A captain's ‘reckless decision to sail into well-forecasted path of Hurricane Sandy’ probable cause of sinking

Federal Transportation Board issues report on sinking of tall ship Bounty

Posted:  Tuesday, February 11, 2014 - 11:15am
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On Oct. 29, 2012, the tall ship Bounty sank off Cape Hatteras, N.C., while attempting transit through the forecasted path of Hurricane Sandy and in winds measuring up to 100 miles per hour. Three of the 16 crew members on board  were seriously injured, one died and the captain was never found. The vessel’s estimated value was $4 million.

The ship was on a course to St. Petersburg, Fla., for a Nov. 10 event.

“The last confirmed sighting of the Bounty was at (7:20 p.m.) on Oct. 29, 2012, when the crew of a Coast Guard cutter saw the vessel lying on its side, awash in the sea, about 13 nautical miles southeast of where the crew had abandoned ship more than 15 hours earlier,” the report said. “It was an end to a voyage that should not have been attempted.”

“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,” said National Transportation Safety Board Chairman Deborah A.P. Hersman, in a Feb. 10 news release. "The Bounty's crew was put into an extraordinarily hazardous situation through decisions that by any measure didn't prioritize safety."

On Feb. 10, the NTSB issued its marine accident brief on the sink. The U.S. Coast Guard had initiated its investigation of the sinking last winter in Portsmouth, Va., to determine what caused the Bounty to sink and cost the lives of crew member Claudene Christian and Captain Robin Walbridge.

Click here to read the entire report

The federal board’s news release about the sinking said the ‘captain’s reckless decision to sail into the path of a hurricane’ was probable cause of the ship’s sinking.

On Oct. 25, 2012, a day after a closely-watched developing storm had reached hurricane strength, the 108-foot-long Bounty, left New London, Conn., for St. Petersburg, Fla., into the forecasted path of Superstorm Sandy. The 52-year-old vessel, a replica of the original 18th-Century British Admiralty ship of the same name, was built for MGM Studios for the 1962 movie, “Mutiny on the Bounty.”

The vessel was larger than its namesake to accommodate filming equipment and personnel, the report said.

“After filming concluded, the Bounty traveled the world on a promotional tour for the movie,” the report said. “In 1965, the vessel arrived in St. Petersburg, Fla., where it spent most of the next 21 years, primarily as a dockside tourist attraction. In 1986, Turner Broadcasting bought the Bounty and in 1993 donated the vessel to the city of Fall River, Mass., where it sat in disrepair until 2001, when the current management company, HMS Bounty Organization, LLC (or “vessel organization”), bought the vessel.”

According to the federal agency: “Prior to setting off from New London, some of the crew members had expressed their concerns to the captain that sailing into a severe storm could put all of them and the ship at risk. The captain assured the crew that the Bounty could handle the rough seas and that the voyage would be a success. Just a month earlier, in an interview with a Maine TV station, the captain said that the Bounty ‘chased hurricanes,’ and by getting close to the eye of the storm, sailors could use hurricane winds to their advantage.”

The report discusses how the crew, some of whom were injured from falls, were seasick and fatigued from the 30-foot seas. They struggled for many hours to keep the ship’s engines running and bilge pumps operating so the seawater filling the vessel would not overtake it.

On Oct. 29, 2012, about 110 miles southeast of Cape Hatteras, N.C., the Bounty heeled sharply to the starboard side after taking on more than 10 feet of water in the final hours of a three and a half day voyage that the transportation board said, "should never have been attempted,” the release said.

The U.S. Coast Guard rescued all but two of the Bounty's 16 crew members by hoisting them from the sea into three Jayhawk helicopters in hurricane-force winds. The body of one crewmember was found, still in a protective immersion suit, about 10 hours after rescue operations had commenced. The captain was presumed lost at sea; his body was never recovered.

The report said: “Some of the Bounty crew members testified that, because of the hurricane, they were concerned that if the Bounty sailed for St. Petersburg as scheduled, the vessel and crew would be at risk. Therefore, about 1700 on Oct. 25, after the Navy event concluded, the captain called the crewmembers to a meeting. According to crew testimony, he told them that his plan was still to sail the Bounty to St. Petersburg starting that same evening (departing in about one hour). He said that the vessel’s exact course would depend on the hurricane’s path as the storm moved north along the coast, but that his intention was to take the Bounty southeast, well out to sea, and let the hurricane pass southwest of the vessel. He spoke of his confidence in the Bounty’s ability to handle rough weather. In fact, just before the shipyard period, the captain had told a local Maine television station that the Bounty “chased hurricanes,” and that by getting close to the eye, sailors could use hurricane winds to their advantage.

“The captain’s view was that a ship is safer at sea rather than in port during a storm, but he told the crew members that if they felt uncomfortable with sailing as scheduled, they were free to leave and to rejoin the vessel later. He said that no one would think any less of them if they opted out of this transit, which was sure to encounter rough weather. The crewmembers would, however, have to pay for their own transportation to Florida if they did not travel on board the vessel. Moreover, they knew that the vessel already had limited crew ― the usual complement was between 20 and 25 ― so if any of the current 15 left, the remaining crew would have an increased workload. The crewmembers testified that they admired and respected the captain, and that the camaraderie among the crew was substantial. Therefore, none of the crewmembers chose to leave. About an hour later, at 1800, the Bounty departed New London.”

Prior to setting to sea, the Bounty had at Boothbay Harbor Shipyard for maintenance and repairs, most of which was accomplished by a crew with little experience in such specialized work, the report said.. One of their tasks was to caulk and reseam a wooden hull, which had known areas of rot, with compounds supplied by the captain, including a silicone sealant marketed for household use.

The work at the shipyard lasted one month, with the ship’s crew doing most of the work. The ship’s captain, “who had worked on board the Bounty for 17 years, supervised all of the work,” the release said.

Work included:

  • Moving the crew quarters forward on the vessel, installing new fuel tanks, and repositioning water tanks; 
  • Installing a companionway from the tween deck (the below-deck) up and onto the weather deck (the main deck); 
  • Constructing new spars for the masts (the sails hang from the spars); 
  • Repositioning lead ballast (in the form of steel bars) from forward to aft to increase the vessel’s trim by the stern; and 
  • Maintaining and repairing the hull (seaming and caulking, which involves driving fibrous material into the seams between the wooden boards to make the seams watertight). 

“HMS Bounty Organization, LLC, did nothing to dissuade the captain from sailing into known severe weather conditions,” the transportation board said. 

“According to the vessel organization, the Bounty’s mission was to preserve square-rigged sailing in conjunction with youth education and sail training,” the release said. “The vessel organization’s website stated that the volunteer crew members who served on board the vessel for voyages ranging from 1 day to a month or more did so with a desire for learning and adventure.”

 In June 2012, the Bounty sailed the Chesapeake Bay to Baltimore, to participate in the 200-year anniversary of the War of 1812 and the Star-Spangled Banner Celebration. The Bounty had also recently completed a trans-Atlantic crossing and had sailed the New England coast.

The entire report is available at here.

Related:

Bounty has returned

Bounty hearings continued

Bounty hearings conclude

Bounty crew members missing

Victim’s mother sues Bounty owners

Bounty captain missing

Search for Bounty captain suspended

Remembering the HMS Bounty


 Editorial Director Lynda Clancy can be reached at lyndaclancy@penbaypilot.com; 207-706-6657