Tall-ship captains appalled at Bounty captain’s decision not to seek shelter


The sinking of HMS Bounty has intensified a long-running debate in the tall-ship community: Do you head offshore for sea room when a major storm is coming or batten down in port and send the crew ashore.

Over the years, some tall ships have escaped damage while others have been sunk by hurricanes in open water.

The loss of Bounty resurrected memories of the October 1998 loss, with all 31 hands, of Fantome in Hurricane Mitch. The four-masted schooner, operated by Miami Beach-based Windjammer Barefoot Cruises, left port in Belize after dropping off some crew and all of its passengers as the hurricane bore down. The 282-foot ship tried to evade the storm, which made an unexpected turn and swamped the vessel off the coast of Honduras with 50-foot waves driven by winds over 100 mph.

In determining the best course of action when facing a major blow, “it’s completely case specific,” said Bert Rogers, executive director of Tall Ships America, a nonprofit organization that promotes sail training. “There are some circumstances where it might make sense to put to sea and some circumstances where it’s better to find a safe harbor.” It all depends on the weather, the vessel, the crew and the availability of a sheltered harbor. “All of those factors need to be analyzed together as a whole in order to make a proper decision,” he said.

In the case of Sandy and Bounty, most captains agree that Capt. Robin Walbridge’s decision not to seek a safe harbor was a tragic mistake.

Daniel Moreland, captain of the Nova Scotia-based tall ship Picton Castle, delayed departure for two weeks on an eight-month voyage to the South Pacific because of Sandy.

“It’s a huge system,” Moreland said, “and that made the decision very simple.” While he noted Walbridge was an experienced captain, he added that “when I first heard the Bounty was out there, I thought, ‘You’ve got to be kidding.’”

John Beebe-Center, captain of Lynx, a 76-foot square topsail schooner registered in Portsmouth, N.H., said, “the storm was very large and not one I thought I might be able to get seaward of. … When it became apparent that the storm would swing to the west and possibly pin any ship in the shore triangle of Long Island and New Jersey I made the decision to run up the Hudson River and to hide at Kingston, N.Y., in Rondout Creek.”

He said the location provided good cover from strong winds and allowed lines to be carried across the creek to handle storm surge. “It was successful,” Beebe-Center said. “This approach to dealing with a major storm when starting from a shore location reflects my basic storm avoidance tenet: that we will fight like hell to save the ship but that, if the fight goes against us, I will have the ship in a place where the crew can get to safety in the end.”

Jan C. Miles, skipper of Pride of Baltimore II, a reproduction of an 1812-era topsail schooner privateer, said the lesson of the loss of Bounty and Fantome “is that you cannot outmaneuver a large-diameter system such as a hurricane, particularly when the hurricane has come to a standstill. It’s next to impossible to predict what it’s going to do. It’s frankly the height of hubris to balance the saving of the ship against the saving of the crew when you’re in a slow boat and you’re dealing with a majestic storm.”

He said leaving a sailing ship at the dock usually makes the most sense because “even if you damage the boat, you won’t kill everybody.”

Miles said it can make sense for a ship that can move at 20 knots or more such as an ocean liner or naval vessel to leave harbor in advance of the storm because they can put so much distance between it and the bad weather quickly.

He said the course charted by Bounty took it into the highest wind quadrant of the storm. He said Walbridge could have reduced the risk by heading due east rather than going southeast or he possibly could have gotten out of the way of the storm by ducking into New York Harbor, Delaware Bay or Chesapeake Bay. He said “the best choice of all” would have been to find a secure harbor like New Bedford, which is protected by storm gates.

“It’s stunningly surprising that this professional of so many years would make this kind of decision,” Miles said. “It’s off the scale.”

Walter Rybka, senior captain of the U.S. brig Niagara, said, “Robin Walbridge’s decision to get underway was completely atypical and non-representative of the vessel operators/members of Tall Ships America. If one were to take a poll of those who had vessels in commission, located on the East Coast at the time Hurricane Sandy was poised to run up the coast, and ask ‘what did you do?’ the answers would vary between ‘doubled up the moorings and strapped her down seven ways from Sunday’ to ‘ran way up the (fill in blank) river and hid’ or something similar. Nobody else said ‘let’s go offshore.’ I have no specific firsthand knowledge of any other contributing factors on board Bounty, but I do feel on firm ground among my peers to say we were all surprised and dismayed that Bounty departed.”

Rybka added that “it is widely recognized and adhered to that trying to outmaneuver a very large storm may be doable on board a powerful steel vessel.” But he said a sailing ship like Bounty “can only work to windward in moderate conditions. … In short you have a slow vessel that can rapidly be reduced to a stationary object when only halfway up the wind scale … which is why no one else put to sea.”

Capt. Richard Bailey of Oliver Hazard Perry, a 196-foot three-masted square-rigger scheduled to be commissioned next summer in Rhode Island, knew Walbridge for almost 20 years and had been his boss on HMS Rose, where he was “supremely resourceful, competent and agreeable.” Bailey said he resists the temptation to “warble with the chorus.”

“A few years before he took over Bounty, she put to sea from Miami to weather Hurricane Andrew, so his choice was not without precedent,” Bailey said. “I think he had a strategy, and it nearly worked. I hope the Coast Guard casualty report is able to provide some answers.”

By Professional Mariner Staff