Tall ship Bounty loses generators, sinks in fatal hurricane accident


The captain of a tall ship was lost and presumed drowned and a crewmember died when the vessel foundered after losing power during Hurricane Sandy.

HMS Bounty sank Oct. 29, 2012, about 90 miles southeast of Hatteras, N.C. The 180-foot, three-masted, full-rigged vessel had been built for the 1962 MGM film “Mutiny on the Bounty” starring Marlon Brando.  

The boat was lost on a voyage from Connecticut to Florida after Capt. Robin Walbridge, 63, Bounty’s skipper for 17 years, made the controversial decision to leave port and try to sail around the massive storm.

The ship’s owner, Long Island, N.Y., businessman Robert Hansen, said in an exclusive interview that the Greenport, Long Island-based vessel would have easily handled the conditions if its two generators had not failed, killing the bilge pumps and ultimately the two engines.

Coast Guard responders assist a Bounty crewmember upon arrival at Elizabeth City, N.C. Two Coast Guard helicopters rescued 14 of Bounty’s 16 occupants.

Before the generator failure, said Hansen, who owned Bounty since 2001, the vessel was easily handling the conditions thrown at it by Sandy.

Hansen said his last communication with Walbridge was at 2130 the evening before the sinking in a badly broken-up cell phone call.

“He indicated they were taking on water and he wanted the Coast Guard to be aware and to lend assistance in dewatering the ship,” Hansen said. “Everybody was calm and convinced everything would be fine.”

The tall ship’s propulsion system gave the vessel a top speed of 8 to 10 knots when under power. Hansen said that once the generators failed later that night “there was no alternative” to abandoning ship. About 0430 the next morning Walbridge made the decision, according to crew accounts made to Hansen. “Everyone was on deck,” Hansen said. “Then a huge wave crashed over the bow. The boat lurched on its starboard side. Everyone was thrown off the deck into the water.”

The crewmembers had to swim towards the life rafts. That took 30 to 40 minutes because of their survival suits and the high seas. The first mate never made it into the raft and was clinging to a life raft canister when he was the first person rescued by a U.S. Coast Guard helicopter, Hansen said.

Thirteen other crew made it into the two life rafts and were saved by helicopters. Walbridge and crewmember Claudene Christian, 42, never made it to a raft. She was found unconscious in the water and pronounced dead at a hospital.

The search for Walbridge continued over an area of 1,500 square nm until Nov. 1 because he could have still been alive until that point. The water temperature was in the high 70s and he was wearing a full neoprene survival suit.

“We assume he was lost at sea or on the ship,” either sucked in or tangled in the rig, Hansen said.

The Internet and media coverage has been full of comments that Walbridge had no business sailing from New London, Conn., to Florida with the hurricane coming up the coast, or, conversely, that he made a wise choice not to be caught in port with no room to maneuver.

Hansen, who was not aboard, said, “‘why was the ship out there?’ The ship is safer at sea than it is sitting at a dock. The conditions they encountered — 40- or 50-knot winds — were not that uncommon at sea, and the ship has been through them numerous times.

“They were a couple hundred miles east (of the coast) trying to go around it,” Hansen continued. “Everybody was prepared and the ship had just come out of the yard (after maintenance work in Maine). We’ve been through much worse storms than that.”

He said Bounty was equipped with a lifeboat, two life rafts and all of the required safety gear.

“The ship was designed to sail any ocean, anywhere,” Hansen said. “We had some catastrophic power failures. We lost generators. No electric, no pumps.” He said Bounty, like all wooden tall ships, was always leaking so the loss of bilge pumps was a more serious problem than the sea conditions as Sandy approached.

“The water that was coming in is the normal water that leaks into the boat on a daily basis,” he said.

“Without the ability to pump, over the course of 30 or 40 hours, it starts adding up. We’re talking hundreds if not thousands of gallons. We weren’t taking too many waves over the side; there were some but not enough to create a hazard. Up until Sunday morning the ship was having some phenomenal sailing. Then all hell broke loose. It’s a sad situation.”

Bounty was featured in two “Pirates of the Caribbean” sequels. Hansen had initially hoped to salvage and rebuild the ship, which was insured, if it had remained afloat. But he added “she’s gone.”

Hansen praises Walbridge and his crew.

“They fought hard to save the ship,” he said before heading to Ft. Lauderdale, where Walbridge lived with his wife, for a memorial service with the surviving crewmembers. “I would like to give acknowledgment to the Coast Guard in rescuing the crew, and they spent a tremendous amount of time looking for Robin. It’s a sad situation.”

In Bounty’s homeport, Mayor David Nyce said, “we love the Bounty in Greenport. We are deeply saddened by the loss of the vessel, but even more we’re concerned for the loss of the life.”

By Professional Mariner Staff