Reflecting on the Sinking of the HMS Bounty and Photo Tour of the Ship

This post is somewhat out of character for me, as I normally write about my jolly life abroad as I travel the world. However, I felt the need to pause and consider at length the recent sinking of the HMS Bounty off of the coast of North Carolina due to hurricane Sandy.

First, I feel that I should begin by telling those of you who don’t know exactly what the Bounty is, or what tall ships are in general. I work on a tall ship — the Brig Niagara, also called the Flagship Niagara, of Erie, Pennsylvania. A tall ship is, by definition, “a large, traditionally-rigged sailing vessel. Popular modern tall ship rigs include topsail schooners, brigantines, brigs and barques.” What the heck does that mean? Pretty much, it means that if it looks like it would show up in The Pirates of the Caribbean, it’s probably a tall ship. The purpose of tall ships which still sail in America is to preserve the nation’s maritime heritage and sailing traditions. Tall ships are much more than floating museums. They are functional. At least in Niagara’s case, everything is still made out of wood, we still sail with sails, etc. We keep these fading traditions alive.

Originally, the Bounty was created for the 1962 film version of the classic novel Mutiny on the Bounty, which retells the fateful story of the 18th century warship of the same name whose crew, led by Fletcher Christian, mutinied against its own Captain William Bligh. However, the ship was later used in The Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest; watch for the scene when the Kraken snaps a boat in half. That was the Bounty. It is a 180-foot, three-masted tall ship fit for sailing. Some of the people who built it, now in their seventies and eighties, visited the ship as recently as last summer and were very eager to show their families the parts of the ship that they were directly involved in building. Many said that they had never had a greater sense of pride, and that they were more than happy to have been paid a meager $1.20 per hour to do the backbreaking work for months.

This picture is one that I took of the Bounty from the deck of my home ship, the Flagship Niagara, as a crewmember during a parade of sail toward Toronto in 2010:

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Beautiful ship, right? Its captain, Capt. Robin Walbridge, set out toward St. Petersburg, Florida from New London, Connecticut on October 25 (Thursday), which also happened to be Capt. Walbridge’s birthday. He said that he planned to head far to the east before turning south, in order to avoid the fury of hurricane Sandy. The captain fully believed that he could weather the storm by skirting it and avoiding its most violent areas. After all, the Bounty is a very capable ship that has handled very rough seas before, and Captain Walbridge has 17 years of experience as the ship’s captain. The final message received from him came on Saturday night (October 27), and read:

“Good evening Miss Tracie

I think we are going to be into this for several days, the weater looks like even

after the eye goes by it will linger for a couple of daysWe are just going to keep trying to go fast and squeese by the storm and land as
fast as we can.I am thinking that we will pass each other sometime Sunday night or Monday morningAll else is well
Robin”

Unfortunately, the ship was not as lucky as the crew had hoped; not because of the fury of the storm but because of a mechanical failure in the bilge pumps, the ship began taking on two feet of water per hour. From there, the timeline goes as follows:

Sunday, October 28, 1830 — Distress call sent signaling that HMS Bounty lost power and pumps and had no propulsion.
Monday, October 29, 0430 — Captain orders all hands to abandon ship.
Monday, October 29. 0625 — First Jayhawk helicopter arrives at life rafts. Fourteen people are recovered. Two are missing — Captain Robin Walbridge and Claudene Christian.
Monday, October 29. 0845 — HMS Bounty declared sunk.
Monday, October 29. 1800 — Unresponsive Claudene Christian carried by helicopter to Elizabeth City Coast Guard station hospital. She is later pronounced deceased.
Wednesday, October 31. 1030 — Search for captain continues.

This post is being written on Wednesday, October 31 at 1030. So the timeline is as recent as possible at this point. Rescued successfully from the ship were fourteen crewmembers:

· Daniel Cleveland, 25
· John Svendsen, 41
· Matthew Sanders, 37
· Adam Prokosh, 27
· Douglas Faunt, 66
· John Jones, 29
· Drew Salapatek, 29
· Joshua Scornavacchi, 25
· Anna Sprague, 20
· Mark Warner, 33
· Christopher Barksdale, 56
· Laura Groves, 28
· Jessica Hewitt, 25
· Jessica Black, 34

As a crewmember on the Flagship Niagara, a two-masted square-rigged tall ship on very friendly terms with the HMS Bounty, I can say that I am very familiar with the people and the ship; we sailed together on numerous occasions, participated in tall ships challenges together, and often docked right next to each other, the Bounty’s wide stern bearing the emblazoned golden word BOUNTY rolling gently a few feet ahead of Niagara’s flying jibboom.

