On 28 October, 2012, the tall ship Bounty went down off Cape Hatteras during Hurricane Sandy. Her captain, Robin Walbridge, has never been found, and Claudene Christian, 42, a crew member who claimed descent from mutineer Fletcher Christian, was pronounced dead on arrival in hospital. Fourteen other crew were rescued from swells the size of two-storey buildings by Coast Guard helicopters.
Why was a replica of an 18th century ship, built as a film set, sailing the Atlantic during a hurricane? Captain Walbridge, an experienced sailor of tall ships, had decided to try to outrun Sandy, planning to take the ship further out to sea and then to follow the hurricane when it turned toward land. The Bounty was due in St Petersburg, Florida, on 9 November for civic tours. and he didn't want to miss this appointment. The strong winds would have helped the slow-moving ship make the 1,500 mile voyage from New England in time. Furthermore, naval wisdom says that ships are safer at sea in a storm because in port they risk being slammed into docks and rocks or beached. Walbridge believed that the weakest winds in a hurricane are found in the south east sector, but in Sandy's case, this was a fatal mistake: this was, in fact, the area where the winds in this not particularly violent combination of hurricane and nor'wester storm were the strongest.
The ship was built in 1960, in Lunenburg, Nova Scotia, using the Royal Navy's plans for the original Bounty, to serve as the set for the Marlon Brando and Trevor Howard film Mutiny on the Bounty. The replica was to scale but 30 feet longer than the original ship, with eight-foot ceilings between decks to accommodate the movie cameras. She also had modern navigation equipment and gas-powered engines to supplement her full set of sails. In her more than 50 years of life, the ship sailed all over the world and appeared in more movies, including Charlton Heston's 1990 TV movie, Treasure Island, Pirates of the Caribbean and Sponge Bob Square Pants. She was owned at one time by Ted Turner, who acquired her as part of the MGM film archive when it was sold to his network, and at another time by the town of Fall River, Massachusetts, whose civic leaders believed she might help the town live down its previous claim to fame as the site of Lizzie Borden's alleged murders of her parents.
When Fall River could no longer afford her huge repair bills, she was sold for $1.6 million to the owner of a heating and air-conditioning company, and toured the various tall ship festivals, including visiting Toronto in July 2010 where this photo was taken, welcoming tourists on board for $10 per ticket. In fact, these tours were the ship's only source of revenue because she was not licensed to carry paying passengers. A passenger permit would have required much more stringent Coast Guard safety inspections than the Bounty could pass.
Wooden ships are difficult and expensive to keep in good repair: planks loosen, warp, and rot; teredo worms burrow through the hulls; canvas sails deteriorate... and this is without mechanical repairs common to modern ships, and necessary for the tall ships' 21st century navigation equipment. Investigators estimated that the Bounty was taking on 30,000 gallons of water an hour when Fall River sold her. Robert Hansen, her new owner, paid for major refits: all the planks above and below the water line were replaced, generators were rebuilt, and the ship was re-caulked, but it was operating on a shoe-string and up for sale for more than $4 million when it went down.
Captain Robin Walbridge loved tall ships, having sailed on the USS Constitution and the Bill of Rights, and loved the Bounty in particular. He had been with the ship for more than a decade, although she had had at least three close calls under his command, including a 1998 storm when she took on so much water that they had to be rescued by a Coast Guard helicopter and five ships. An enquiry at that time blamed Walbridge for "misjudging" the severity of the leak.
Former crew members, however, remember Walbridge as a man who was committed to the safety of those under his command, running frequent man overboard and abandon ship drills. He encouraged experienced sailors to teach new recruits, and to constantly improve their skills. In fact, this commitment to teaching might have been what caused Walbridge to take that final risk.
He was hoping that the Bounty could raise enough money and sponsorship to be refitted to meet passenger safety standards. If that happened, he wanted to partner the ship with a foundation that encouraged people with Down Syndrome to acquire skills, and then take a crew of people with and without disabilities through the Arctic Northwest Passage.
In the end, however, a year-long Coast Guard enquiry found that Claudene Christian's death, and Walbridge's presumed death, were the captain's fault because he gave the order to abandon ship too late, when they were already in the middle of the hurricane. He was also ruled to have been "reckless" in his decision to sail into the hurricane in the first place. Some responsibility was also allocated to the ship's owner, who were accused of negligence because of the ship's repair record. Claudene Christian's family is suing Bounty's owner for $90 million, and he has declined to comment until the suit is settled. He refused to testify to the Coast Guard enquiry, envoking his constitutional right to avoid incriminating himself.
There was an unsuccessful Facebook campaign to raise the Bounty, which failed because of the insurmountable cost of such a project. A consortium based in Lunenberg is looking into the possibility of building another replica of the Bounty, this time to be used as a training vessel for disabled and disadvantaged people who would like to learn to sail on tall ships.