It came down to poor finances, a captain’s superstition that voyages should never begin on Friday — the day of Jesus Christ’s crucifixion — the desire to get home in time for Thanksgiving and the belief that a ship is safer at sea than at port during a storm.
A report the Coast Guard issued Thursday said that what sealed the fate of the 52-year-old Bounty on its last voyage, which killed two people, was the failure of the 108-foot wooden ship’s captain to use effective risk management when he took the tall ship into the impending Hurricane Sandy.
Both the captain and the company that owned the Bounty, the HMS Bounty Organization LLC, “committed acts of negligence” that caused the tragedy that killed the captain and another crew member. Fourteen other crewmembers survived.
Inexperience of crew, instability of the ship, and mostly, disregard of the weather risk, were the primary reasons for the Bounty’s sinking, according to the full Coast Guard report.
The Bounty’s 63-year-old captain, Robin Walbridge, didn’t sufficiently address decay within the boat, of which he was aware, and ignored warnings that the bilge system was not functioning properly, the report said.
But most important, choosing to embark on the journey was “unconscionable” and Walbridge’s decision to call for help was made well after it should have been, the report found. “Every tall ship captain interviewed for this investigation indicated disbelief over the actions of [the] captain, and stated they never would have left port,” the 93-page report stated in its conclusion.
Not only did Walbridge grasp the full size and scope of Sandy, having charted the exact position of the storm, he chose to chart a course “directly in the path and vicinity of Hurricane Sandy, knowing all of the defects” in the vessel, the report said.
The HMS Bounty Organization LLC failed to provide effective oversight and operating restrictions because “they were ill-equipped to make such decisions due to their lack of experience with vessel operations.”
“Financial considerations appear to have driven a number of decisions made by the company, sometimes to the detriment of safety,” the report said. “They chose to assign critical jobs like hull caulking and engine maintenance to the crew in an effort to save money.”
Walbridge gave the 16-member crew — many of whom had less than one season of experience on the Bounty — an hour to decide whether to sail the vessel through the hurricane, which he characterized as a storm. Those who decided not to continue would have to pay for transportation home out of pocket.
According to the surviving crew, “he did not provide the crew with any forecasts, projections or description of the storm’s projected size, strength or scope” during the meeting, the Coast Guard report said. He also detailed his experience navigating hurricanes. More than one crewmember texted family members, saying that the Bounty’s captain or the Bounty herself “loves hurricanes.”
All chose to continue with the ship, with survivors saying later that the captain’s tenure on the Bounty and his claimed prior history with storms gave them confidence.
On Oct. 27, despite predictions that Sandy would cut west and plow into New Jersey, the master changed course from east-southeast to southwest, placing the vessel in the storm’s direct path. One crewmember fell and suffered a fractured hand.
The ship, which typically took water during heavy seaway, had by evening begun taking on more water than usual. The vessel’s electric pumps had a hard time keeping up, despite a hydraulic pump being hooked up off the starboard main engine. The Coast Guard report said this was when the captain should have made calls for help.
Instead, the ship continued through the storm. The report detailed the scene on Oct. 28, 2012, with 20- to 30-foot seas and winds upward of 90 knots. At this point, many of the crew were seasick and fatigued, the report said. Another crewmember was injured after a fall resulted in a gashed arm and injured leg.
Generators and clogged bilges caused the water aboard to increase through the day, and crewmembers continued to sustain injuries as they worked to try to get them operational again.
It wasn’t until 8:45 p.m. that the captain finally sent distress messages to the Coast Guard. By 3:30 a.m., water had reached the tween deck, and about 4:30 the vessel rolled, forcing the 16-member crew to abandon ship. The Coast Guard rescued 14 of them about 6:30.
Although the investigation placed the blame squarely on the captain of the ship and the company that owned the ship,, the report recommends that the policy for “attraction vessels” be reviewed to determine whether they should be further regulated. “The Coast Guard … should examine whether any legislative, regulatory or policy changes are needed” to address a ship’s primary application.
In late April, the National Transportation and Safety Board also concluded that the Bounty’s last voyage should never have been attempted and that its captain’s “reckless decision” was the probable cause of the 52-year-old ship’s October 2012 sinking, according to a report in Soundings by Jim Flannery.