• In harm’s way? Montpelier native’s decision aboard Bounty subject of hearings
     | February 23,2013
    File photo

    This undated file photo provided by the U.S. Coast Guard shows the HMS Bounty, a 180-foot sailboat, submerged in the Atlantic Ocean during Hurricane Sandy approximately 90 miles southeast of Hatteras, N.C. on Oct. 29, 2012. One member of the HMS Bounty’s crew died and the captain, Robin Walbridge of Montpelier, was never found.

    On Oct. 25, 2012, Capt. Robin Walbridge, a Vermont native, left New London, Conn., with a small group aboard the 180-foot wooden sailing ship Bounty. The tall ship was built for the 1962 movie “Mutiny on the Bounty.” Walbridge, 63, and his crew of 16 were headed “home” to St. Petersburg, Fla. The captain wanted to leave early so they could get a jump on a massive weather system coming from the south that forecasters had called “Frankenstorm.”

    His strategy failed. The ship lost power, putting the Bounty directly in the path of Hurricane Sandy.

    The Bounty went down in the early hours of Oct. 29, 2012, about 90 miles off Cape Hatteras, N.C, in a treacherous and unpredictable area known as the “Graveyard of the Atlantic,” where the cold Labrador Current mixes with the warm water of the Gulf Stream.

    The Coast Guard rescued 14 of the 16 people aboard from 18-foot seas. Crew member Claudene Christian was found unresponsive 10 hours later, floating in the ocean in a survival suit, but she died later. Walbridge, who was educated and grew up in Montpelier but later moved to Florida, was never found. The Coast Guard ordered an investigation into what happened to the Bounty. The National Transportation Safety Board is also investigating the accident.

    For months, a debate has been raging about Walbridge’s decision to go to sea with a monster storm looming. At least three tall-sailing-ship captains have said they would not have tried that passage with Hurricane Sandy barreling northward.

    Up until earlier this month, the surviving crew members have not publicly detailed what happened. But at a hearing earlier month that concluded Thursday, the details of Bounty’s final voyage are emerging, along with some sharp criticism about the ship’s seaworthiness and its crew’s lack of experience.

    The purpose of the hearing is to figure out what caused the Bounty to sink and how to prevent a similar event from happening. It will also examine if there was any misconduct, inattention to duty, negligence or willful violation of the law. Testimony is under oath.

    What follows is excerpted coverage of the recent hearing in Portsmouth, Va., by Aaron Applegate of the Virginian-Pilot.

    The issue

    The Bounty had been taking on water for hours when Chief Mate John Svendsen told Capt. Robin Walbridge it was time to abandon ship.

    Walbridge said they had more time.

    The wooden sailboat was heeling in 20- to 30-foot seas. The crew stood on deck in survival suits awaiting orders. The lower part of the tall ship was flooded. Water had killed the two engines and two generators. Svendsen watched another wave rush over the ship’s rail.

    Again, he told the captain it was time to abandon ship. Walbridge, who had skippered the ship since 1995, said not yet.

    Svendsen thrust his left arm into his survival suit to show it was time to go. Walbridge agreed, but just then a wave slammed the Bounty onto its side. The crew spilled into the water to fight for their lives.

    Svendsen recently related what happened to the Bounty as part of the Coast Guard’s investigation into the Oct. 29 sinking of the 180-foot ship that resulted in two deaths.

    The hearing in a ballroom of the Renaissance Portsmouth Hotel and Waterfront Conference Center has been well attended since testimony began being taken Feb. 13. On the first day, the parents of Claudene Christian, a Bounty crew member who died, were there with a lawyer. Cmdr. Kevin Carroll, chief of the Inspection and Investigations Branch for the Coast Guard’s Fifth District Prevention Division, presided.

    Robert Hansen, owner of the Bounty, has declined to testify, invoking his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination. 

