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Captain's Judgment Questioned After Sinking Of Tall Ship

Oct 30, 2012
Originally published on December 14, 2012 12:41 pm

When the HMS Bounty set sail in 1787, Captain William Bligh had only his instincts to safely complete a journey from England to the South Pacific island of Tahiti. Last week, Robin Walbridge, captain of a replica of Bligh's ship of mutiny fame, had every modern weather-forecasting resource to plan a voyage from New London, Conn., to St. Petersburg, Fla.

But it didn't keep him from a fatal misjudgment.

Walbridge's Bounty became a dramatic casualty of Hurricane Sandy when the 180-foot sailing vessel sank off Cape Hatteras, N.C., in heavy seas churned up by the superstorm. The captain himself is missing and one other person from the crew of 16 is confirmed dead. Fourteen others were plucked from the water by Coast Guard helicopters.

The loss of the three-masted Bounty may rate as little more than a footnote amid the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, but it has prompted disbelief from at least one fellow captain who wonders why Walbridge made the decision to venture out into one of the biggest storm systems in decades to hit the U.S. East Coast.

Dan Moreland, the captain of another tall ship, the Picton Castle, described Walbridge as an experienced seaman, but told The Chronicle Herald of Halifax, Nova Scotia, that he couldn't understand the decision to put out to sea on Thursday with a crew of 11 men and five women, ranging in age from 20 to 66.

Picton Castle and the Bounty were both heading to the same public appearance featuring the traditional sailing vessels in St. Petersburg, which was scheduled for the weekend of Nov. 10-11. There was plenty of time to reach Florida and Moreland said it was an "easy decision" for him to stay in port for an extra week or more because of Sandy.

"It's black and white, there are no nuances with this," he told The Chronicle. "It's a huge system and that made the decision very simple."

Moreland said he had plenty of weather information that was raising red flags and when he first heard the Bounty was at sea, "I thought, 'You've got to be kidding.' "

Walbridge was apparently well aware of Sandy, but gambled that he could steer a safe course around the storm.

According to The Christian Science Monitor:

The ship's course out of Connecticut took it due east to try to avoid the oncoming hurricane Sandy. Early on Sunday, the crew felt it had skirted the danger: A Facebook post showed the ship's position on a map well to the east of the storm's fiercest winds.

They were mistaken. The ship was close to the tail end of the hurricane as it whipped up the Atlantic coast.

The Monitor says details of the ship's final hours are sketchy. "Apparently at least one generator failed, and the Bounty began taking on more water than it could safely handle" as it was pummeled by 18-foot waves off Hatteras, a region long known as a graveyard of ships for its dangerous shoals and treacherous seas.

The rescued crew members survived the cold water wearing special thermal insulated immersion suits; Walbridge was also thought to be wearing such a suit. That has offered some hope that he's still alive.

Walbridge's wife, Claudia McCann, contacted by Reuters at her home in St. Petersburg, said she was confident that her husband would be found alive.

On the HMS Bounty's Facebook page, a post went up about 10 a.m. Tuesday mourning the loss of crew member Claudene Christian, offering prayers "for the continued efforts to rescue our Beloved Captain, Robin Walbridge," and requesting donations to help survivors and family.

Walbridge's Bounty was built for the 1962 movie Mutiny on the Bounty, starring Marlon Brando as Lt. Fletcher Christian. The film was remade in 1984, featuring Mel Gibson in the role.

The original HMS Bounty was the scene of the most famous naval mutiny in history, in which the command of Capt. Bligh was overthrown by Christian leading a group of disgruntled crew. Bligh and a few loyal men were set adrift and survived an epic small-boat voyage. Christian and the other mutineers, with their Tahitian brides, settled on mischarted Pitcairn Island, where they burned the Bounty to avoid detection from British warships. Their descendants still live on the South Pacific island.

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