Walbridge’s fault that the ship was destroyed by the storm 110 miles off Cape Hatteras, N.C., according to a National Transportation Safety Board investigation.

The NTSB conclusions, released Monday, cited Walbridge, 63, a man with a lifetime of sailing experience, for his "reckless decision to sail the vessel into the well-forecasted path of Hurricane Sandy."

Walbridge, who had bragged to a Maine TV station two months earlier that he "chased hurricanes," exposed a leaky, poorly maintained craft - a replica of an 18th century British Admiralty sailing ship - to deadly risks by ignoring pleas not to sail into the path of the approaching storm. He "subjected the aging vessel and the inexperienced crew to conditions from which the vessel could not recover," investigators concluded.

Walbridge and Claudene Christian, 42, a $100-a-week deckhand, died in the sinking. Christian’s body was found 10 hours after the ship sank and about eight miles away, still in a protective immersion suit. Fourteen crew members survived, but three were seriously injured.

The 108-foot Bounty was built in 1960 for MGM Studios for the 1962 Marlon Brando movie "Mutiny on the Bounty." The Bounty also appeared in one of the "Pirates of the Caribbean" movies.

It was being used as a Coast Guard-certified "moored attraction vessel," visited dockside by tourists paying $10 a head. A maritime document described it as a "wooden sailing ship of primitive build." It wasn’t licensed to carry passengers at sea.

The Bounty left New London, Conn., bound for St. Petersburg, Fla., on Oct. 25, 2012, just as forecasters were predicting a devastating hit by Hurricane Sandy as the storm lumbered up the Atlantic toward the East Coast. Despite pleas by crew members to stay safely in port, Walbridge set sail into the teeth of the storm and its forecast 100-mph winds.

Though the captain himself referred to Sandy as a "Frankenstorm," he assured his crew that his sailing skills would guide the Bounty safely around the storm. Insisting that ships were safer in a storm than in port, Walbridge told his panicked crew that he would sail to Sandy’s southeast quadrant to take advantage of favorable winds that would blow the vessel to safety.

That decision was inexplicable and irresponsible, the investigation concluded.

"Although this wooden ship was modeled after an 18th century vessel, the captain had access to 21st century hurricane modeling tools that predicted the path and severity of Hurricane Sandy,’’ NTSB Chairman Deborah A.P. Hersman said in a statement that accompanied the 16-page report. "The Bounty’s crew was put into an extraordinarily hazardous situation through decisions that by any measure didn’t prioritize safety."

Anyone who sat through a detailed U.S. Coast Guard and NTSB investigative hearing in Portsmouth, Va., last February is unlikely to be surprised by the NTSB conclusions. The hearing featured anguished testimony by crew members and maritime experts who described a compromised ship, a headstrong captain, an inexperienced crew and slipshod maintenance of a vessel more suited to be a tourist attraction than a sailing ship.

Indeed, testimony showed that Walbridge wanted to reach St. Petersburg because the ship was scheduled for an exhibit on Nov. 10, though he would still have arrived in time if he had left port after Sandy had passed. The hearing also revealed that the leaky Bounty was a money pit for its owner, Robert Hansen, who had formed HMS Bounty Organization LLC to handle the ship's affairs but then put it up for sale.

Hansen invoked his 5th Amendment rights and did not testify. Christian’s family later sued Hansen’s company. Christian at times claimed to be a descendant of Fletcher Christian, who led the mutiny against Capt. William Bligh on the original Bounty in 1789.

The ship's engineer, Christopher Barksdale, also sued the ship's owner.

The NTSB concluded that the owner "did nothing to dissuade the captain from sailing into known severe weather conditions."  A lack of "effective safety oversight by the vessel organization contributed to the sinking," the agency said.

"The captain may have focused too narrowly on the position of the storm's eye instead of on Sandy's total wind expanse (winds associated with the storm spanned more than 1,000 miles in diameter)," the report said. "Still, the captain seemed to believe he could outrace the storm."

The Bounty, valued at about $4 million, underwent repairs at a shipyard in Maine the month before it sailed into the storm, but the NTSB determined that it was poorly serviced. The inexperienced crew did not properly seal areas of extensive rot on the wooden hull. Among the sealing compounds supplied by Walbridge was a silicone sealant marketed for household use and not recommended for water immersion, the NTSB said.

In addition, the agency found, the captain failed to make sure that all onboard bilge pumps were fully operational. "This failure on his part further compromised the safety of everyone on board," the report said.

According to testimony by the chief mate, Walbridge delayed putting in a distress call to the Coast Guard as the ship was battered by 30-foot seas in cold and darkness. The foresail was shredded and fuel was leaking. The port engine and generator were failing.

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

By the time a distress call was made on the night of Oct. 28, it was too late. The engine room soon flooded. The port generator and main engine failed. The vessel was adrift, slammed helplessly against crashing seas. The ship ultimately took on 10 feet of water.

About an hour before the ship sank, according to testimony at the hearing, the captain assembled the crew on the pitching tween deck and asked: "What went wrong? At what point did we lose control?"

Shortly after 4 a.m. on Oct. 29, the Bounty pitched violently on its starboard side, throwing the crew into the frigid Atlantic.

Coast Guard helicopter crews rescued 14 crew members. Captain Walbridge was presumed lost at sea.

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