    Svendsen said the Bounty’s crew learned of Hurricane Sandy on Oct. 23 while docked in New London, Conn. A Minnesota man with five years’ experience sailing on tall ships, he gave this account Tuesday:

    Walbridge opted to sail Oct. 25 over concerns raised by Svendsen and other crew members, and relayed to Walbridge by Svendsen, who raised the prospect of staying in port. Walbridge said the ship was safer at sea than in port.

    Walbridge called an all-hands meeting on deck to explain his decision to sail and to tell crew members they could get off if they wanted. All 15 crew members stayed.

    The plan was to sail south and east offshore to a point where Walbridge could evaluate the path of the hurricane and pick a route. 

    They left New London around 5 p.m. on Oct. 25. Two days later, Walbridge changed course to the southwest to cut in front of Sandy for the lee of Hatteras Island, where he hoped for better conditions.

    “Being a prudent mariner, I was concerned,” Svendsen said.

    Winds blew about 20 knots. The night passed in relative peace.

    The next day, bilge pumps were running continually to keep up with water seeping into the ship. Problems arose. Lots of them.

    The port-side engine and generator stopped running. The starboard generator was acting strange, causing lights to flicker. A fuel tank had leaked.

    Walbridge had fallen into a table, and his back was in pain.

    Down below, crew members worked on the generators and strained debris from the sloshing water so it wouldn’t clog bilge pumps.

    Svendsen suggested they contact the Coast Guard. Walbridge said to focus on the generators instead.

    Around 6 p.m., Svendsen stood in howling wind on the deck with a satellite phone. He had a garbled conversation with the ship’s owner, Hansen, and tried different Coast Guard numbers but couldn’t be sure he was talking to a real person or leaving a voicemail.

    Apparently, Hansen had understood and contacted the Coast Guard.

    Walbridge managed to email a Bounty executive and the Coast Guard. He learned the Coast Guard would be sending out a C-130 plane to look for the Bounty and possibly drop pumps.

    Down below, water penetrated sections of hull normally above the waterline.

    Generators and engines were repaired but failed again. Ship engineer Christopher Barksdale was battling seasickness.

    The seas had grown to 25 to 30 feet. The wind was blowing 50 mph.

    Around 10 p.m., Walbridge decided the crew needed to put on survival suits. The ship had taken on too much water. The engines and generators were underwater. The boat had no power.

    Walbridge estimated the ship could make it until 8 a.m. for a daylight Coast Guard rescue. Overnight, conditions worsened.

    Sometime after 4 a.m., Svendsen told Walbridge he thought they should abandon ship. Walbridge said no twice in the span of about two minutes, Svendsen estimated, before a wave rolled the ship, sending the crew into the water.

    Svensden radioed the circling Coast Guard plane to say they were abandoning ship.

    He climbed out a mast, which was horizontal in the water, and jumped. He got snagged on debris and was pulled under the water several times before getting away from the ship.

    He turned and saw Walbridge walking aft on the deck wearing a survival suit and life jacket. He never saw him again. 

    A Coast Guard helicopter and rescue swimmer reached Svensden just before daylight. He had multiple injuries: 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.

    Ship had rot

    The wooden set sail toward Hurricane Sandy with an unknown amount of rot in its frame despite warnings from a shipwright that had recently worked on the boat, according to testimony.

    Todd Kosakowski, a project manager at Boothbay Harbor Shipyard in Maine, said the rot was found when replacing two interior planks the Bounty crew targeted for repair.

    Kosakowski said that while the ship was in the yard in September and October, he informed Walbridge about the framing damage. Walbridge, he said, decided he would have it fixed the next time the Bounty was hauled out.

    “I told him I was more than worried about what we found and voiced my concerns a couple of different times,” he said.

    Kosakowski said he told Walbridge “to pick and choose his weather and not use the vessel the way they’d used it recently.”

    He said it appeared as if Walbridge agreed. The Bounty had crossed the Atlantic on a trip to Europe in 2011.

    Kosakowski said it was impossible to tell the severity of the rot because Walbridge did not want to open up the ship to inspect for more despite his suggestion to do so. “It was very quickly shot down by the captain,” Kosakowski said. “That would have required a significant amount of time and money.”

