UPDATE: The hearings have concluded. Read more here.
Original post: As former crewmembers started testifying about the sunken tall ship Bounty, a complex mosaic formed about the ship's last moments above the water.
During the Coast Guard's continuing investigation into the October 29 sinking of the Bounty 90 miles Southeast of Hatteras, S.C. during Hurricane Sandy, several new details about the ship's final hours have come to light. But most of the focus has remained on the equipment on board before the ship left port.
The Coast Guard 5th District will conduct its investigation until Thursday, Feb. 21 in Portsmouth, Va. The hearings are to determine what caused the Bounty to sink and cost the lives of crewmember Claudene Christian and Captain Robin Walbridge.
The Coast Guard's interviews with crew members and employees from Boothbay Harbor Shipyard revealed that several mechanical and structural problems plagued the ship, including rotting wood, aging engines and temperamental bilge pumps.
The only thing most crewmembers seemed to agree on was that the deceased Captain Robin Walbridge knew what he was doing and that the crew was free to leave if they felt the journey ahead was unsafe, engineer Chris Barksdale said.
“Captain Walbridge gave us all a chance to leave,” he said. “I felt that he had a good plan of attack and the amount of time I spent with the crew convinced me that they were all able seamen and no one chose to leave.”
Crewmember Adam Prokosh said that while he was working on other tall ships the Bounty had a less-than-stellar reputation.
“I heard terrible things about the Bounty; one of the jokes I heard a lot was that everybody who worked on the Bounty had a story where they almost died, and you never heard the same story twice,” he said. “It had a reputation for being a deathtrap.”
But, Prokosh said that during his time he saw an effort to improve the safety of the Bounty and that safety of the crew was being moved to the forefront.
Prokosh said most of the bad reputation was picked up during the ship's 52-year life but work was underway to try and shed the reputation.
“I felt like those rumors were out of date,” he said. “I was excited to be a part of the new Bounty. I found that everyone on board took their jobs very seriously.
“A lot of that was hearsay and rumors; I saw (the Bounty crew) them making a conscientious effort to improve the safety of that ship.”
First hearing: troubles piled up
At the dawning of the Coast Guard's investigation into the sinking of the Bounty the focus fell on equipment, crew and course.
The United States Coast Guard's 5th District, which responded to the ship's sinking, began its formal hearing on Tuesday, Feb. 12 in Portsmouth, Va., with the intent to discover what caused the Bounty to sink and cost the lives of two of its crew: crew member Claudene Christian and Captain Robin Walbridge.
Commander Kevin Carroll is conducting the hearings, which on Tuesday focused predominantly on crew member and chief mate John Svendson.
Svendson was able to give a first hand account of what transpired on the ship that was in Boothbay Harbor in the fall for repairs.
When asked whether Capt. Walbridge's plan to cut in front of the storm was risky, Svendson said the ship didn't have too many other options.
“At sea, there is always risk,” he said. “Robin's plan gave us more sea room and the ability to head away from the hurricane.”
Carroll asked Svendson whether extra risk was incurred by cutting so close to a hurricane and if it was intentional, but Svendson said the captain was trying to skirt around the bulk of the storm the entire time.
“We weren't chasing a hurricane; we were taking the safest route possible,” he said.
But Svendson added he wasn't completely sold on the new route and simply wanted the ship to return to port.
“Being a prudent mariner, I wanted to make sure we were as safe as possible inside Cape Hatteras as soon as possible,” he said.
Svendson was able to give a first-hand account of what transpired on the Bounty before and after the ship crossed paths with Hurricane Sandy, including what started the ship's sinking.
Svendson said that when Bounty left Boothbay Harbor it was in very good condition and stayed that way until it was off the coast of Cape Hatteras.
The difficulties started October 28, after a fire on the ship's oven, which caused electrical problems. From there, the troubles piled up.
The generators that powered the bilge pumps began acting sporadically and the ship had to heave-to in 20- to 30-foot seas and winds reaching speeds north of 50 mph.
Water began seeping in through the hull on the tween deck faster than the crew could pump it out. Eventually, all power was lost and the engines were under water.
“We were keeping up with water for the most part; it was coming in a little faster than we could pump it out, but everyone was optimistic and hopeful,” Svendson said.
But after a while the ship began taking on too much water, Svendson said. “I noticed we were taking on more water than I felt comfortable with, so I went up and had a conversation with Robin.”
Svendson said he wanted to call the Coast Guard immediately, but Walbridge wanted to try and fix the problem first.
“At that point I was concerned and I had a conversation with Robin where I expressed my concerns,” he said. “I felt that the most prudent course would be to communicate with the Coast Guard and apprise them of what's happening, then make informed decisions. He felt that the best thing to do was focus on getting the generators working.”
Eventually the water became too much and the crew was forced to abandon ship. The last time he saw Walbridge was when the captain was walking toward the yards as the crew was abandoning ship.
Svendson said he was not unscathed in his ordeal; he was thrown overboard and had to swim for several hours before he found a beacon and was picked up by a Coast Guard helicopter. He said he suffered several broken fingers, a partially dislocated shoulder, saltwater damage to his esophagus and hypothermia.
Robert Hanson, owner of the tall ship Bounty, invoked his Fifth Amendment rights and declined to testify.
Second hearing: noticeable rot
Before its fateful final voyage, workers at the Boothbay Harbor Shipyard said they noticed significant rot on the Bounty.
On February 12 and 13, former yard manager Joe Jackimovicz and project manager Todd Kosakowski testified that when the tall ship was hauled-out for repairs significant rot was discovered.
Kosakowski said that before the Bounty left for New London last October he mentioned to Captain Robin Walbridge that the wood should be removed.
According to Kosakowski, who testified on Wednesday, Walbridge didn't want to replace the rotting planks due to time and monetary constraints.
Jackimovicz, who testified Thursday, said the plan was to have the planks removed the next time the Bounty was hauled-out.
Kosakowski said the rot, which occurred on the top decking, could have contributed to the water intake when the Bounty sank October 29 and claimed the lives of Walbridge and Christian.
According to Jackimovicz the shipyard had replaced the planking during a previous haul-out and was surprised by the sudden decay, but said that the rot was occurring on a particularity well-fortified section of the ship.
“The skipper wanted several planks removed and when the fellas did that they showed up one day and said they found something surprising,” Jackimovicz said. “They said 'The wood we put in five years ago is decaying.'
“We were all surprised by it. It was our feeling that it wasn't a serious matter and that at the moment, we would let it go over for a period.”
Jackimovicz said he had witnessed other wooden ships with much more rot that suffered no ill consequences.
The hearings will conclude February 21.
Ben Bulkeley can be reached at 207-633-4620 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter: @BBRegisterBen.