Equipment failures, hull condition at fault in HMS Bounty

Sep 8, 2014 by Guest Writer

Following-up on last month’s column, we continue with a summary of the investigation of the loss and sinking of the HMS Bounty. The training ship sailed from New London, Conn., as Hurricane Sandy was coming up the Eastern seaboard in October 2012. She sank four days later about 90 miles off Cape Hatteras, claiming two lives.

The U.S. Coast Guard reached five conclusions of causal effects in its investigation. The first two — environment and personnel — were discussed last month.

3. Equipment

The port generator and port main diesel engine shut down due to lack of fuel during the rough weather. This reduced the vessel’s speed, maneuverability and ability to dewater the vessel. Along with these critical equipment failures, there was no system to accurately gauge the port day tank level due to a broken sight glass.

Failure to notice the broken sight glass by the crew during regular checks likely contributed to the port day tank running out of fuel. The crew also apparently failed to notice the trend when they logged the fuel level in the engine logbook as per their regular rounds.

The effectiveness of the electric bilge pumps was in question from the time the vessel left Boothbay, Maine. Crew reported that they did not think the system was pumping water with the same efficiency. They were having trouble keeping the pumps primed. The crew was never able to determine why the pumps were not working correctly. Based upon these statements, it was surmised that the pumps were clogged with debris.

The portable hydraulic pump was initially inoperable due to insufficient maintenance. Once it was finally engaged, its effectiveness was limited because it was continually clogged with debris in the bilges.

The fixed hydraulic bilge pump was inoperable. No crew could provide any information on when it was last operated or tested. The fixed pump was also not optimally piped and configured to maximize the pumping capacity.

The portable gasoline-powered trash pump was inoperable, but would have been of little value due to the insufficient capabilities of the pump. Additionally, the location of the pump inside the vessel would have caused the emission of dangerous fumes when operated.

When the decision was made to request assistance, the vessel’s single side band radio and INMARSAT-C satellite phone were not operational. As they were not tested prior to departure from Boothbay or New London, it is not known how long they were not functional.

4. Safety Standards

The vessel’s only written safety document was the “HMS Bounty Crew Manual.” There was no direction or input by the HMS Bounty Organization. This meant that the creation, implementation, and execution of safety management onboard the vessel was left solely to the captain and his crew.

With no oversight from the owner or independent outside source, the captain instituted a substandard safety culture on the vessel with insufficient standards. This was especially observed in the area of voyage planning and emergency operations.

During this voyage, the Bounty was operating as a recreational vessel. As such, she was not subject to the more stringent requirements for commercial vessels. These included the manning levels, load line requirements, and immediate marine casualty reporting requirements of 46 CFR Part 4. The latter regulation serves to make the U.S. Coast Guard aware of distress situations with vessels and provide assets to assist them.

The crew members adopted safety practices with the use of their life-saving equipment that compromised the effectiveness of the gear. The addition of personal flotation jackets and climbing harnesses on top of survival suits did not increase the survival suits’ effectiveness. On the contrary, the additional equipment became a hazard for catching in the rigging. It caused several crew members to be pulled under water and nearly drowned.

The vessel did not comply with the U.S. Coast Guard-issued stability letter. This had no bearing on the casualty, as intact stability compliance was not a contributing factor. The weight and moment changes that were performed after the 2009 incline test invalidated the stability letters of 2009 and 2011.

However, the vessel was not subject to the requirements of these letters per the Code of Federal Regulations. Overall, the alterations to the vessel, such as moving ballast to change trim, moving the tank and berthing spaces, and removal of the top of the mizzenmast, did not likely change the vessel’s stability characteristics appreciably. These changes were noted as potential regulatory compliance issues, but did not significantly contribute to the casualty.

5. The Hull

The age of the vessel’s main structural members, presence of rot, and use of materials not generally used or designed for the marine environment all likely contributed to the vessel taking on water in multiple locations. These cumulative factors lead to the progressive flooding.

Under normal operating conditions, both underway and at the pier, Bounty relied on her bilge pumps to maintain buoyancy due to the continuous ingress of water through the hull planking. In a heavy seaway, the frequency and duration of bilge pump “run time” increased.  This is a direct result of water infiltrating the hull’s watertight barrier. All crew testified to this fact, and Bounty had a history of near misses related to flooding.

