Calamity On The Bounty: Milt Baker's Lessons and Left-Over Questions - PassageMaker

Calamity On The Bounty: Milt Baker's Lessons and Left-Over Questions

PassageMaker Book-Reviewer, Milt Baker, takes a closer look at the not-so-obvious lessons from a high-profile disaster, plus lingering mysteries.
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HMS Bounty II Off Chicago

For those of us who take our yachts on long ocean passages, there’s a lot to be learned from Rescue of the Bounty: Disaster and Survival in Superstorm Sandy. This newly released book tells the definitive inside story of the sinking of the famed tall ship off Cape Hatteras—and the Coast Guard’s bold rescue of most of the ship’s 16 crew members. It’s a riveting book by two first-rate maritime authors at the top of their game, one of the best maritime disaster narratives in years.

Click Here To Read The Coast Guard's Ruling After Their Investigation And Watch Videos Of The Rescue.

By the time the 108-foot Bounty, a replica built for the 1962 Hollywood classic Mutiny on the Bounty, sailed into the path of Hurricane Sandy in autumn 2012, her fate had been sealed. As authors Michael J. Tougias and Douglas A. Campbell write:

Like an aging actress, Bounty could not get by on her old bones alone. Wardrobe couldn’t hide her defects. Cosmetics only went so far. She needed constant attention. She was high maintenance. (Her captain) knew that, knew that she had her weaknesses. And now, as darkness overcame the Atlantic on Saturday, October 27, he was preparing to put those weaknesses to the test.

Though majestic in appearance the bones of the Bounty had begun to erode.

Though majestic in appearance the bones of the Bounty had begun to erode.

After years of deferred maintenance and owners who either could not or would not pay to keep her shipshape, Bounty’s glory days were history. As Hurricane Sandy began to pummel the ship, the sea proved relentless at finding and exploiting her weaknesses.

With rot like a cancer in the her planks, seawater first seeping and then hissing and squirting between old planks in her weary topsides, and long-neglected, failing machinery of her vital systems, Bounty was living on borrowed time. As the storm strengthened, she was battered by winds gusting to 90 knots, tossed and pounded by crushing seas of 30 feet and more. The 50-year-old ship was taking on far more seawater than she could pump overboard, and settling more deeply into the ocean by the hour. Her bilge pumps and the generators that powered them were on their last legs as the waters continued to rise. To make matters worse, the ship was shorthanded and while her crew members were eager and energetic, nearly all were short on tall-ship experience.

In spite of their best efforts, the last of the ship’s two main engines and two generators had died around midnight, leaving her with no propulsion, only scant lighting from her batteries, and no way to pump water overboard.

Crew members had been forced by the rising water to move up from the lower deck, gathering on the ‘tween deck, just below the main deck. Beneath them, the water had risen 6 feet or more above the engine room floor, and was showing no signs of stopping. On the lower deck, heavy floorboards sloshed about like missiles. On the main deck above, the hurricane’s assault seemed to be reaching a crescendo, and Bounty heeled ever more to starboard, her bow plunging wildly.

Now an image as iconic of the ship - this ariel photo shows the last seconds of the Bounty's life.

Now an image as iconic of the ship - this ariel photo shows the last seconds of the Bounty.

ABANDON SHIP

Every member of the 16-person crew, 11 men and five women, understood now that their heroic struggle to keep Bounty afloat had come an end. Now it wasn’t a question of if they would abandon her but when.

Rescue of the Bounty is an edge-of-your-seat story:

With her bowels filled with a heavy ballast of salt water, Bounty rode smoothly. A full moon above lit the edges of the racing clouds, enough light that the crew could see their ship leaning 45 degrees to starboard, see the waves all around them, as if they were sitting deep in a valley with dark mountains on every side and only the silvery sky above.

It was close to three in the morning when Bounty’s longtime captain, 63-year-old Robin Walbridge, mustered his dog-tired crew. Brainstorm, he urged them—answer the question: At what point did we lose control? In place of answers he got vacant stares. Weary crew members turned away, then resumed helping one another into their bulky red-orange neoprene survival suits—“gumby suits,” as they’re called.

Capt. Walbridge had made it clear he wanted to wait until dawn to abandon ship, hoping for an orderly daylight evacuation into two 25-person inflatable liferafts. But with the ship listing more and more to starboard, her caprail now under water, and crew members moving to the main deck in a red-orange parade of clumsy gumby suits, Walbridge’s second-in-command, Chief Mate John Svendsen, knew the time had come. Sunrise was three hours away.

“It’s time to go,” Svendsen told Walbridge.

The captain did not respond, so the chief mate waited a half-minute and repeated his suggestion, his plea.

Again, Walbridge ignored the warning.

When for the third time in two minutes Svendsen asked Walbridge to order the crew into the life rafts, the captain agreed…. The word began to spread across the ship. The crew would launch the two rafts and attempt a controlled descent from the deck.

It was too late. With a suddenness bordering on petulance, the ship leaned hard to starboard, as if in response to the skipper’s betrayal, dropping its masts into the ocean and bringing its deck to vertical. Anyone not thoroughly braced fell instantly into the sea. Others clung to the nearest fixed object, desperately postponing their own baptism.

It was 4:26 a.m., Monday, October 29, 2012.

EPIC RESCUE

Thanks to a team of brave Coast Guardsmen and women who flew their helicopters and fixed-wing aircraft into the teeth of Hurricane Sandy that morning, launching rescue swimmers into towering waves, all but two of Bounty’s 16 crew members were rescued. Shortly after the ship capsized, Capt. Robin Walbridge was seen going into the water in his gumby suit. He was never seen again, not by other crew members and not by Coast Guard rescuers.

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The Coast Guard suspended its search for him three days later. Crew member Claudene Christian, the ship’s self-appointed morale officer, was found floating face down in her gumby suit, unconscious and unresponsive. Despite being recovered by a rescue swimmer and hoisted to a waiting helicopter, despite continuous CPR as she was flown to a hospital, she was pronounced dead just after her body reached the hospital hours later. As Bounty was leaving New London, she had emailed her parents: “If I go down with the ship and the worst happens, just know that I AM TRULY, GENUINELY HAPPY. And I’m doing what I love. I love you.”

Three days after Bounty’s sinking, the Coast Guard ordered a formal investigation into the incident. As this issue of PassageMaker goes to press, no report has been issued by the Coast Guard, but Rescue of the Bounty includes a final chapter focusing on the investigation. Testimony by several crew members and by experts who knew the ship well is summarized, but nothing there adds significantly to the information elsewhere in the book.

On Feb. 10, 2014 the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), charged with the authority to investigate and establish the probable cause of any major maritime casualty, issued a 16-page Marine Accident Brief on the sinking. The NTSB brief said the latest weather forecasts on Saturday should have confirmed to the captain that he could remain to the east, and that any vessel movement back to toward shore would only increase the ship’s risk of encountering the storm. Also, the board noted, turning the slow-moving ship to the west ahead of the storm would risk pinning her between the hurricane and the treacherous coast. According to the NTSB:

It is possible that the captain may have focused too narrowly on the position of the storm’s eye instead of Sandy’s total expanse (winds associated with the storm spanned more than 1,000 miles in diameter, and the area into which Bounty was heading was already under tropical storm warnings, with conditions forecasted to worsen). Still, the captain seemed to believe he could outrace the storm.

By sailing Bounty down the hurricane’s west side (the ‘navigable semicircle’), the captain hoped to take advantage of a following wind pushing the vessel southwest toward its Florida destination. What everyone, especially the captain and senior crew, seemingly failed to anticipate was the damaging effect that prolonged exposure to the storm would have on the wooden vessel.

CHASING DEATH

An interview Walbridge did with Ned Lightner in August, two months before the ship was lost, offers another clue as to what might have been on the captain’s mind when he ordered the fateful course change. Standing on Bounty’s deck on a still day in foggy Belfast, Maine, Lightner asked whether Walbridge had sailed her into stormy seas. “We chase hurricanes,” Walbridge told him with a wan grin. “You try and get up as close to the eye of it as you can, and you stay down in the southeast quadrant, and when it stops, you stop. You don’t want to get in front of it. You stay behind it. But you also get a good ride out of a hurricane.” Yet Walbridge’s course change did none of the above.

The NTSB nailed it: Walbridge placed his ship and his crew at risk by setting a course that would cross the hurricane’s forecasted track. Bounty, slowed by high winds and huge seas, and laden with a heavy cargo of salt water that had leaked into the vessel, ended squarely in the storm’s path, and could not maneuver to get out of the way. She simply ran out of options.

in the end, 14 of the 16 person crew were rescued.

in the end, 14 of the 16 person crew were rescued.

My friend Paul Ives, a Delaware Bay ship pilot for 43 years, suggested after reading Rescue of the Bounty, “What was going through Captain Walbridge’s mind will never be known, but I would venture that, with his passion for Bounty and so many years’ experience on the ship, his judgment was a bit clouded by his deep belief that he and his vessel were invincible.”

