In the 10-metre waves created by Hurricane Sandy, a Hollywood icon meets its doom. By Kalee Thompson
It was midnight on Sunday, 28 October, when Coast Guard pilot Wes McIntosh established radio contact with HMS Bounty. The three-masted, square-rigged ship was 160 kilometres off the tip of Cape Hatteras, North Carolina, right in the heart of the churning grey pinwheel of Hurricane Sandy. McIntosh and his six-member crew had left Raleigh in their C-130 Hercules search plane half an hour earlier. They were still 100 kilometres away, just outside a solid wall of rain visible on the radar, when McIntosh got the first update from the foundering ship: two metres of water had pooled in the belly of the boat, and the Bounty was flooding at the rate of 30 centimetres an hour. “The generators had failed,” McIntosh tells PM, which meant the pumps were inoperable. The engines had shut down, too. The ship was dead in the water.
McIntosh turned the C-130 straight into Sandy’s eye wall. Winds of 120 km/h winds rattled the crew, tethered to the aircraft with safety harnesses – the only thing preventing them from being flung around the cabin like pinballs. “Everybody in the back was puking,” McIntosh says. But they were prepared to drop a pump, life rafts, anything that might buy the 16 sailors on board the Bounty more time. Below, waves of up to 10 metres collided from all directions. Visibility was less than a kilometre. McIntosh, 33, had flown for nine years as a Navy pilot and two more in the Coast Guard. But he’d never seen conditions as bad as this.
As the plane approached the Bounty’s co-ordinates McIntosh descended to 300 metres and then 150, the lowest he was willing to go knowing that the masts reached more than 30 metres into the air. Finally, he saw a single beam of light rising from the vessel’s deck. It looked eerie, he says, “just like a big pirate ship”.
Five days earlier, on Wednesday, 24 October, the Bounty sat safely at port in New London, Connecticut. The vessel had been built for the 1962 Marlon Brando film Mutiny on the Bounty, based on the true-life saga of 18th-century British captain William Bligh and his mutinous mate, Fletcher Christian. To make room for 70-mm movie cameras, the replica was 30 per cent larger than the original – 54 metres from bow to stern. The Coast Guard considered it an “attraction” vessel and permitted tourists on board only at dock. The ship was not authorised to take paying customers to sea, though volunteers and unseasoned hires often sailed as crew. One of the newer members was Claudene Christian, 42, who claimed to be Fletcher Christian’s great-great-great-great-great-granddaughter. “I LOVE MY SHIP,” she’d tweeted in June along with a picture of herself high in the Bounty’s rigging. Fellow greenhorn Chris Barksdale, 56, a handyman from rural Virginia, had boarded the ship in September as the engineer.
On Thursday, Captain Robin Walbridge, 63, gathered his crew on deck. Government meteorologists and local news stations were detailing the approach of a “Franken-storm”, a sprawling, slow-moving hurricane in the Bahamas on an uncertain collision course with the Eastern Seaboard. The plan was to skirt the storm as it headed north, Walbridge told his crew, and get a push to St Petersburg, Florida, from the wind at its back. Anyone who wanted to stay ashore was welcome to do so, he said. He wouldn’t think less of them. Nobody took him up on his offer.
In the 72 hours that followed, the captain’s hubris would be roundly criticised by many mariners. “They left New London… on Thursday… that they’d choose to take this risk is criminal,” one Maine skipper wrote at Wooden Boat.com. The Bounty’s public Facebook page was updated with a message from the captain. “Rest assured that the Bounty is safe and in very capable hands. Bounty’s current voyage is a calculated decision… NOT AT ALL… irresponsible or with a lack of foresight as some have suggested. The fact of the matter is… A SHIP IS SAFER AT SEA THAN IN PORT!” The post was accompanied by a two-year-old photo of the Bounty looking as though it were about to be swallowed whole by towering seas.