    In one section, rotted framing fell out when a plank was removed, he said.

    In at least one section, Bounty crew members painted damaged framing with white enamel paint before the new planks were installed, said Kosakowski, who doubted the paint would have any positive effect on the rot.

    Kosakowski described Walbridge as “shocked” when he learned the condition of the wood framing partly because the shipyard had replaced it in a 2006 and 2007 overhaul of the Bounty.

    Kosakowski said he asked Walbridge what he told Robert Hansen, owner of the Bounty, about the ship.

    “He said he told Bob Hansen that he should get rid of the boat as soon as possible,” Kosakowski said.

    Hansen, who was at the hearing, wouldn’t comment. He’s declined to testify, invoking his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination.

    Kosakowski described 26 photos he’d taken of the repairs on the Bounty as he flipped through them. The photos were not displayed for observers. He said the photos of the framing showed mold-like material, cracks in the wood and an unusual burned or charred look to the wood.

    He said in hindsight he wished he had informed the Coast Guard of the Bounty’s condition.

    Kosakowski said the rot could have contributed to the Bounty’s sinking.

    He said, “The strength of the vessel is the only thing that keeps it afloat.”

    Testimony also shed light on postings to the Bounty’s Facebook page that garnered much attention after the vessel was lost.

    One of the posts, made before the ship was lost, called the trip that started while Sandy was looming a “calculated decision... NOT AT ALL... irresponsible or with a lack of foresight as some have suggested. The fact of the matter is... A SHIP IS SAFER AT SEA THAN IN PORT!”

    Tracie Simonin, an administrator with HMS Bounty Organization LLC, which owns the Bounty, said Jim Salapatek of the Chicago area posted the comments. He’s a crew member’s father.

    Reached at home, Salapatek said he wanted to alleviate concerns that were being raised on the Internet about the Bounty sailing toward a hurricane.

    He said he’d sailed on the Bounty, knew the ship and had run the Facebook page for about a year and a half.

    He said he wanted to convey that Bounty officials had seriously thought about the decision to set sail.

    “I know this isn’t a haphazard sail,” he said. “It isn’t just like cast off the lines and go.”

    Wrong call

    When Hurricane Sandy was forming in the Caribbean, Capt. Dan Moreland decided his square-rigged sailing ship, the Picton Castle, wasn’t going anywhere soon.

    Weather forecasts showed the late October storm was getting big, and it was impossible to know where it was going. Moreland postponed the Picton Castle’s scheduled departure from Lunenburg, Nova Scotia, for the South Pacific.

    He was shocked to learn Walbridge had taken the tall sailing ship Bounty to sea with the hurricane approaching, leaving New London, Conn., en route to St. Petersburg, Fla., he said.

    “I can’t imagine there being any reason at all for being out there,” Moreland said. “It’s mind-boggling.”

    He testified by phone from Tahiti on Wednesday during the Coast Guard hearing into the Bounty’s Oct. 29 sinking about 90 miles off Cape Hatteras.

    Walbridge was lost at sea, and another crew member, Claudene Christian died. The Coast Guard rescued 14 people.

    Capt. Jan Miles of the Pride of Baltimore II, who also testified this week, said he was stunned Walbridge had set sail. Miles’ ship rode out Sandy docked in Baltimore.

    He said one of his goals is to expose the Pride II to the least amount of heavy weather as possible.

    Both Moreland and Miles said they didn’t believe a ship such as the Bounty is safer at sea than at port during a hurricane. Walbridge had told the Bounty crew one reason the ship was leaving was because it would be safer at sea.

    Miles wrote an open letter to Walbridge after the sinking, calling his decision to sail “reckless in the extreme.”

    Moreland said the Bounty probably could have tied up safely in New London or gone to New Bedford, Mass., or Mystic Seaport, Conn., to weather the storm in port.

    The purpose of the hearing is to figure out what caused the Bounty to sink and how to prevent a similar event. It also will examine whether there was any misconduct, inattention to duty, negligence or willful violation of the law.

