If the management and the captain of the sunken tall ship HMS Bounty had “exercised the proper responsibility, judgment and prudence,” the deaths of two people would have been prevented, according to a Coast Guard investigation report released Thursday.
Nineteen months after the Bounty sank in Hurricane Sandy off North Carolina, and more than a year after investigative hearings, the Coast Guard issued a wide range of recommendations in the disaster that killed rookie deckhand Claudene Christian and left Capt. Robin Walbridge missing and presumed dead. Fourteen crew members survived.
Before it sank roughly 100 miles off Hatteras, the Bounty was arguably the most famous three-masted wooden square rigger in the world.
The Coast Guard investigation asked life-and-death questions about proper ship maintenance, the crew’s experience and the captain’s decision to sail from Connecticut to Florida as Sandy pointed toward the East Coast.
The report could determine who, if anyone, might lose maritime licenses as a result of the disaster. During the investigation, officials said the report’s findings could be forwarded to prosecutors who would determine whether to file criminal charges.
The report said the “most critical” cause of the sinking was the “failure of the Bounty’s management and [captain] to exercise effective oversight and risk management in the overall operation of the Bounty and specifically with undertaking its final voyage in the face of an impending hurricane.”
The “leading cause that contributed to the loss” of Walbridge and to Christian’s death was the captain’s “decision to order the crew to abandon the ship much too late,” the report said.
The decision to abandon ship so late after hurricane conditions worsened and the “fact that the crew had not drilled in months,” led the report to determine that the captain’s “actions/and or inactions in this regard constitutes negligence.”
The report also said the ships’ owner HMS Bounty Organization LLC, “committed acts of negligence that contributed to” Christian’s death and the presumed death of Walbridge.
Fatigue played a contributing factor in the disaster, the report said. The “crew was suffering from fatigue which was born out of lack of sleep, being sea sick, and from the physical exertion of fighting to save the vessel while in extreme weather conditions for over 24 hours.”
The report also states that the Bounty operated as a recreational vessel under “less stringent safety standards” and recommended that the Coast Guard “examine if legislative, regulatory or policy changes are needed.”
The ship was a movie star. A Canadian shipbuilder recreated the infamous 18th century British Navy vessel HMS Bounty for the 1962 MGM film “Mutiny on the Bounty,” starring Marlon Brando. Claudene Christian, who was 42, said she was a descendant of the original Bounty’s mutineer, Fletcher Christian.
More recently, the Bounty had appeared in Disney’s “Pirates of the Caribbean” movie franchise. But the Bounty was never designed to sail the sea for 50 years. And the aging vessel had maintenance issues that would be expected of a half-century old, 180-foot-long ship made of oak and Douglas fir.
Did the crew have enough experience?
Questioning during the Coast Guard hearing frequently centered around the crew’s experience. The Bounty was Christian’s first job on a sailing vessel. In fact, 10 of Bounty’s 15 crew members had been aboard for less than a year, including two who’d joined less than a month before its last voyage. Christian had been hired just five months before.
Her family remains in settlement talks in the wake of a $90 million civil lawsuit the Christians filed against the ship’s owner, the New York-based HMS Bounty Organization, headed by Robert Hansen. Hansen declined to testify at the Coast Guard hearings, evoking his Fifth Amendment constitutional rights against incriminating himself. Hansen has repeatedly declined CNN requests for interviews, although he has said more than once he intended to tell his side of the story, eventually.
On Thursday, in an e-mail to CNN, Hansen wrote, “I cannot comment while there is pending litigation.”
An attorney for Christian’s family, Ralph Mellusi, said the report will help push his case toward a final resolution.
The investigation also focused on Walbridge’s decision to sail, despite the fact that he knew Hurricane Sandy was threatening to move up the East Coast.
Walbridge set sail for St. Petersburg, Florida, from New London, Connecticut. Crew members testified that Walbridge’s plan was to stay east of the storm as it moved up the coast. But two days into the voyage, the captain diverted from his plan and ordered a course change.
Crew members testified that Walbridge wanted to pilot the ship northwest of Sandy to harness its winds. Turning more westerly, the boat crossed the path of the oncoming hurricane.
The weather worsened. The Bounty found itself in big trouble. Seawater leaking into the ship knocked out power to water pumps and engines, leaving the Bounty adrift while being battered by the raging storm.
Wind gusts above 100 mph and waves as high as 30 feet flipped Bounty on its side, tossing everyone into the predawn Atlantic. While the crew tried to keep their heads above the towering waves, the wind slammed the ship’s dangerous mast and rigging on top of them. Getting tangled in underwater rigging nearly drowned some crew members, who were barely able to free themselves and swim to the ship’s lifeboats.
Hours later, Coast Guard rescuers were able to save 14 crew members. Christian was fished out of the water. She was unresponsive and couldn’t be revived. As for the captain, Walbridge’s body was never found.
‘We chase hurricanes’
During the hearing, Coast Guard and National Transportation Safety Board officials asked surviving crew members whether Walbridge believed it was acceptable to intentionally sail near hurricanes. As evidence, the Coast Guard introduced a YouTube video of Walbridge where he says, “We chase hurricanes.” In the video, Walbridge explained how to “get a good ride” out of a hurricane by sailing “as close to the eye of it as you can” and staying behind the storm in its southeast quadrant.
Without a doubt, the captain’s harshest critic at the hearing was Jan Miles, one of the world’s most respected tall-ship pilots and a self-described friend of Walbridge. Captain of the Pride of Baltimore II, Miles summed up Walbridge’s actions in four words: “reckless in the extreme.”
The Coast Guard’s report follows final conclutions released in Februrary by the National Transportation Safety Board. The NTSB determined the Bounty tragedy was largely caused by Walbridge’s “reckless decision to sail … into the well-forecast path of Hurricane Sandy.”
Questions at the hearing pointed to the ship’s maintenance record.
Extensive repairs had been made to the Bounty twice in the past decade, and some work had been done weeks before it sailed, according to crew testimony.
Rot infested 18-foot wooden planks on Bounty’s forward right and left sides. Workers replaced them and caulked cracks and gaps in the ship’s hull below the waterline.
Walbridge was warned by the shipyard that some of the boat’s frames — its ribs — also contained rot, multiple witnesses testified. The shipyard manager testified that the captain said he’d do the repairs later. But not before he chose to sail toward Hurricane Sandy.
The way Bounty was licensed, it wasn’t subject to the toughest Coast Guard inspections or mandatory repairs. The owners chose to license the ship as an uninspected passenger vessel, a classification described by experts at the hearing as a “regulatory no man’s land.”
The status allowed the Bounty to avoid requirements reserved for higher classified ships — including a sometimes expensive, time-consuming Coast Guard hull inspection every two years. The ship’s classification also allowed it to hire less experienced crew to serve in officer positions.
The ship made its money by charging admission for shipboard tours at dockside. Under the regulations, the Bounty required only a simple, brief Coast Guard inspection that checked for obvious safety issues such as major leaks or malfunctioning emergency equipment. The Bounty passed one of these about two months before the disaster.
No safety inspections whatsoever were required for the ship to go to sea because the Bounty carried no passengers.
The crew members move forward
Many former Bounty sailors have struggled to recover from their ordeal. Most are working on the water again in various capacities.
Deckhand Jessica Hewitt, 25 at the time, nearly drowned when the ship sank. She’s been overcoming deep seated fears linked to the Bounty. Now she’s working on an oil rig supply ship in the Gulf of Mexico.
Josh Scornavacchi, who also nearly lost his life, still has dreams of living a seafaring life. He’s looking for work on a vessel that will take him around the world.