To Chris Barksdale, Walbridge was a soft-spoken yet strong leader. He’d captained the Bounty for 17 years. Before that, he was the ship’s engineer. Barksdale quickly noticed that the captain seemed to enjoy mentoring the crew, and that he had a gentle way of letting people know just how he wanted things done, like his habit of saying, “If I were you, I’d…” before going on to give what was essentially an order. Soon after Barksdale joined the crew, Walbridge promoted Christian from volunteer to deckhand. It was her birthday, and her joy at the accomplishment was palpable.
By Friday, when the ship hit rough weather 160 km off the Maryland coast, the Bounty was storm-ready. Rigging was lashed to the deck, supplies secured, and mainsails reefed in. The ship had two 280-kW John Deere diesel engines and three bilge pumps, two electric ones and a hydraulic spare. Barksdale’s job was to keep them running smoothly. On Saturday, the Bounty was heeled over so hard he had to walk at an angle to keep upright. On Sunday morning, when the eye of the storm reached the border between the Carolinas, the ship was taking on water. At first Barksdale wrote it off as the nature of the beast – wooden boats leak. But then he noticed the seepage above the ship’s waterline, at the point where the side of the boat met the floor of the main deck. As the day wore on the bilge pumps kept getting clogged; the result, Barksdale guessed, of water washing detritus from recent on board construction into them. Early in the afternoon the captain himself came down, shut off the pumps and cleaned out the gunk. “There was a very, very short amount of time when we didn’t have the bilges running,” Barksdale says. “I haven’t been able to figure out exactly why we were taking on more water than we were pumping out.” By late afternoon the ship was heeled over so much that Barksdale guessed the part of the vessel where the seepage was greatest was probably submerged in the ocean. “Because of the way the ship was rolling, all the water that was in the engine room, in the bilge, would roll up to the side and come back down.” The engines quit first, then a generator. It was after nightfall when the crew lost the second generator. “It just got flooded out,” Barksdale says. As Sunday night turned to Monday morning there was little left to do but watch the water rise.
Flying overhead in the C-130, McIntosh stayed in constant contact with the ship. The water was now rising 60 cm an hour. “They told us it was seeping in through the wooden beams,” McIntosh says. “It wasn’t coming over the top; it was coming through the sides.” The Bounty’s officers thought they could hold out until 8 am, when Coast Guard helicopters could deliver the sailors to safety in daylight.
Down in the ship, the crew was getting into bright red neoprene immersion suits. Barksdale had never put one on before. “Nobody was panicking,” he says. “The captain was going back and forth, making sure everybody was okay.” The ship was listing to starboard, so the crew was gathered on the port side, feet wedged up against the main deck or the rigging. One crew member had injured his back, and Christian had taken charge of finding a safe place for him to lie down. “She was acting like a mother hen,” Barksdale says. The engineer just waited. Someone handed him an orange and he ate it. Like his shipmates, he had barely slept in 48 hours. He was still standing on deck at about 4:30 am when the Bounty heeled hard to starboard. “If it wasn’t 90 degrees, it was close,” he says. “We all went into the ocean.”
Three hundred metres above, the Herc was enveloped in clouds. Every transmission from the ship had sounded calm, professional, in control. Then, at 4:45, an urgent voice came over the radio. “We’re abandoning ship. We’re abandoning ship!” McIntosh heard. “Roger that. What are your plans for life rafts?” the pilot radioed back. He waited, but there was no further word from the ship.
Coast Guard rescue swimmer Dan Todd was asleep when his phone rang around 4:15 am. When he heard that the storm was bearing down on a pirate ship, he thought, you’ve got to be kidding me. “Nope, this is the real deal,” he was told. “Get in to work.” By the time he reached the hangar in Elizabeth City, North Carolina, the first MH-60 Jayhawk helicopter was about to launch.
Modelled after the Army’s Black Hawk, the Jayhawk is the Coast Guard’s long-range helicopter; it has a maximum flying time of about 5 hours. About a dozen people can squeeze into its cabin. Todd’s crew – pilots Steve Bonn and Jenny Fields and flight mechanic Gregory Moulder – would be 35 minutes behind the first helo. Todd pulled on his dry suit and harness and grabbed his gear: helmet, mask, fins and snorkel. He wore long underwear under his suit, but he wasn’t worried about the cold. Even in the winter, he knew, the Gulf Stream is a pretty pleasant place to swim.
