The family of a crew member who died when the HMS Bounty sank during superstorm Sandy has sued a Setauket businessman who owned the wood sailing vessel, accusing him of negligence for allowing the tall ship to sail in the hurricane.
Claudene Christian, of Vian, Okla., the mother of Claudene Martilla Christian, 42, is asking a federal judge in Central Islip to order the ship's owner, Robert E. Hansen, and his company, HMS Bounty Organization, to pay her daughter's estate $90 million in damages.
"Not only was the decision to go to sea with this wooden ship -- originally built as a movie prop -- reckless, but so too was the two-hour notice given to the crew," according to the lawsuit, filed Monday in U.S. District Court in Central Islip. "There was no time to allow them to grasp the full implications of the storm, or to confer with family, friends or knowledgeable individuals."
The ship's 14 crew members, who made it safely to two lifeboats, were rescued by the U.S. Coast Guard. Claudene Martilla Christian, of Los Angeles, and Capt. Robin Walbridge, 63, of St. Petersburg, Fla., ended up in the water and were swept away. Christian was found unconscious Oct. 29 and pronounced dead at Albemarle Hospital in Elizabeth City, N.C. Walbridge's body was not found and he is presumed dead.
Hansen did not return calls to his home and business Friday.
HMS Bounty had departed Boothbay Shipyard in Maine on Oct. 20 for New London, Conn., where she stayed briefly. On Oct. 25, about 4 p.m., Walbridge gathered his crew and said Sandy was making her way up the East Coast and he wanted to leave for St. Petersburg, Fla. within two hours. HMS Bounty was scheduled to take part in a fundraising event from Nov. 8 to Nov. 11.
"Capt. Walbridge, who was focused on the reward lying at St. Petersburg, recklessly ignored Sandy's size, scope and intensity," the lawsuit says. "He also grossly overestimated, to the point of recklessness, Bounty's seaworthiness and overestimated his professional seamanship and weather forecasting abilities to the point of arrogant hubris."
In the hours before Walbridge ordered his crew to abandon ship, they were frantically fighting to keep seawater out of its bilges. Debris clogged strainers, and hydraulic backup and portable trash pumps were inoperable. The port engine and generator failed.
"We should call the Coast Guard," Chief Mate John Svendsen told Walbridge on Oct. 28.Walbridge and his crew spent the next hour repairing pumps, replacing clogged fuel filters and removing seawater from the bilges.
"Captain -- We are in Distresscq," Svendsen warned again.
By 1:12 p.m. on Oct. 29, when Hansen's business contacted the Coast Guard, the ship was taking on water at the rate of two feet per hour, according to the lawsuit. The nearest rescue vessel was eight hours away.
At 3:25 p.m., Svendsen urged Walbridge to abandon ship immediately, a suggestion he rejected.
Walbridge sent the Coast Guard a note, saying the ship had lost dewatering abilities and needed pumps, but said she was "fine," according to the lawsuit.
At 4:28 p.m., Svendsen again asked Walbridge to order the crew to evacuate. Walbridge, again, said no.
Two minutes later, Svendsen repeated his plea, and Walbridge agreed, but it was too late.
HMS Bounty rolled onto her port side and capsized.
"The entire crew who were now huddled in small groups on the main deck were either hurled or forced to jump into the black seas," the lawsuit said.