Bounty taking on water was apparently an occurrence that was accepted as the norm for wooden vessels. While it is not unusual for wooden hulled vessels to make more water in a seaway, a vessel relying primarily on bilge pumps to stay afloat is a sign of more serious defects within the hull structure.

Had the vessel been watertight by design or retrofit, it may have survived. The historically accurate yet obsolete arrangement of a ‘tween deck with transverse bulkheads that are not watertight to the weather deck impacted the vessel’s inherent survivability, especially once flooding was uncontrolled.

If the vessel had met the watertight integrity standards detailed by ABS Load Line Surveys, the ingress of water may have been at a rate where the installed dewatering systems may have been adequate for the weather and sea conditions leading up to the casualty.

Summary of Issues

The U.S. Coast Guard identified the following conclusions as the major events causing this tragic event:

The leading cause that contributed to the loss of the captain at sea and the death of Deckhand Claudene Christian was the captain’s too-late decision to order the crew to abandon ship. However, under the unique circumstances of the approaching storm center, even if the order had been given earlier, there is no guarantee that assistance would have arrived or either of them would have survived.

It was fortunate that the captain recognized that the water reaching the ‘tween deck was a critical moment and he ordered the crew to evacuate to the weather deck.

However, testimony from the chief officer indicates that the captain believed that the vessel was going to simply fill up and settle down into the water. The captain believed the vessel was incapable of sinking.

The chief officer tried to impress upon the captain moments before the capsizing that they needed to abandon ship. The captain refused until it was much too late. He failed to recognize the vessel’s rolling in the heavy seas was producing a powerful free surface effect on the ‘tween decks that, when combined with the vessel’s low freeboard, expedited the vessel heeling over.

When the vessel laid over, the crew was forced into the water in a disorganized fashion, rather than abandoning ship as part of a planned and coordinated evolution. The violent rolling continued and caused the masts and rigging to slam up and down, injuring several of the crew. Any chance of an organized departure was lost. It was every person for themselves. There was no opportunity to make sure that injured crew members were assisted. The fatigued state of the crew hampered their ability to enter the life rafts.

It is recognized that abandoning ship into the life rafts presents a challenge even in the best of sea conditions, much less in the existing weather conditions, which proved to be extremely difficult. The fact that the crew had not drilled in months — and some had never drilled at all — no doubt complicated matters greatly. In the opinion of the U.S. Coast Guard, these actions and/or inactions constitute negligence.

There is substantial evidence that the HMS Bounty Organization and the captain of the Bounty, through their combined actions and/or inactions, committed acts of negligence that contributed to the cause of this casualty and the death of one person, as well as the captain’s own presumed death.

There is no evidence that the use of dangerous drugs or alcohol contributed to this casualty, because drug testing was not conducted.

With the above exceptions, the investigation did not identify any inconsistencies concerning the vessel’s compliance with the regulations for recreational vessels contained in 33 CFR Parts 175 and 183.7. However, it was noted that the vessel being registered as a recreational vessel was not entirely justified.

There is substantial evidence that work/rest related issues contributed to this casualty. The crew was suffering from fatigue, which was born out of lack of sleep, being sea sick, and from the physical exertion of fighting to save the vessel while in extreme weather conditions for over 24 hours.

There is no evidence that any act of misconduct, incompetence, negligence, lack of professionalism, and/or willful violation of law committed by any officer, employee, or member of the U.S. Coast Guard contributed to this casualty.

As one will note, this accident was not the result of any single failure, action or inaction. It was a culmination of events that had catastrophic results. Throughout the history of shipping, and that includes pleasure yachts, the implementation of new regulations is seldom proactive. It is almost always reactive and usually in response to an accident or major incident.

This tragic loss of life and vessel will be no different. The observations made by the U.S. Coast Guard will most certainly be addressed through a combination of regulatory changes and renewed enforcement for merchant and recreational vessels. We can stand ready to see its results sooner than later.

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 Comments on this column are welcome at


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HMS Bounty mistakes may translate into yacht issues.