Barksdale landed in a jumble of rigging. He looked up – and saw the masts rising above him. Then they were plunging back down toward his head. He could see other people nearby, but it was impossible to tell who was who. He spotted a piece of wood – a section of oak grating from the Bounty’s deck – and grabbed on. Soon several others had a death grip on the same square of wood. Dan Cleveland, one of the mates, was among them. Back on deck he had taken care to tie extra 30-metre lengths of line to both of the ship’s 25-man life rafts. Now he was the one to spot a raft, still inside its oblong canister, bobbing in the waves. “We need to get that thing,” Cleveland said. He yelled to the others to grab the long line, and Barksdale managed to wrangle it from the waves. “Don’t let loose,” Cleveland called to him. “You don’t have to worry about me letting loose of this son of a bitch,” Barksdale shouted. “I’m going wherever it goes.”
Once the circular raft was inflated, the six sailors clambered in and tried to spread out to keep it evenly weighted. Barksdale was worried the wind would rip the canopy right off. “Every so often a huge wave would come and knock the snot out of us,” he says. The crew hadn’t been able to get the raft’s door flaps to close, and each time a big wave hit, more water flooded in. Barksdale could hear the C-130 overhead. He couldn’t help thinking that those guys must be getting the snot knocked out of them up there as well.
The Jayhawk’s flight out took an hour and 15 minutes. The clouds were low. Even with their night-vision goggles, the four-member crew could barely make out a horizon. As they reached the site the sky finally lit up enough so that Todd could see some whitecaps and then the profile of the massive waves beneath him. The winds had reached 135 km/h. This is going to be the biggest thing I’ve ever done, he thought to himself. He started getting a familiar butterfly feeling in his stomach – a nervousness that he knew would disappear the moment he swung his fins out the open door of the hovering aircraft.
It was around 6:30 am, just after daybreak, when Barksdale heard the helicopter. He stuck his head out the door. As Bonn brought the Jayhawk into a hover 25 metres above the orange life raft, Todd could see faces peering out from the flap. The swimmer had a padded foam sling wrapped under his arms. As Moulder lowered him into the sea, Todd slipped out of the sling. He took a couple of deep breaths, then swam for the raft. He climbed inside, spat out his snorkel, and lifted up his mask. “Hey, I’m Dan. I heard you guys needed a ride,” he said.
There were a few laughs. “Hell, yes!” Barksdale said. Todd explained the plan: “I’m going to take you out one at a time. I’ll swim you over, get you into the basket, and get you inside the helicopter.” The key thing was to try to relax and follow his instructions. “There’s going to be a lot of wind and stinging spray, and it’s going to be loud,” Todd warned.
He steered the first sailor a safe distance from the raft and gave Moulder a thumbs up, the sign that he was ready for the flight mechanic to lower the metal rescue basket. “Roger… Ready for one basket recovery of survivor,” Moulder said. Minutes later the basket was at the open helo cabin door, with the huddled crew member inside. Todd was already swimming back to the raft. One by one, he dragged the sailors out and sent them up in the swaying basket. Barksdale was one of the last to go. When he tumbled out onto the wet metal floor of the helo, the flight mech pointed to a corner and Barksdale crowded in with the others.
Todd was growing exhausted. He’d ingested a lot of salt water. Between pickups he was vomiting into the ocean. To save strength, he hauled himself back using the long line that attached the raft to its sea anchor, a small conical parachute that helped to stabilise the raft in high seas. He had to dive down a couple of metres to find the line. “Everything above the water is total chaos,” Todd says. “It’s loud, it’s windy, water’s splashing you in the face from every direction.” Beneath the surface was silence. The seas were much warmer than the air, about 25 C. “The water was crystal blue, you could see at least 30 metres in front of you.” As he reached for the line, he noticed his body rocking peacefully back and forth with the current. Then he grabbed ahold and pulled himself up to the raft.