Let me take you on a virtual tour of the HMS Bounty, using my own pictures from my time sailing the lakes.

There is a sign that signals that you are coming upon the ship.

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As you get closer, the first thing that catches your eye is the huge jibboom jutting out from the front of the ship, under which is an impressive figurehead of a man who lost his wife at sea.

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Walk along the side of the ship to approach the entrance.

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As you stand facing the boarding deck, the large white sign on the ship’s side whips in the wind.

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Come up the boarding deck and the first thing you notice is the shiny, smooth deck planks.

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As you step onto the deck and turn to the side, you see the opened wooden “windows” that lead below.

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Turn the other direction and you’ll see the cheerful treasure chest where Bounty accepts donations from visitors to the ship.

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As you walk to your right, you see the series of cannons leaning out of the gunports, ready to load in only a moment.

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Walking further toward the front of the ship, stop for a moment at the helm for a picture. But you don’t get the free lemonade like I did for being a crewmember! 😉

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Turning back the way you came, you descend down a set of stairs into the spacious below-decks area of the ship. The common room is before you, furnished with comfortable material.

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You look above you to notice the blue sky through the “windows” you saw from on deck.

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Head back up the stairs and take a final look up the ship toward the prow.

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And back again along the other side, passing the cannons a final time.

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As you exit over the boarding deck once more, you prepare to visit friends on the ships further away like the Roald Amundsen and Roseway, never aware that you won’t ever come back to this one.

At least, that’s how it feels to me. And you look back on it now, and a pit settles in your stomach when you get a glimpse of the Bounty you know and love, now like this:

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*****

So, did I know the people on the list of the rescued above? Well, yes and no. I didn’t know them in the same way that I knew my crewmates on the Brig Niagara – I spent time with those people day and night, twenty-four seven for multiple weeks. Trust me, you can’t get far away from people when you’re on a ship. About 194 feet on Niagara, as a matter of fact. Can’t even get 200 feet from the other thirty-some sailors.

Rather, I knew these people on the Bounty by passing glances as we visited each others’ ships, saw each other at crew parties, or read about each other’s escapades on our respective ship homepages.

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I was at this picnic with these Bounty crewmembers. Guy in the green shirt? David. Of those who stayed on the ship for multiple years, I met a few. I’ve taken time in the last few days to go back through the crowd of hundreds of people in my mind, clearing the fog and finding these people specifically again. I never met Christian, but I was always updated on her exploits aboard the Bounty, especially considering her reputation as the great-great-great-great-great-granddaughter of Fletcher Christian, the original mutinous crewmember himself. In fact, when she joined the crew, one of the first things she told Captain Walbridge was, “Are you sure you’re okay with having a Christian at the helm?”

In retrospect, I wish I would have spent more time with these people, rather than sitting on the floor below deck watching Devon fall out of his hammock on the ceiling.

The captain, who is at this time currently still being searched for, is wearing an exposure suit. This made me think back on my time on Niagara, how much I loathed that exposure suit, and how much the crew made fun of me for wearing the first one I tried on. They had an extra small exposure suit, and during training we were trained in how to put one on. Neil, one of my shipmates, helped me zip it up because my hands were too small for the attached gloves and I couldn’t get a grip. He zipped it to the top, and it zipped way up above my head. Needless to say, Captain Wes had to order an extra EXTRA small for me. 😉

So what exactly is an exposure suit. Imagine standing with your arms out to your sides, then someone pouring kind-of-bendable gooey plastic over you. You feel kinda like the Michelin man. They serve as flotation devices and keep you warm, and often they include strobe lights and reflective panels, in addition to being neon orange, so people who wear them are easier to find in the water. An exposure suit looks like this:

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*****

Let me make something clear to you right now. I am NOT about to give you all the answers. I am NOT about to tell you who was right, who was wrong, or who did or didn’t do what they were supposed to. Not only am I not in that position, in respect for the loss of life and the current situation, I have no desire to do so. Further speculation is unnecessary and unwanted, and I respect that the remaining crew of the HMS Bounty don’t want to start an argument that tears the tall ship community apart in the middle.

I am going to attempt to explain simply what happened to those of you who know very little or nothing about sailing so that you can come to understand the situation a little better. The last thing that I want to do is to offend people or upset them, especiallthe families of the crew.

So, the first question to be pondered — a question which has been asked very frequently — is, “Why did the Bounty set sail when it knew that a hurricane was coming?”

