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Testimony into Bounty sinking reveals deficiencies, errors

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Ships and yachts operate in a highly dynamic environment. Frequently, the people on board follow a set routine of work disrupted by arrival at, working in, and sailing from port. This existence involves living in the place of work for prolonged periods and it creates a unique form of working life, which almost certainly increases the risk of human error.



Historically, the international maritime community has approached safety from a predominantly technical perspective. The conventional wisdom has been to apply engineering and technological solutions to promote safety and to minimize the consequences of marine casualties and incidents. Accordingly, safety standards have primarily addressed ship design and equipment requirements. Despite these technical innovations, significant marine casualties and incidents have continued to occur.



Analyses of marine casualties and incidents that have occurred over the past 30 years have prompted the international maritime community, and the various safety regimes concerned, to evolve from an approach that focuses on technical requirements for ship design and equipment to one that seeks to recognize and more fully address the role of human factors in maritime safety within the entire industry.



These general analyses have indicated that given the involvement of the human in all aspects of marine endeavors, including design, construction, management, operations and maintenance, almost all marine casualties and incidents involve human factors. The development of the ISM Code is a prime example of this shift in thinking.



A recent example of this revolves around the loss and sinking of the HMS Bounty. The ship sank off the coast of North Carolina after being battered by Hurricane Sandy. Two people, including Capt. Robin Walbridge, perished.



A federal safety panel consisting of officials from the U.S. Coast Guard and the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board heard from a series of witnesses in late February in Portsmouth, Va. The investigation will determine what caused the sinking of the tall ship, which was built for the 1962 film “Mutiny on the Bounty.”  It was also featured in films such as “Treasure Island” and “Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest.”  



The panel is tasked with making recommendations on whether any policy changes are needed to prevent similar incidents. In addition, it may recommend criminal charges if wrongdoing or negligence is found.

The HMS Bounty departed New London, Conn., on Oct. 25 as Hurricane Sandy was moving up the eastern seaboard. She sank four days later about 90 miles off the coast of Cape Hatteras, N.C. Survivors recalled that the ship rolled before it sank, throwing crew members into the water as they tried to abandon ship.



U.S. Coast Guard helicopters and rescue swimmers were able to save 14 of the 16 crew. In addition to Walbridge, the great-great-granddaughter of the infamous Fletcher Christian, Claudene Christian, 42, succumbed to injuries received during the ship’s evacuation.



During the week-long schedule of interviews, the panel heard testimony from other tall ship captains who opted to delay departure rather than sail due to the storm. Capt. Dan Moreland, master of the Picton Castle, testified that he decided not to depart from Nova Scotia until the storm had passed. Capt. Jan Miles, master of the Pride of Baltimore II, kept the ship tied up in Baltimore. Both Moreland and Miles said they were shocked by Walbridge’s decision. Capt. Miles later wrote an open letter criticizing it as reckless.



The panel heard also heard from Commander James Mitchell, search and rescue coordinator for the North Carolina sector of the U.S. Coast Guard. Cdr. Mitchell testified that other vessels were trying to avoid the storm. The nearest U.S. Navy ship at sea was about 260 miles from where the HMS Bounty sank. He further explained that he was unable to find another person to support Capt. Walbridge’s assertion that the ship would be safer at sea than in port during the storm.



“They didn’t know what they were getting themselves into,” Mitchell said.



The ship’s chief mate, John Svendsen, testified that Capt. Walbridge favored trying to repair the HMS Bounty’s failing systems instead of abandoning ship. Capt. Walbridge twice turned down Svendsen’s recommendation to evacuate before agreeing to it. However, these recommendations were made within two minutes of each other and long after any type of orderly evacuation could be initiated.



Todd Kosakowski, a project manager at Boothbay Harbor Shipyard in Maine, testified that he warned Capt. Walbridge about significant rot in the ship’s wood frames. This was discovered during a shipyard period immediately preceding the sinking. It was also noted that the crew was instructed to use household caulking for the repair of the hull below the waterline.



Testimony by Tracey Simonin, the HMS Bounty Organization’s director of shoreside operations, revealed confusion about the ship’s status as it related to tonnage certificates, maintenance management, classification, flag-state, and who may or may not be in charge of repair work aboard.



In July of 2011, at the urging of the U.S. Coast Guard, Simonin walked through a new tonnage certificate issued by the American Bureau of Shipping (ABS) that set the ship’s international gross tonnage at 409. During a visit, inspectors noticed a change to the ship’s construction, specifically the removal of a tonnage opening. This modification was not reported to ABS.



The new admeasurements made the ship subject to SOLAS, MARPOL, and various other international conventions. The HMS Bounty Organization appealed to the U.S. Coast Guard.  A year later, it changed the vessel back to its previous configuration and received a new tonnage certificate that brought it back down to the U.S. tonnage measurement of 266 gross registered tons, but it would seem that for a year, Bounty operated in violation of IMO regulations.



Multiple surviving crew members recalled their efforts to repair the ship’s systems during the storm. It was reported that bilge pumps were unable to keep pace with the amount of flooding. The investigating panel also determined that the majority of the crew had never been to sea or had minimal experience at sea on a tall ship. Interviews also revealed that emergency drills, including those for abandon ship, were only verbally discussed and never conducted in real-time scenarios.



Owner of the HMS Bounty, New York executive Robert Hansen, invoked his Fifth Amendment rights against self-incrimination and declined to testify before the panel.



While the investigation is expected to take several more months before conclusions are released, it is extremely important for the facts of this accident to be acknowledged. In the yachting industry, many tend to feel a type of invincibility. “We’re a yacht; that could never happen to us.”



The name HMS Bounty can be easily exchanged with any yacht, commercial or private. The level of complacency and assumption exhibited by the crew could have been avoided. Ignoring critical issues or not relying upon your own level of knowledge can have life-altering effects.



Capt. Jake DesVergers is chief surveyor for International Yacht Bureau (IYB), an organization that provides flag-state inspection services to yachts on behalf of several administrations. A deck officer graduate of the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy at Kings Point, he previously sailed as master on merchant ships, acted as designated person for a shipping company, and served as regional manager for an international classification society. Contact him at +1 954-596-2728 or www.yachtbureau.org. Comments on this column are welcome at editorial@the-triton.com.

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