McIntosh had been in radio contact with pilots Bonn and Fields. The first helicopter crew had picked up five sailors from another life raft but hadn’t been able to recover everyone before the craft reached “bingo”, the point at which it had just enough fuel to safely return to the air station. After the last survivor from Barksdale’s raft was on board, Bonn pointed the Jayhawk to the second raft, and Todd gave the three people inside the same pep talk he’d given the first group.
Within an hour of arriving on the scene, there were nine survivors packed tight in the Jayhawk’s cabin. Two people were still unaccounted for. While in the air, Bonn had been scanning the water below for signs of life. But now he’d reached his own bingo – there was no more time to search.
Twelve hours after 14 sailors were safely delivered to Elizabeth City, another Jayhawk crew spotted a red survival suit close to 11 kilometres from the Bounty’s last recorded position. A swimmer went down and hoisted a limp sailor up into the cabin. He began CPR. Throughout the flight to shore the swimmer kept pumping, but there was no life left in Claudene Christian’s body.
As the news spread, the online discussion threads turned acrid. Somber expressions of communal shock and grief were overshadowed by outrage over how someone with Christian’s limited experience could have ended up sailing into a monster hurricane on a movie-prop ship. Meanwhile fellow tall-ship officers lamented that their friend had made such a regrettable choice. “My first thought was, why on earth were they offshore at that point? Because the rest of us were diving for the weeds,” says John Beebe-Center, a tall-ship captain who sailed with Walbridge on the Bounty in the early 1990s. Walbridge was one of the best mechanics he’d ever known, Beebe-Center says. “I’ve towed boats into St Pete for the sole purpose of having Robin take a look.” The sad truth is that all the engineering expertise in the world is no match for a superstorm beating up on a wooden boat. “When you torque the hell out of them by rocking them back and forth in big seas.. it puts strain on all those thousands of pieces of wood that have spaces between them,” says Richard Bailey, another tall-ship veteran who once captained the Bounty. “They open up and you never know where it’s leaking. It’s leaking everywhere.”
Coast Guard aircraft and ships searched for Robin Walbridge for four days and found nothing. By week’s end the Bounty was one more ship settled more than
4 000 metres deep in the so-called Graveyard of the Atlantic, and the Coast Guard had opened an investigation into the tragedy, an inquiry that would delve into the physical condition of the ship – as well as the captain’s decisions. As Sandy approached, massive, steel-hulled Navy vessels and cruise ships had sailed out into the Atlantic. It’s true that some ships are safer at sea in a storm. But it doesn’t take a Coast Guard investigation to conclude that the tall ship Bounty was not one of them.
Setting sail – As Hurricane Sandy batters the Bahamas, the Bounty (A) leaves port in New London, Connecticut. Before departing, Captain Robin Walbridge gives crew members the option to stay ashore. All 15 remain aboard.
Out to sea – The captain sails southeast, hoping to bypass the storm’s fury. In an August TV interview he noted the weaker winds in the southeast quadrant of a hurricane. “We chase hurricanes,” he added. “You get a good ride out of a hurricane.”
A new plan – The Bounty changes course, sailing directly across the storm’s path. Given Sandy’s epic size – more than 1 300 km wide – the captain may have been trying to duck the stronger winds in the storm’s northeast quadrant.
Mayday! – The Coast Guard receives a distress call from the ship’s owner. At midnight a C-130 Hercules (B) dispatched from Raleigh, North Carolina, makes radio contact with the crew, learning that the Bounty’s engines have failed. The ship is helpless.
Abandon ship! – Adrift in a sea of 6-metre swells, the Bounty heels hard to starboard, throwing crew members into the stormy waters. The C-130’s radio reveals that the group has abandoned ship. Most find their way to the two life rafts.
Help arrives – Two Jayhawk helicopters arrive on the scene (C) from Elizabeth City, North Carolina Coast Guard swimmers dropped into the water pluck 14 survivors (D) from the site. Later in the day a Jayhawk crew recovers a body. The last sailor is still lost at sea.
Kalee Thompson is the author of Deadliest Sea, a book based on her 2008 PM story about the Coast Guard’s efforts to save the crew of the Alaska Ranger.