A year after the heartbreaking hearings into the sinking of the replica tall ship Bounty, the NTSB issued its report blaming the incident on the decision of the captain to sail into Hurricane Sandy in October 2012.
I attended the hearings conducted jointly by the NTSB and Coast Guard in Portsmouth, Va. It was an almost surreal proceeding at times, as young crewmembers described the repairs made to the vessel before setting off for Florida and then the horrific hours when all hell broke loose.
The investigators pressed the crew as to why no one questioned the decision to sail from New London, Conn., on Oct. 25, 2012, while, as one crewmember related, “lots of us were getting calls and texts from our families” as they became apprised of the impending storm. They met on deck just hours before leaving and Capt. Robin Walbridge offered the option of staying behind with no hard feelings, but no offer to cover transportation or future employment either. He told the crew that the ship “was safer at sea.” That said, one of the more eerie remarks during the testimony was made by a crewmember that was studying the AIS on the nav station as they passed the busy waters off of New York Harbor. He said the normal cluttered screen was blank. No kidding, every ship, fishing boat, tug and barge, not to mention tall ship was safely holed up having heard the same forecast as Walbridge.
The NTSB report states it succinctly:
“The National Transportation Safety Board determines that the probable cause of the sinking of tall ship Bounty was the captain’s reckless decision to sail the vessel into the well forecasted path of Hurricane Sandy, which subjected the aging vessel and the inexperienced crew to conditions from which the vessel could not recover. Contributing to the sinking was the lack of effective safety oversight by the vessel organization.”
The Coast Guard has not issued its report, but it is clear that some soul-searching may be in order there. The Bounty was a rule beater. She was a 50-year-old wooden boat built as a movie set. She was not a sail-training vessel. There was no shoreside support to speak of. The organization that owned her was essentially a contractor on Long Island whose secretary was the de facto port captain. The Bounty was a dockside attraction. Therefore, she carried no Coast Guard COI. That means that since she carried no passengers, she was not subject to the drydocking and inspection regime as the other vessels in the tall ship fleet.
Capt. Walbridge perished along with another crewmember, and was spoken of respectfully by his surviving crew at the hearing. They trusted him with their lives but his seamanship and cavalier attitude was no match for the wrath of Sandy.