I understand why many are frustrated with this decision. Conversely, I also understand why many support it. I’m not going to stir things up here. The Bounty crew supported their decision by saying that “a ship is safer at sea than in port.” I only want to talk through this for a moment to clarify what exactly that means. Whether it is true or not is your decision — I have an opinion, but I won’t voice it. As I said earlier, further speculation is unnecessary in consideration for the families of the crew.

Take a moment to consider why you believe that a ship might be safer at sea. Ships are made for the sea, right? And you may also know that, if a ship is removed from the sea (AKA dry-docked for too long or permanently), it falls apart. Water keeps a ship together. So, it appears that ships are more suited to sea than dock. However, consider also why a ship may not be safer at sea. People have nowhere to go should something go wrong. The captain made the decision to try to sail around the hurricane, believing that the ship could weather the edge of the storm.

He was right, of course — the Bounty had weathered very severe weather in the past. He had no way to predict that the bilge pumps (those things that pump excess water out of the ship) would fail. So, whether the ship was safer at sea is a decision left to whether you believe that the bilge pumps “count” or not. It’s up to you.

Let us also pursue for a moment what may have happened if the ship had stayed in port. By now, I’m sure we’ve all seen the pictures of the New York subway flooding. Docks are no exception — they flood. This lifts the boat and churns it around, even if it is lashed to the dock (and perhaps even more if it is). This exposes the sides of the boat (and sometimes the keel, if the boat can get that high) to damage from striking the docks. This rips holes in the wood, which lets water into the bilge and eventually into the ship and engine room, engulfing the bilge pumps. Can a ship sink in port? Absolutely. Is it as likely to slam into things that will cause damage and sink out in the ocean? Absolutely not. That is why it is often said that a ship is safer at sea than in port.

I remember being taught how to do bilge checks and cutter checks at any time of day (often at 2 in the morning) in order to ensure that Niagara was not taking on water or being damaged. All of the crew (except for the high-ranking officers like the fourth mate up to the captain) sleep in one room below deck, hammocks strung up on the ceiling in strange ways so that 30 people can all hang from the same four-foot ceiling. I remember loathing those moments when Charlie watch had just gone to sleep (or so it seemed), and someone came over and tapped me while I was asleep and whispered, “Watch in five. Brig check.”

I’d roll out of bed and grab the flashlight from underneath the WQSB (Watch, Quarter, and Station Bill) posted below, intentionally falling out of my hammock in a kind of split so that I didn’t land on the OS sleeping underneath me next to the sea bags where we stowed our gear. Then, in utmost silence, I would creep across the floor to that one hidden panel that lifted up, flick the flashlight on while obscuring all of its light so as not to wake anyone, and peer down into the bilge to check the water levels and make sure they weren’t rising. Then, I’d have to head onto deck, check out some stuff there, and then jump off the ship to check the cutters — make sure they were still there and still lashed properly as well as ensure that they weren’t banging into the sides of the ship.

All that to say that, all of a sudden, I appreciate how thorough we were all forced to be when it came to damage to the ship and the fear of taking on water. Brig checks. ALL THE TIME. I think they had to be done every hour? No, maybe it was every two. Often, that’s all I know.

Anyway, the next thing I’d like to address may come across as, I don’t know, maybe a little harsh or something. I DO NOT intend for it to be that. I have gotten a lot of comments about the as-of-now still-missing Captain Walbridge, and I’m often told, “Oh, it’s because the captain must go down with his ship.”

I certainly understand where that sentiment is coming from. However, one must also understand that there is no law commanding that a captain be the last to evacuate. Despite this fact, I generally expect that captains and some mates will be the last to leave, especially captains of Walbridge’s caliber — incredibly caring and far more concerned with his crew than himself. A captain is charged with the well-being of all under his command; on Niagara, we were always taught that our first duty was to the ship herself, then to others, and finally to ourselves. How much more this sentiment could be exemplified in a captain with 17 years of time devoted to his ship.

I never had a doubt that, on Niagara at least, Captain Wes (and even the mates: Billy, John, Cusson, or Pat) would have done anything to help any one of us.

*****

I’m sure that’s not all I have to say, but it’s all I can think of right now. I hope that it was a bit informative. I am very saddened to see such a significant part of my life at the bottom of the sea, but I’d rather see her welcomed into the ocean than the crew taken. I pray that Captain Walbridge will be found, and I am glad to see the huge outreach effort that has sprung up almost immediately not only from my Flagship Niagara but from tall ships and supporters around the world. It’s a privilege for me to be an active part of this little-known tall ships community.

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