Tall ships community mourns for HMS Bounty, crewOne week after the sinking of the HMS Bounty off the coast of Cape Hatteras, N.C., grief and questions continue to swirl around a captain’s fateful decision to sail the wooden replica ship into a powerful hurricane system.
By: Peter Passi, Duluth News Tribune
One week after the sinking of the HMS Bounty off the coast of Cape Hatteras, N.C., grief and questions continue to swirl around a captain’s fateful decision to sail the wooden replica ship into a powerful hurricane system.
Craig Samborski, a promoter from Duluth, was presenting at a Toronto tall ship conference last week as the unsuccessful search for the Bounty’s 63-year-old captain continued. Capt. Robin Walbridge remained missing Sunday and is presumed dead.
Fourteen members of the vessel’s 16-person crew were successfully rescued by Coast Guard helicopter from rubber lifeboats in the early morning hours of Oct. 29. Another crew member, Claudene Christian, 42, was plucked from the water in a survival suit but did not survive.
Samborski described a somber mood at the conference in Toronto, where folks initially clung to hope that Walbridge, who had been captain of the Bounty for 17 years, might yet be found alive.
“Everyone was very sad. Capt. Walbridge and the Bounty were such a part of the tall ship family,” Samborski said. “There was a tribute to the Bounty and her crew that left some of us with wet eyes at the conference.”
Samborski helped bring the Bounty to Duluth for the 2010 tall ship festival and was working to repeat the feat next year. During the ship’s previous visit, Samborski had come to know and respect Walbridge.
“The HMS Bounty was one of the stars of the tall ship fleet, both because of the beauty of the ship and its notoriety,” Samborski said.
The 180-foot wooden ship was built in 1960 for a film production of the 1962 film “Mutiny on the Bounty,” starring Marlon Brando.
It took 400,000 board feet of lumber to construct the vessel, which was fashioned after its historical predecessor, a British merchant ship that was roughly half its size.
After undergoing a multi-million-dollar restoration about 10 years ago, the ship also had been featured in several more recent films, including Pirates of the Caribbean, parts II and III.
While people in the outside world have puzzled and debated over Walbridge’s call to set sail rather than ride out the hurricane tied up in port, Samborski said no such questions were raised at the conference in Toronto.
“I certainly didn’t hear any of that,” he said. “If you’re not in the captain’s shoes, second-guessing his decisions and armchair quarterbacking is not a wise thing to do.”
No one responded to calls and messages left at the HMS Bounty Organization on Sunday.
Samborski described the tall ship community assembled in Toronto last week as a tight-knit group and said people generally reserved judgment on the wreck of the Bounty.
“In the conversations I had, there was a lot more discussion about sadness and loss, instead of anyone asking questions about why the captain did as he did,” he said.
But the U.S. Coast Guard has launched an investigation, and some of Walbridge’s peers are perplexed at the decision to sail.
Dan Moreland, captain of the Picton Castle, another tall ship, told Nova Scotia’s Chronicle Herald that he postponed leaving Lunenburg, Nova Scotia, because of the approach of Hurricane Sandy.
“It was an easy decision to make,” he said. “It’s black and white. There are no nuances with this. It’s a huge system, and that made the decision very simple.”
While Moreland told the Chronicle Herald that he knew Walbridge to be an experienced seaman, he acknowledged his shock at learning the captain decided to sail, despite the forecast.
“When I first heard the Bounty was out there, I thought, ‘You’ve got to be kidding,’” Moreland told the newspaper.
“I don’t understand this one at all,” he told the Chronicle Herald. “This is a huge system, there is no way of avoiding this, there’s no dodging and weaving around it.”
But Walbridge made a different call, leaving New London, Conn., on Oct. 25, en route to St. Petersburg, Fla.
A post on the Bounty’s Facebook page on Oct. 27 defended the decision, saying: “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 emergence of an August video interview with Walbridge, conducted by a community television station in Maine, also has stirred controversy. In it, the captain responded to questions about piloting the ship through violent seas with the following quip: “We say there’s no such thing as bad weather. There’s just different kinds of weather.”
Walbridge also asserted, “We chase hurricanes. You try to get as close to the eye as you can. You stay down in the southeast quadrant. When it stops, you stop. You don’t want to get in front of it. You want to stay behind it. But you also get a good ride out of a hurricane.”
Walbridge said he had guided the Bounty through 70-foot waves during one brush with a hurricane.
But the Bounty wasn’t able to ride out Hurricane Sandy. After losing power, its pumps were unable to keep up with water it continued to take on in the storm.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
Video of interview with Bounty captain: