A captain’s “reckless decision to sail into the well-forecasted path of Hurricane Sandy” was the probable cause of the sinking of a ship off the North Carolina coast in October 2012, the National Transportation Safety Board said in a report released today (Feb. 10).
Capt. Robin Walbridge and crew member Claudene Christian died in the accident. Three other crew members were seriously injured.
On the evening of Oct. 25, a day after a developing storm had reached hurricane strength, the 108-foot tall wooden ship Bounty set sail from New London, Conn., for St. Petersburg, Fla., into the forecasted path of Superstorm Sandy. The 52-year-old vessel, a replica of the original 18th century British Admiralty ship of the same name, was built for MGM Studios for the 1962 movie “Mutiny on the Bounty.”
Prior to setting off, some of the crew had expressed concerns to the captain that sailing into a severe storm could put all of them and the ship at risk. Capt. Walbridge assured the crew that the Bounty could handle the rough seas and that the voyage would be a success, the NTSB said in a statement. A month earlier, in an interview with a Maine TV station, he said that the Bounty “chased hurricanes,” and by getting close to the eye of the storm, sailors could use hurricane winds to their advantage.
The 16-page NTSB report details how a mostly inexperienced crew – some injured from falls, others seasick and fatigued from the 30-foot seas – struggled for hours to keep the ship’s engines running and bilge pumps operating so seawater filling the vessel would not overtake it.
In the early morning hours of Oct. 29, about 110 miles southeast of Cape Hatteras, N.C., the Bounty heeled sharply to starboard after taking on more than 10 feet of water in the final hours of a three-and-a-half-day voyage that the NTSB said, “should never have been attempted.”
Despite hurricane winds gusting upward of 100 mph, the U.S. Coast Guard rescued all but two of the Bounty’s 16 crew members by hoisting them from the sea into three Jayhawk helicopters in the midst of the storm. Ms. Christian’s body was found, still in a protective immersion suit, about 10 hours after rescue operations had commenced. Capt. Walbridge was presumed lost at sea; his body was never recovered.
“Although this wooden ship was modeled after an 18th century vessel, the Captain had access to 21st century hurricane modeling tools that predicted the path and severity of Hurricane Sandy,” NTSB Chairman Deborah A.P. Hersman said. “The Bounty’s crew was put into an extraordinarily hazardous situation through decisions that by any measure didn’t prioritize safety.”
Prior to setting to sea, the Bounty had been in a Maine shipyard for maintenance and repairs, most of which was accomplished by a crew with little experience in such work, according to the NTSB statement. One of their tasks was to caulk and reseam a wooden hull, which had known areas of rot, with compounds supplied by Capt. Walbridge, including a silicone sealant marketed for household use, the statement read.
The entity that owned and operated the ship, HMS Bounty Organization, did nothing to dissuade the captain from sailing into known severe weather conditions. The NTSB said that a lack of effective safety oversight contributed to the sinking.
The entire report is available at www.ntsb.gov/doclib/reports/2014/MAB1403.pdf.