On the Waterfront

New-Kathy-Bergren-Smith-Blog The Bounty investigation: Part II

February 21, 2013

The hearing into the October sinking of the 180' square-rigged tall ship Bounty continued this week in Portsmouth, Va.

On Tuesday, the crew took turns recounting their experiences as the Bounty made ready to set sail even as the predictions for Hurricane Sandy became more and more dire. Mothers called their sons and daughters on the crew when they were docked in New London, Conn., expressing concern. However, each young crewmember said they had confidence in the boat and their captain, Robin Walbridge. Walbridge called the crew to the capstan and told them of his plan to sail south by east to avoid the storm, and offered his now legendary opinion that “a ship is safe at sea.” No one took him up on his offer to stay behind with no penalty.

Coast Guard Cmdr. Kevin Carroll parsed each survivor’s harrowing story, trying to learn exactly what went wrong and when. The crew shared their fears of drowning as they were swept off the deck when the ship went into her death roll. Some of the crew got pulled down by the 10 miles of line in the rig and some got caught by the harnesses they wore. They struggled to pull the line on the liferaft canister with their teeth because the immersion suits provided no digital mobility.

No one seemed to know what happened to Capt. Walbridge, who was never found, or Claudene Christian, who was found unresponsive and pronounced dead. It was sad and grueling testimony. There were tears at times from the brave young people who had trusted Capt. Walbridge and his judgement.

Yesterday, two traditional tall ship captains weighed in. They provided expert testimony that confirmed what everyone in the room had been thinking for days. “I was shocked when I heard Bounty had sailed, it's mind-boggling,” Daniel Moreland, master of the training ship Picton Castle, testified from the dock in Tahiti. The Picton Castle is a three-masted tall ship based in Lunenburg, Nova Scotia. Moreland, a world-renowned expert on square-rigger sailing, and Capt. Jan Miles, captain of the both the Pride of Baltimore and Pride II, both said that Walbridge’s decision was foolhardy and vehemently disagreed with the rationale that Walbridge used that “a ship is safer at sea.”

Regardless of how well the planks were caulked, or if the swapping around of tankage changed her stability, the ship sank because she sailed into a very large storm ... intentionally.

So the question remains, why did Walbridge sail? Was there a back story as reported by Outside Magazine? 

And why didn’t the Bounty call the Coast Guard before all hell broke loose? And why wasn’t the order to abandon ship given while the crew had a chance to make a safe escape instead of being washed overboard en masse? That one bad decision surely cost two lives.

You can live stream the hearings today. Scheduled to testify today is Bounty deckhand Drew Salapatek, and Cmdr. James Mitchell, Coast Guard Sector North Carolina, search and rescue mission coordinator.

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