    In his defense

    Walbridge’s friends and former crew members described him as a skilled captain who had a good plan that didn’t work because of mechanical problems. The ship lost power, which meant it had no propulsion and could not pump out water, according to the vessel’s website.

    The surviving crew members have not detailed what happened — at least not until these hearings.

    “There are a lot of armchair sailors saying, ‘What the hell was he doing out there?’” said Richard Bailey, a captain who worked with Walbridge and has known him for more than 20 years.

    “He had a strategy,” Bailey said. “Aside from being dead, it makes great sense. I think a professional examination will say it was a good strategy, but it didn’t take into account a complete and utter loss of power.”

    As they watched the ship’s route online, some onshore began to question the decision to go to sea even before the Bounty got into trouble.

    The administrator of the Bounty’s Facebook page on Saturday, Oct. 27, defended it.

    “Rest assured that the Bounty is safe and in very capable hands. Bounty’s current voyage is a calculated decision … NOT AT ALL … irresponsible or with a lack of foresight as some have suggested. The fact of the matter is … A SHIP IS SAFER AT SEA THAN IN PORT!”

    The next day came what appears to be the only direct message from Walbridge, posted by the administrator on the Facebook page.

    “I think we are going to be into this for several days, the weater looks like even after the eye goes by it will linger for a couple of days.

    “We are just going to try to go fast and squeese by the storm and land as fast as we can.”

    Bailey said he considers Walbridge a “mechanical genius” and was surprised to hear of the ship’s power failure. He said he watched Walbridge perform a complex engine repair in 48 hours, which included working through a language barrier while obtaining specialized parts in a foreign port.

    He said Walbridge got his start on the Bounty in the mid-1990s, when the ship’s owner hired him to watch over it for two weeks while it was docked in Wilmington, Del.

    One night, some guys came out of a bar and cast off most of the Bounty’s dock lines. Somehow, Walbridge, who was aboard, managed single-handedly to overcome a swift current, turn the ship around and get it tied up again. He became the Bounty’s captain in 1995.

    The first sentence of his biography on the Bounty’s website says: “According to Captain Robin Walbridge, Bounty has no boundaries. As her captain, he is well known for his ability and desire to take Bounty to places that no ship has gone before.”

    In an interview this summer in Maine on a public access TV show, Walbridge said he chases hurricanes and downplayed the danger of bad weather.

    Interviewer: “Have you ever run into some pretty nasty weather while at sea?”

    Walbridge: “Um, actually I’m going to answer that with a ‘no.’”

    Interviewer: “Really?”

    Walbridge: “Yeah, um, we say there’s no such thing as bad weather. There’s just different kinds of weather.”

    Interviewer: “OK, I won’t say bad weather. Have you run into stormy seas?”

    Walbridge: “Um, have we run into stormy seas? Uh, we chase hurricanes.”

    Interviewer: (laughs) “All right, what’s it like when you’re chasing hurricanes?”

    Walbridge: “You try to get up as close to the eye of it as you can and you stay down in the southeast quadrant, and when it stops, you stop.”

    Walbridge went on to say that the Bounty’s engine is “probably way underpowered for this size of boat. … We sail as much as we can. We just use the engines to get in and out of tight harbors.”

    Steven Schonwald, a Bounty crew member for 10 years, said he’d never heard Walbridge talk about chasing hurricanes. He described the captain as a calm leader who took every opportunity he could to teach seamanship.

    “Robin came across as a very warm and welcoming presence,” Schonwald said. “He wasn’t distant. He wasn’t the type of guy who shouted orders at everybody. He was always teaching you something. He was the kind of guy you felt very comfortable with as a leader.”

    He said he’d been through several storms with Walbridge.

    “I’ve seen him in action,” he said. “Robin had good sense of where to be and what to do. He was not a frivolous man. He did not play with anybody’s lives.

    “If I’d been in New London and he said, ‘We’re going to do this. We’re going to sea.’ I would have been with him.”

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