PORTSMOUTH, Va. — Chris Barksdale still can recall how the waves crashed into the HMS Bounty, sending crew members flying.
He can see the engine room filling with water from the deck overhead before the tall ship’s fatal Oct. 29 sinking.
“The water kept coming in and getting deeper,” Barksdale, of Nellysford, said at the Coast Guard’s hearing in Portsmouth on Monday.
The hearing is intended to prevent similar incidents and investigate the cause of the ship’s sinking, which left two crew members dead, including Captain Robin Walbridge, whose body was never found. The National Transportation Safety Board also is using the hearing to conduct its own investigation.
The hearing began last Tuesday and featured testimony from more than a dozen people who worked with or on the ship. It is expected to end Thursday.
Barksdale was the fifth crew member to testify.
Although the timeline is a little fuzzy, Barksdale spent 2½ hours recounting his time on the Bounty, which was built for the 1962 film “Mutiny on the Bounty.”
The 18th century replica ship sank 90 miles off the coast of Hatteras, N.C. when it crossed paths with Hurricane Sandy, throwing its 16-member crew into the Atlantic Ocean.
Barksdale was the sole engineer on board, making him responsible for the operations in the engine room, including maintaining the engines, generators and electrical systems. He would ensure the day tanks — smaller fuel tanks used to power the engines — were filled from the main fuel tanks on board. His first task was installing the new water and fuel lines, a necessity as some pipes were old and the tanks had been relocated.
The position of engineer in general has come under scrutiny during the hearing, causing investigators to question what level of certification and experience should be required.
Barksdale was questioned about the same amount as crew members who testified before him in regards to qualifications. He said he does not have an engineering degree or credentials, nor does he have a Merchant Mariners credential. However, he has experience in 20-foot seas and has worked on ships, including his time with the Nature Conservancy where he worked with Bounty’s Chief Mate John Svendsen, who asked Barksdale to join the crew in September.
Barksdale said he was trying to get more sea hours so he could get his license.
“I can’t remember, even at a young age, not being on the water,” he said.
When Barksdale came on board in Maine, he was unable to find extensive records on maintenance done by the previous engineer. He wanted to spend a week cleaning the machines but instead spent his first few days with the crew making repairs to the ship.
“All of the engines looked like they had a few hours on them,” he said. “They just looked old.”
While on board, Barksdale familiarized himself with the machinery and developed an understanding of the manual. He also was given a safety course and underwent a man overboard drill. Crewmembers showed him how to operate the electric pumps, used to get water out of the ship, even though the pumps fell under others’ responsibilities.
Barksdale said he felt comfortable leaving port and well oriented with his training.
During the trip from Maine to New London, Conn. — the Bounty’s last stop before it sank — a crew member raised concern that the ship’s bilge dewatering system was not working properly. Since Barksdale did not have much experience with that system, he had difficulty gauging the normalcy of the water and referred it to Walbridge, who considered it fine. The concern wasn’t brought up again.
It also was discovered the ship did not have the proper filters for the generator, which meant Barksdale had to change them more frequently to prevent fuel clogs. By changing the filters every day and a half, the tanks had little contamination.
“I was trying to be pretty vigilant about that,” he said.
Just before leaving New London for Florida, Walbridge called the crew on deck to tell them of the approaching storm and offer the chance to leave.
Barksdale said he briefly considered it, but decided to stay because of his confidence in the crew and the captain. He described Walbridge as a knowledgeable, hands-on man.
“It was my impression that he wanted to know what was going on with every aspect of the vessel,” Barksdale said.
Throughout the voyage, Walbridge ordered Barksdale to primarily run one generator, stopping it briefly for filter changes and to check fluid levels. Normally, a ship will alternate generators in even increments, for example, a week at a time. Barksdale said Walbridge’s rationale was to reduce the possibility of both generators breaking down in the Atlantic from too much wear.
The waters became increasingly choppy as the ship traveled south from Connecticut.
Barksdale said the ship seemed to be running fine, even in the rough waters until the morning of Oct. 28. It was then he noticed the engine room was taking on “significant” water.
“As the morning went on, it became clear to me that we were taking on more water than we were pumping out through the bilges,” he said.
The choppy waters, the 100-degree engine room and Barksdale’s seasickness made it difficult for him to stay in the room for more than 15 minutes at a time. Barksdale said he had been seasick only once as boy despite his numerous times at sea.
Other crew members helped in the engine room while he rehydrated and helped Walbridge reassemble the portable hydraulic pump after it had been inspected for clogs.
“It was a group effort trying to keep this going,” Barksdale said.
Both engines were running until late afternoon when Barksdale noticed one of the day tanks broke, disabling an engine.
Later in the day, the captain ordered all nonessential electronics to be shut down. Shortly after, the ship lost power.
Barksdale and other crewmembers tried to get the gas-powered pump working properly to help get rid of the water. Their attempts were unsuccessful.
The Coast Guard had been contacted.
“It was my understanding we were going to remain calm but prepare for the worst,” Barksdale said.
As the incident progressed, the crew donned their immersion suits and began packing dry bags with food and water. They were ordered to the main deck for a controlled evacuation, but as they prepared to descend, a wave hit the ship, sending the crew into the water.
After an immeasurable time in the water and the inflatable life rafts, the Coast Guard rescued the crew in the morning.
“If we had stayed on the tween deck when the ship heaved over, we would have drowned,” Barksdale said.
Distributed by MCT Information Services