Looking Back at HMS Bounty, the First Time She Nearly Sank off the Carolinas

bounty-004The 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.

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3 Responses to Looking Back at HMS Bounty, the First Time She Nearly Sank off the Carolinas

  1. dennis says:

    overconfidence and, as the report states many times, negligence (the latter, both captain and owner). unfortunately it caused the loss of not only walbridge’s life, but claudette’s as well. sheer stupidity 🙁

  2. Yes, the USCG report on the loss of the BOUNTY replica is out. It is a worthy document to study. The TSB report has been out for some time. Its conclusion is simpler and quite straight forward. The “Captain was reckless” it says, that’s about it, more or less. The US Coast Guard Report is far more complex. It gets into the weeds a good deal more. And its purpose seems to be in being useful going forward. It is a sober very well considered focused document showing insight, scrutiny and representing great credit to Commander Carroll and the United States Coast Guard’s intent and ability to get into the weeds enough to see where they need to go with what needs to be done in their arena of responsibility. Kudos to Commander Carroll, his assistants and the USCG for such an outstanding job. Perhaps a model of an investigation.

    BOUNTY was a striking and evocative vessel. That, if anything, was her stock in trade. She was designed and built to be just that. For those who have said that she was “just a movie prop” implying ‘no wonder she sank’; they would be quite incorrect. All the evidence indicates that when designed and built a little over 50 years ago she was a powerful wooden ship, properly constructed with enormous integrity in both materials and workmanship by skilled shipwrights of long experience. A stout vessel by all accounts. She was a very solid and well found vessel when she sailed to Tahiti to shoot the film. I would suggest that while she was larger then the original BOUNTY, she was the equal of almost any wooden ship her size ever built apart from ice-strengthened vessels. She sailed to Tahiti without incident and then campaigned without incident on behalf of the film for which she was built for tens of thousands of ocean miles. She was strong sailing ship, well equipped and properly and professionally manned during this period. Then MGM lays her up in Florida as an exhibit. This lay-up goes on for ages. This is where things start to go south. Sitting for decades in warm, even hot, subtropical waters is far from good for any wooden vessel. Wood eating worms, decay inexorably set in. Deferred maintenance becomes a way of life in a vessel so laid up with little more than watchmen aboard. And 50 years is a very long time for a wooden vessel, long enough for any other kind. Ted Turner buys MGM, but gets rid of the BOUNTY as fast as he can it seems. But she remains a striking evocative vessel. She finds a new home in Fall River, Massachusetts, which wants a ‘tall ship’ in the worst way. Which is sort of how they got one. Did Turner simply give the BOUNTY to Fall River? So it was rumored, but I do not know. Waterfront scuttlebutt at the time is that she was sinking at the dock in Fall River. Actually, my friend Robin Walbridge told me that, not rumor at all. Sinking at the dock he said, pumps going constantly. But she was still a striking, evocative vessel, so she moves on to a new owner and a new chapter. Robin Walbridge becomes the key-man, or the last man standing, or depending upon how you look at it, both.

    But to back up a moment. In the combination of Robin Walbridge and her new owner, there was the makings of a dynamic that looked good and positive for the BOUNTY. Maybe this ship would be renewed? Maybe she would be rebuilt and come under some recognized oversight and get inspected and certified. Maybe like a few others around that period, she would have become an SSV, and inspected and a certified ‘Sailing School Ship’. This would have been doable enough and not overly taxing considering the funds that were rumored to have been spent on her in various rebuilding and repairs anyway. This would be all for the good on every level. Time goes by, the ship gets some kind of massive rebuild in Maine, looks like things are getting better for BOUNTY and those who would sail her and sail in her. This story trails off at this point. But she certainly looked a snappy vessel in summer 2012. Neat, clean, well presented by attentive crew on all her Tall Ship event presentations sailing from port to port in the summertime. Well handled in tight corners of Tall Ship even ports by her skipper. The BOUNTY presented extremely well that summer. Never saw her looking better. She was striking and evocative at the dock at a Tall Ship event. But the pumps were still going at it pretty hard it turns out. And sailing between Tall Ship ports along the North East coast in the balmy summer time is not the same as sailing offshore in the North Atlantic, even on a good day and not with the largest hurricane any of us have ever seen approaching.