The NTSB Marine Accident Brief concluded:

The National Transportation Safety Board determines that the probable cause of the sinking of tall ship Bounty was the captain’s reckless decision to sail the vessel into the well-forecasted path of Hurricane Sandy, which subjected the aging vessel and the inexperienced crew to conditions from which the vessel could not recover. Contributing to the sinking was the lack of effective safety oversight by the vessel organization.

What Remains

QUESTIONS AND (PARTIAL) ANSWERS

By MILT BAKER

As I read Rescue of the Bounty, I found myself looking for answers.

QUESTION: With a massive hurricane off the Florida coast and just beginning to churn up the Eastern Seaboard, why did Walbridge suddenly decide to set sail from the safety of New London, Connecticut, and run from the storm aboard a lumbering tall ship that could barely average 7 knots?

I never got an answer to that question from the book. According to crew testimony at an NTSB hearing, Walbridge had said his vessel’s exact course from New London would depend on the hurricane’s path but his intention was to take Bounty southeast, well out to sea, so the hurricane would pass to the southwest of his vessel.

According to the NTSB Marine Accident Brief, Walbridge spoke to his crew of his confidence in the ship’s ability to handle rough weather. If the captain’s view was that Bounty was safer at sea, he never explained why.

QUESTION:Bounty’s bilges needed to be pumped every four hours because of the faltering pumping system. Volunteer crew member Doug Faunt, at 66, the oldest crew member, discovered the pumping problem earlier in the week as Bounty was en route from Boothbay Harbor to New London. He found it taking longer than usual to pump water from the bilge. The pumps would start evacuating water and then suddenly begin sucking air, a classic symptom of an air leak on the suction side of a pump. Although the crew had reported this problem to the captain in the days before departure, why hadn’t he dealt with it before taking his ship out avoid a hurricane? Once under way, while the weather was good, the crew could have inspected the primary bilge pumping system, fixed it and tested the ship’s backup pumps so Bounty and her crew would be ready to dewater.

Fast-forward to Saturday, with the ship now headed southwest into the path of the storm, the main pumps were experiencing the same problems. Watch-stander Joshua Scornavacchi found that the two big electric pumps were losing their prime, their suction, every 20 to 30 seconds. He spent much of his time on watch checking the strainers in the bilge to see if they were clogged. He found no clogging, but it was clear the pumps were not keeping up with the water.

Crew member Adam Prokosh was so concerned about the problem he also brought it to the captain’s attention. “I’m thinking about it,” Walbridge told him. Boarswain Laura Groves also focused on the issue on Saturday, when she found the captain in the engine room manning the pumps. She learned that the pumps were weak and unable to hold their prime.

The post-sinking NTSB accident brief put it succinctly: “Although putting to sea with an approaching hurricane, the captain gave no orders to test-run the backup hydraulic pumps or the new gasoline pumps to ensure that they were operating properly and that the crew knew how to use them.”

QUESTION: With Hurricane Sandy forecast to make landfall along the coast of New Jersey or New York and Bounty making good progress on a southeasterly course from New London, by Saturday morning the ship was headed safely out of the storm’s projected path. Capt. Walbridge’s initial plan to leave the storm to starboard and pass well to seaward seemed to be working.

This brings us to the central question: Why, with faltering bilge pumps, did the captain order a course change to the southwest on Saturday morning, putting the ship on a course that would take her directly across the projected path of the hurricane? Once he ordered the course change, Bounty turned to a southwesterly course, toward Cape Hatteras, where ferocious seas can build quickly, an area renowned as the graveyard of the Atlantic.

At the time he ordered the course change, Walbridge reportedly told one of his ship’s officers that he wanted to sail to the west of Hurricane Sandy, though he did not explain why. He was headed the so-called navigable semicircle to avoid the higher winds on the east side in the dangerous semicircle. (see “Avoiding a Hurricane’s Worst Winds”). Moreover, the northeasterly winds in the navigable semicircle would be well abaft Bounty’s beam, holding the potential to speed her on her way.

The 63-year-old captain kept his cards close to his chest and maintained an old-fashioned and simple culture: The captain’s word was law. On the other hand the crew found him to be quiet, introspective—a man who never got excited, never showed nerves or fear. They had great respect for him.

If he was challenged, he would remind his crew that Bounty was not a democracy. That approach flies in the face of modern bridge resource management, which calls for active and open dialogue among the operational crew.

An email from Walbridge to Bounty’s shoreside office manager late on Saturday offers a clue to what he was thinking:

“. . . I think we are going to be in this for several days, the weather looks like even after the eye goes by it will linger for a couple of days. We are just going to keep trying to go fast and squeeze by the storm and land as fast as we can.

“I am thinking we will pass each other sometime Sunday night or Monday morning. All else is well, Robin.”

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