The Coast Guard has issued its final report on the sinking of HMS Bounty in October 2012. You can read the report here.
In the report, there is one oblique reference to 1998 in which “the Seventh Coast Guard District closed the marine casualty case after having determined that BOUNTY was not a commercial vessel.” The casualty referred to was when the Bounty had come perilously close to sinking, in almost the same waters where she sank in 2012, and for almost the same reasons.
Not quite 20 years ago, I sailed only once, and briefly, with Captain Robin Walbridge on HMS Bounty on a re-positioning leg from New York to Newport, Rhode Island. In those days, the ship spent her winters at the dock in St. Petersburg, FL and summers at Fall River, MA. It was my first experience on a tall ship and I had a wonderful time. I got to steer, serve as look-out, perform ship checks and set and furl sails. I still vividly recall sitting in the main crosstrees, looking down at Castle Hill Light as we sailed up the East Passage to Newport.
The ship itself was not in great shape back then. The fore-mast was partially de-rigged because of rot and the engine room had a leaking seam that required that a motor-driven pump be kept running at all times to stay ahead of the leak. I wasn’t overly concerned, as no one else was, and we were on a short run up Long Island Sound in good weather.
Returning to the present, the Coast Guard report on the sinking is worth reading. So much of what has been reported about the loss of the Bounty in 2012 is nonsense. Captain Walbridge did not steer his ship into the eye of hurricane, as has been repeated ad nauseum. Walbridge successfully sailed around the hurricane and was in the so-called navigable semi-circle of the storm. The eye of the hurricane was passing to the north. The wind was on their stern. In another day, they would have been in clear weather.
The problem was, that even if the hurricane was passing them, the ship was still caught in a terrible place. They were in a full gale off Cape Hatteras. The wind on their stern was blowing against the current of the Gulf Stream which created large, steep, and dangerous waves. I have never been in a Cape Hatteras gale but have seen the damage done to steel ships after rounding Hatteras. There is a good reason that Hatteras is known as the “Graveyard of the North Atlantic.” The Bounty sailed with her bilge pumps not working at capacity and with unexpected rot found in her hull. The last place that the ship should have been was in a north-easterly gale off Cape Hatteras.
When we all learned how and why the Bounty sank, I immediately flashed back to 1998, the year after I had briefly sailed on the ship. The Bounty nearly sank that year on a voyage from Massachusetts to Florida, in almost the same waters where she sank in 2012 and for almost the same reasons.
In 1998, the Bounty was in rough weather off the Carolinas when the motor driven pump, which had been keeping the ship afloat, wore out and failed. The two electric bilge pumps pumps couldn’t keep up with the rising water. A Coast Guard helicopter, two cutters, two Navy ships and a tug boat responded to the distress call and delivered five portable pumps to the Bounty, which made it safely to port in Charleston.
The events of 1998 and 2012 are, of course, very different. In 1998, no one died and the ship made it to port. Nevertheless, the similarities are striking.
Captain Walbridge was a skilled mariner, as well as a good leader, admired and respected by his crew. Why did he sail the Bounty in October of 2012 with Hurricane Sandy heading in his direction? Was it simply confidence or over-confidence — in himself, in his ship, his crew?
The old saw that “a ship is safer at sea than in port” has a element of truth to it. The US Navy in Norfolk sent ships out to sea prior to the Hurricane Sandy’s arrival. The Bounty had sailed around hurricanes before. Why not one more time? That being said, an old saying and past experience are no replacement for considered judgement based on all the facts and alternatives. As we are reminded by the Bounty, the sea is unforgiving and the consequences of lapsed judgement can be tragic.