    That Capt Walbridge did not sail into the eye of SANDY may be technically true. But the ‘eye’ of a hurricane is a pretty small target. If we had only to avoid the ‘eye’, navigating a vessel around hurricanes would be easy enough. However, this hurricane was huge, monstrous in scope and covered much of the NW Atlantic – it was impossible to see how it could have been avoided once at sea in the North Atlantic off the North East coast – he did head out into the North Atlantic in to the largest hurricane any of us had ever seen, one that had clear and dire predictions for days prior to BOUNTY’s sailing, all weather warnings going off like claxons with every other vessel running for cover, vessels many times the strength and in better condition than BOUNTY, and Robin knew her condition and crew state better than anyone. How could he not?

    That old saw that “ships are safer at sea than in port” that keeps popping up may have some application for certain vessels in certain ports but it does not have a grain of validity in it for ships anything like the BOUNTY. Perhaps some cruise ships and huge tankers are better off getting away from relatively fragile wharfs moored with their relatively tiny hawsers, as a hurricane approaches and head to sea to avoid such a storm (at 15 and 20 knots and more; 350-500 miles a day or more) in certain cases, perhaps. But not a little old wooden under-powered sailing ship like BOUNTY, not even if in perfect shape, even if well-found and even if manned by the best trained and most experienced crew. Find a berth, lash the ship to it, lash everything else, make an escape plan from the ship for the crew as a precaution is the only course of action to consider. And this for a well-found ship in superb condition.

    The writer points out that even the US Navy put to sea in this event, suggesting perhaps that the USN did this simply to keep their ships safe in the tradition of “ships safer at sea…”. With all respect I would offer that something else entirely is at work here; setting aside that the US Naval vessels are extremely powerful, very high speed, high endurance vessels, maintained with unlimited budgets, heavily manned by professional and vigorously trained mariners who have signed up to fight wars if needed (considerably different than the little old BOUNTY or her crew) – putting these salient points aside, the task of the USN is to be in a position to defend the United States, and to be available for deployment as required on very short notice. To maintain this level of readiness during the threat of a storm like SANDY requires that they put to sea so as to avoid getting stuck in a port at the height of a hurricane thus rendering their military usefulness null and void. And at the speed of advance that they can make, no doubt they got well away from the worst of SANDY anyway, and probably still took a thrashing. The express job of the US Navy is, in fact, to be ready to “stand into danger” as needed. But how could this possibly also be the mandate of a small, old, wooden, tired little vessel, whose job is to look great in port, with a small keen crew and the remainder volunteers who are in love with this striking and evocative sailing ship? Nope, don’t see it. Why did Robin Walbridge set out that day when the rest of the ships were getting extra hawsers out, lashing down or steaming up rivers to find a secure berth? Truth is I don’t know and can only speculate, and enough speculation has taken place.

    Capt Robin Walbridge dedicated his very life to the BOUNTY and to seeing her go forward. As is painfully obvious, he ended up giving his very life to that ship. As sad as that is for him and his many friends, family and supporters, the tragedy is that he took another life with him in Claudene Christian. And but for the astonishingly dangerous and courageous rescue of the remaining BOUNTY crew by the USCG it is not hard to see that there could have been many more fatalities when the BOUNTY went down off Hatteras in Hurricane SANDY. We must ever be in the debt of the Coast Guard for this and other such service they render routinely without headlines to mariners, but we can also be grateful for the intelligent, fearless and in-depth nature of this sad but much needed investigation into the loss of the BOUNTY.

  3. Lindsey Philpott says:

    Captain Moreland has hit the nail squarely and with no punches pulled. We fall ion love with the very evocative nature of these magnificent tallships which stand elegantly bobbing at the dock, but we seldom give a thought to the stresses they undergo when at sea. As a Professional Engineer I understand what the vessel hull and rigging has to resist and it is not light under seas of only 4 or 5 metres (12 ft. to 15 ft.) let alone under seas that are being driven by winds of hurricane force. That the ship and crew survived as long as they did is attributable to some desperate-sounding measures and a crew determined that they should survive. The USCG is to be greatly commended for their brave and heroic actions. The end story for the ship ‘Bounty’ is also yet to be told in the review now underway by the USCG for similar “recreation” vessels as dockside attractions. Are they indeed to be considered as ‘shore side hotels’ or are they to be registered and inspected under the appropriate CFR? Should TSA (Tallships America) consider taking a greater advisory and possibly inspection role in the ships they purport to have in their ‘fleet’? Does TSA have any responsibility at all or do they remain quiet? It remains to be seen how this will all work out under the USCG’s renewed vigilance.