HMS Bounty: the inside story of its final days

The HMS Bounty left New London, Conn., on Oct. 25 for a sail to St. Petersburg, Fla. It went due east to try to avoid hurricane Sandy, but the crew was mistaken in thinking the danger had been skirted.

Courtesy of Petty Officer 2nd Class Tim Kuklewski/USCG/Reuters
The HMS Bounty, a 180-foot sailboat, is shown submerged in the Atlantic Ocean during Hurricane Sandy approximately 90 miles southeast of Hatteras, North Carolina, October 29.

The HMS Bounty was apparently headed to a public appearance in St. Petersburg, Fla., when it sank Monday off the coast of North Carolina amid the howling winds of hurricane Sandy.

Fourteen of the 16 people aboard the replica tall ship were rescued by Coast Guard helicopters. Crew member Claudene Christian was pulled unresponsive from the water and later pronounced dead at a North Carolina hospital.

Ship captain Robin Walbridge remained missing as of midday Tuesday. According to the Coast Guard, Walbridge went overboard when the ship rolled from the impact of 18-foot waves.

Coast Guard assets, including a 225-foot cutter, an HC-130 aircraft, and an MH-60 helicopter continued to search for Walbridge, as the water temperature in the area is nearly 80 degrees F. If properly clad in a survival suit, someone could survive in such an environment for a considerable length of time, Coast Guard officials say.

According to information posted on the HMS Bounty’s Facebook page, the wooden ship recently underwent a month of painting and structural refurbishment at Boothbay Harbor Shipyard in Maine.

The repairs involved were minor, involving some bottom work and planking, new spars, and new fuel and water tanks, according to an account of the work posted on the shipyard’s website. Five years ago, the same facility rebuilt the ship from the waterline up. Several years prior to that, Boothbay Harbor Shipyard crafted the Bounty a new bottom.

The current work on the ship was finished Oct. 18. On Oct. 21, the Bounty left Boothbay for a stop in New London, Conn. On the 25th, the ship went for a day sail in Long Island Sound carrying US Navy personnel.

The tall ship left New London later that same day for a sail to St. Petersburg, Fla. According to a Facebook post, the 25th was also Walbridge’s birthday.

The ship was scheduled to dock at The Pier in St. Petersburg for a public appearance on the weekend of Nov. 10-11. St. Petersburg had served as a winter home for the ship in past years.

The ship’s course out of Connecticut took it due east to try to avoid the oncoming hurricane Sandy. Early on Sunday, the crew felt it had skirted the danger: A Facebook post showed the ship’s position on a map well to the east of the storm’s fiercest winds.

They were mistaken. The ship was close to the tail end of the hurricane as it whipped up the Atlantic coast.

Details about the ship’s final hours remain sketchy. Apparently at least one generator failed, and the Bounty began taking on more water than it could safely handle.

The official Coast Guard account states that a search aircraft was dispatched from Coast Guard Air Station Elizabeth City following a distress call Sunday evening. Upon arrival at the ship’s location, the aircraft established communication with the crew. At that time the vessel was reportedly sinking in 18-foot seas and 40-mile-per-hour winds, says the Coast Guard account.

Rescue did not commence until daylight. By that time, the crew had split between two inflatable 25-person life rafts, which looked like large floating saucers with a cover. Neither Ms. Christian nor Walbridge made it into the life rafts.

The rescue involved Coast Guard divers leaping into the ocean and guiding the survivors, one by one, into a basket for hoist upward to two helicopters. Video of the rescue is very dramatic and a testament to the courage of Coast Guard personnel.

“Thank you to everyone for your support and prayers at this devastating time. We want to thank the USCG for their bravery and risking their lives to save ours,” the HMS Bounty Foundation said in a statement.

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