Witnesses: Fears about tall ship’s condition preceded Sandy voyage

HMS Bounty had a rotted hull when its captain inexplicably set sail into the path of Hurricane Sandy and then waited too long to abandon ship before the vessel foundered, according to testimony at a federal hearing on the disaster.

One member of the 16-person crew died and the captain was never found after the full-rigged tall ship built for the 1962 film “Mutiny on the Bounty” sank 90 miles off Cape Hatteras after it lost power during the October storm.

The U.S. Coast Guard and National Transportation Safety Board heard eight days of testimony in February in Portsmouth, Va., from crewmembers, rescuers, other tall ship skippers and a representative of the shipyard that worked on the vessel before it sailed.

Todd Kosakowski, project manager at Boothbay Harbor Shipyard in Maine, told the panel that he showed Capt. Robin Walbridge rot he found in the hull when his workers were replacing several planks weeks before the storm.

“I told him that I was more than worried about what we found,” Kosakowski said. Rather than replacing the rotted wood, he said, the ship’s crew painted it over.

Kosakowski described Walbridge as “terrified” at what he saw but decided against removing additional planks to see how extensive the damage was. “It was very quickly shot down by the captain,” Kosakowski said. “That would have required a significant amount of time and money.”

The yard manager said he advised Walbridge to avoid “heavy weather.” He said Walbridge had told him that he had told the ship’s owner, Long Island businessman Robert Hansen, who had been trying to sell Bounty for several years, that he should get rid of the ship as soon as possible.

Bounty, which was featured in two “Pirates of the Caribbean” sequels, sailed to New London, Conn., where a potential buyer examined it, before the storm approached.

Hansen declined to testify, invoking his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination.

Bounty’s chief mate, John Svendsen, testified that before leaving New London for St. Petersburg, he told Walbridge that he and other crew were concerned about his decision to alter the planned route to head directly toward the storm.

“I had mentioned other options as far as staying in and not going out to sea. Robin felt the ship was safer at sea,” and said he could go southeast or southwest based on the storm’s path. Svendsen said Walbridge explained his reasoning to the crew before leaving Connecticut and offered to let anyone who wasn’t comfortable leave, but nobody did.

He said Walbridge overruled him when he suggested that Bounty seek protection in Bermuda. Instead, he said, Walbridge decided to head southwest toward Cape Hatteras. That ended up taking Bounty directly into the storm’s path. Crewmembers testified he did so in hopes of finding more favorable winds and dodging the storm as it headed north.

Svendsen said the captain didn’t alert the Coast Guard that the ship was without power and was taking on water when he first suggested it, instead focusing on fixing two balky generators.

He testified that as Bounty wallowed without power Walbridge twice refused his pleas to abandon ship, preferring to wait for daylight.

The seas had grown to 25 to 30 feet and the wind was blowing 50 knots at around 2200 when Walbridge decided the crew should don survival suits. The ship had taken on too much water because the engines and generators were underwater.

Walbridge believed the ship could make it until 0800 for a daylight Coast Guard rescue, but overnight the conditions worsened. Sometime after 0400, Svendsen said, he told Walbridge they should abandon ship. Walbridge said no twice, the mate said, before a wave rolled the ship, throwing most of the crew into the water.

Svendsen radioed a circling Coast Guard plane that they were abandoning ship. He climbed out on a mast, leaning horizontal in the water, and jumped. He snagged on debris and was pulled under the water several times before getting clear. He said he last saw Walbridge walking aft on the deck wearing a survival suit and life jacket.

When a Coast Guard helicopter and rescue swimmer reached Svendsen, he had suffered trauma to his head, neck, chest and abdomen; broken bones in his right hand, a twisted right knee, hypothermia and an inflated esophagus and stomach from seawater ingestion.

Bosun Laura Groves said Walbridge asked for ideas.

“The only thing that was clear is that there was an open seam in the engine room above the waterline in the port side,” Groves said. “You could hear water coming in when we rolled.”

She and Daniel Cleveland, the third mate, didn’t have major concerns initially about sailing toward the hurricane because they trusted Walbridge’s judgment and Bounty had weathered rough weather before, including a Pacific Ocean typhoon.

Cleveland valued Walbridge’s unflappable demeanor and said he was always teaching the crew. “As a problem-solver, his mind always seemed to be two steps ahead of anyone else’s,” he said.

Walbridge changed course southwest to try to cut in front of the approaching hurricane and seek protection in the lee of Hatteras Island.

With the bilge pumps not working right, Cleveland said, water was rising below with the weather deteriorating. He said Walbridge told him: “I believe we are losing the battle against the bilge water.”

Walbridge decided to heave-to to give the bilge pumps a chance to gain on the rising water.

“No one understood why they weren’t pumping water out like we were used to because the strainers were clean,” Cleveland said. He said the crew struggled with a gas portable pump and couldn’t keep it going long enough to make a difference. A handheld anemometer registered wind at 90 knots before breaking.

Water was coming in through two seams in the engine room and in a mop closet, making a hissing sound, Groves said.

Walbridge had fallen into a table and hurt his back and engineer Christopher Barksdale injured his hand in a fall. Walbridge was lost at sea while crewmember Claudene Christian died.

The testimony showed that Walbridge believed a ship was safer at sea than in a port during a hurricane. But Capt. Dan Moreland of the square-rigger Picton Castle testified by telephone that he delayed his scheduled departure from Nova Scotia for the South Pacific for two weeks because of Sandy. “I can’t imagine there being any reason at all for being out there,” Moreland said. “It’s mind-boggling.”

Capt. Jan Miles of Pride of Baltimore II testified that a ship like Bounty isn’t safer at sea than in port during a hurricane.

Moreland said Bounty could have tied up safely in New London or gone to New Bedford, Mass., or Mystic Seaport in Connecticut.

Towards the end of the testimony, Cmdr. Kevin Carroll, who presided at the hearing, said he couldn’t understand why Bounty ventured into the path of Sandy. “The question I’m struggling with is why?” he said to Svendsen. “I struggle with that myself,” Svendsen said.

By Professional Mariner Staff