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Remembering the Bounty and its crew

The HMS Bounty sails on Lake Erie off

The HMS Bounty sails on Lake Erie off Cleveland. The U.S. Coast Guard has rescued 14 members of the crew forced to abandon the HMS Bounty caught in superstorm Sandy off North Carolina. (July 7, 2010) Credit: AP

The website for the Village of Greenport, home port of HMS Bounty, features a large photograph of the majestic tall ship and a simple message: "Our hearts and thoughts are with the crew and family members of the Bounty, whose special meaning to Greenport lives on."

While the square-rigger built as a set for the 1962 MGM film "Mutiny on the Bounty" starring Marlon Brando was rarely in Greenport as it traveled to festivals along the East and Gulf coasts and Great Lakes, the connection to Long Island of the vessel that sank off the North Carolina coast in superstorm Sandy was strong.

It not only called Greenport its home, but the ship has been owned since 2001 by Robert Hansen, owner of a Setauket air-conditioning business.

Hansen this past week traveled to Florida for a memorial service with the 14 surviving crew members to mourn the loss of their ship, a crew member and presumably its captain.

In an exclusive interview with Newsday, Hansen insisted the vessel would have easily handled the conditions thrown at it by Sandy as Capt. Robin Walbridge was sailing out around the storm had electrical power not been lost.

The 169-foot three-masted ship foundered 200 miles southeast of Hatteras, N.C., early on Oct. 29, when one and then both generators failed, killing the bilge pumps and ultimately the two engines, Hansen said.

As waves crashed across the deck, Walbridge, 63, a resident of St. Petersburg, Fla., and Bounty's skipper for 17 years, ordered the crew to abandon ship. Fourteen made it into two life rafts. Walbridge and crew member Claudene Christian, 42, of Los Angeles, were trying to reach a raft but ended up in the water and were swept away.

Coast Guard helicopters rescued the 14 crew members from the life rafts later that day. Christian was found unconscious and pronounced dead at a hospital.

But the search for Walbridge continued over an area of 1,500 square nautical miles until Nov. 1. The Coast Guard had determined that he could have still been alive until that point because the water temperature was in the high 70s and he, like the rest of the crew, was wearing a full neoprene survival suit.


The decision to sail

The Internet and media coverage has been full of comments that Walbridge had no business sailing from Connecticut to Florida with the hurricane coming up the coast, or, conversely, that he made a wise choice not to be caught in port with no room to maneuver.

Daniel Moreland, captain of the Nova Scotia-based tall ship Picton Castle, which visited Greenport with Bounty last summer, delayed departure for two weeks on an eight-month voyage to the South Pacific to allow Sandy to pass through.

"It's a huge system," Moreland said, "and that made the decision very simple." While he noted that Walbridge was an experienced captain, he questioned his decision to leave with the storm approaching.

"When I first heard the Bounty was out there, I thought 'You've got to be kidding,' " Moreland said.

But Hansen, who was not aboard the Bounty when it sank, didn't question the ship's location and noted that the conditions the vessel encountered -- 40- or 50-knot winds -- were not that uncommon at sea, and the ship has been through them numerous times.

"They were a couple hundred miles east [of the coast] trying to go around it," Hansen said. "Everybody was prepared and the ship had just come out of the yard . We've been through much worse storms than that."

He noted that the Bounty was equipped with a lifeboat, two life rafts and all of the required safety gear.

"The ship was designed to sail any ocean, anywhere," Hansen said. "He [Walbridge] had some catastrophic power failures. We lost generators. No electric, no pumps." He said Bounty, like all wooden tall ships, was always leaking, so the loss of bilge pumps was a serious problem more than sea conditions as Sandy approached.

"The water that was coming in is the normal water that leaks into the boat on a daily basis," noted Hansen, who was in communication with Walbridge until the end. "Without the ability to pump, over the course of 30 or 40 hours, it starts adding up. We're talking hundreds if not thousands of gallons. We weren't taking too many waves over the side; there were some but not enough to create a hazard. Up until Sunday morning [Oct. 28], the ship was having some phenomenal sailing. Then, all hell broke loose. It's a sad situation."


Differing circumstances

In recent years, some tall ships have escaped damage while others have been sunk heading for open water with storms approaching.

"It's completely case specific," said Bert Rogers, executive director of Tall Ships America, a nonprofit organization based in Newport, R.I., that promotes sail training. "There are some circumstances where it might make sense to put to sea and some circumstances where it's better to find a safe harbor." It all depends on the weather, the vessel, the crew and the availability of a sheltered harbor.

As for the Bounty, Hansen had initially hoped to salvage and rebuild the ship, which was insured, had it remained afloat. But "she's gone," he added.

Meanwhile, in her home port, Mayor David Nyce said, "We love the Bounty in Greenport. We are deeply saddened by the loss of the vessel but even more we're concerned for the loss of the life."

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