As regular readers of this column will note, I have been following the investigation of the loss of the HMS Bounty.
The ship sailed from New London, Conn., on Oct. 25, 2012, as Hurricane Sandy was coming up the Eastern seaboard. She sank four days later about 90 miles off Cape Hatteras, claiming two lives. 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 members. The great, great granddaughter of the infamous Fletcher Christian, Ms. Claudene Christian, succumbed to injuries received during the ship’s evacuation. The ship’s master, Capt. Robin Walbridge, was never found.
In February 2013, a federal safety panel consisting of officials from the USCG and the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board heard from witnesses. The investigation set out to 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 was tasked with making recommendations on whether any policy changes were needed to prevent similar incidents. In addition, it was to recommend criminal charges to federal prosecutors if wrongdoing or negligence was found.
In June, the USCG released its 100-page investigation report. The findings are extremely concerning. While the discussion involves many “rules of the road” affecting commercial vessels, the mistakes made and the preventive action that could have been taken are easily transferred to the yachting industry.
We will focus on the conclusions of causal effects identified in the investigation.
The weather was clearly a factor from the beginning of the voyage. Although the conditions related to Hurricane Sandy did not directly affect the vessel until Saturday, Oct. 27, the crew was stowing gear and preparing the vessel for heavy weather from the time they departed New London. Once the conditions began to worsen, increasing seas accelerated the rate that Bounty was making water. The increasing winds blew out multiple sails and caused the spanker gaff to break.
The increasing sea state caused many of the crew members to become seasick. The conditions made it difficult to get adequate sleep, not only because of the rough seas, but also because the crew sleeping quarters became saturated with water that leaked through the deck. As the voyage progressed and conditions worsened, moving about the vessel became increasingly difficult and three crew members were injured because of falls, including the captain.
As the vessel foundered and the decision was made to abandon ship, the environmental conditions affected the crew’s ability to communicate with the USCG, all other vessels, and each other. And preparations, including donning survival suits, were limited by the dangerous weather.
Once the crew had abandoned ship, the heavy weather conditions made it exceedingly difficult to get into the inflatable life rafts. Crew members testified that entering the life raft took at least one hour once they reached the raft. Wind and seas caused one of the life rafts to flip during the rescue.
According to the report, the management company failed to provide effective oversight and operating restrictions for its vessel and personnel. The company was ill equipped to make such decisions due to its lack of experience with vessel operations, especially with respect to an aged wooden vessel. The owners had full knowledge that the captain intended to take Bounty into proximity to Hurricane Sandy, yet they took no action to stop or question his decision-making.
According to the USCG, this constitutes negligence.
The captain was a mariner that had the respect of his crew, industry peers, shipyard personnel, and company management. From all reports, he had tremendous skill as the Bounty’s master. He knew her better than anyone. That he chose to embark on this voyage knowing of the vessel’s defects, the magnitude of the storm, and the experience level of his short-handed crew is unconscionable. It seemed that he had supreme confidence in himself and the Bounty.
The chief officer approached the captain in New London to discuss other options, but he did not want to take any advice. Largely, the chief officer compelled the captain to hold a meeting with the crew to address their concerns. The captain convinced the crew that he and the vessel were capable of the trip.
According to the captain, leaving port was a way to protect the vessel. The crew chose to remain because they trusted the captain’s experience.
Every tall ship captain interviewed for the investigation indicated their extreme disbelief over the actions of the captain. All interviewees stated that they never would have left port, or they would have sought a safe berth in sufficient time.
Practically every vessel in the Atlantic area chose to either tie up in port or run from Hurricane Sandy. The captain of HMS Bounty chose to steer toward Hurricane Sandy at a near constant bearing and decreasing range with no compelling reason to do so. His actions conflicted with all known maritime methodologies for storm avoidance.
It can only be concluded that he was not trying to avoid the storm at all. He purposefully placed his crew and his vessel into extremely dangerous conditions. Here again, this constitutes negligence.
When the captain was asked by the chief officer to call the Coast Guard, he refused. The captain stated that they would be better off working on the pumps. His decision smacked of pride and was illogical given the danger they were in.
He should have made calls for assistance at the first indication that the electric bilge pumps were not keeping up with the water ingress. This would have given them some opportunity to come up with an alternate plan or better their chances to receive assistance. The USCG identified this as negligence, as well.
The crew that sailed with Bounty from New London had limited sailing experience. They were not properly trained in several vital areas. The crew had not done a fire or abandon ship drill in over two months. The cook and the engineer had never been involved in any drill. None of the crew had training on how to use the hydraulic bilge pumps or the gasoline-powered back-up pump. This is despite the fact that they knew that they were sailing into a hurricane and that Bounty had a history of taking on water, more so in heavy seas.
As the vessel was registered as a recreational vessel under the U.S. flag, there was no manning requirement for the carriage of an engineer. However, the management company and captain identified a need for this position. The person that was employed in this role was not licensed. Furthermore, he did not have sufficient experience with vessel systems to adequately perform his duties. He also was not given appropriate time for orientation.
The ship departed from New London with less than a full complement of crew. Surviving crew members testified that, from the point of departure, each crew member was doing several jobs at once. They had their normal duties, but were also busy preparing the vessel for rough seas. When the seas started to get rough, they were forced to have two people on the helm, and have someone constantly stand by the bilge pumps.
As the voyage progressed, the number of effective crew became less and less due to injury, seasickness, and fatigue.
Check back next month for the recommendations the USCG made that impact yachts, including proposed changes to U.S. law, regulation noncompliance, and equipment failures.
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 email@example.com.