Capt. Robin Walbridge stood on the deck of the 180-foot wooden sailing ship HMS Bounty on the sunny afternoon of Oct. 25. The wind was so mild that the ship had motored back to harbor after a short sail. The Bounty was tied to a city pier in New London, Conn.
Walbridge told a small group that the Bounty would be leaving for St. Petersburg, Fla., that night instead of the next morning. He wanted to get a jump on a massive weather system coming from the south that forecasters were calling “historic” and that one already had dubbed “Frankenstorm.”
The National Weather Service’s marine forecast for the area described the coming confluence of systems: “HIGH PRESSURE MOVES OFFSHORE ON FRIDAY AS A COLD FRONT APPROACHES FROM THE WEST. A COASTAL STORM ASSOCIATED WITH TROPICAL CYCLONE SANDY MAY IMPACT THE AREA LATE IN THE WEEKEND AND INTO EARLY NEXT WEEK.”
Walbridge formed a circle with his thumbs and index fingers, and told listeners to look at his right thumb. It represented the southeastern section of the hurricane.
“He said he wanted to get to the southeast quadrant and ride the storm out,” said New London Dockmaster Barbara Neff. No one raised objections.
“He was a great captain,” said Neff, who’s known Walbridge for 15 years. “He knew that boat. I just don’t know that anyone would have questioned him.”
The Bounty left New London about 5 p.m. on Thursday, Oct. 25, crossed Long Island Sound and headed into the Atlantic Ocean. Its crew of 16 ranged in age from 20 to 66.
The report from the National Hurricane Center for that hour said: “SANDY NEAR CAT ISLAND IN THE CENTRAL BAHAMAS … WIND FIELD EXPANDING.”
While people may have been reluctant to question Walbridge’s plan, that’s not true today. A debate is raging about his decision to go to sea with a monster storm looming. At least three tall-sailing-ship captains have said they would not have tried that passage with Sandy barreling northward.
The Bounty, built for the 1962 movie “Mutiny on the Bounty,” went down early Monday about 90 miles off Cape Hatteras, in a treacherous and unpredictable area known as the “Graveyard of the Atlantic,” where the cold Labrador Current mixes with the warm water of the Gulf Stream. The Coast Guard rescued 14 of the 16 people aboard from 18-foot seas.
Crew member Claudene Christian was found unresponsive 10 hours later, floating in the ocean in a survival suit, but she died later.
Walbridge, 63, still has not been found. The Coast Guard called off the search Thursday night and has ordered an investigation into what happened.
Walbridge’s friends and former crew members described him as a skilled captain who had a good plan that didn’t work because of mechanical problems. The ship lost power, which meant it had no propulsion and could not pump out water, according to the vessel’s website.
The surviving crew members have not publicly detailed what happened.
“There are a lot of armchair sailors saying, ‘What the hell was he doing out there?’?” said Richard Bailey, a captain who worked with Walbridge and has known him for more than 20 years.
“He had a strategy,” Bailey said. “Aside from being dead, it makes great sense. I think a professional examination will say it was a good strategy, but it didn’t take into account a complete and utter loss of power.”
As they watched the ship’s route online, some onshore began to question the decision to go to sea even before the Bounty got into trouble.
The administrator of the Bounty’s Facebook page on Saturday, Oct. 27, defended it.
“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 next day came what appears to be the only direct message from Walbridge, posted by the administrator on the Facebook page.
“I think we are going to be into this for several days, the weather looks like even after the eye goes by it will linger for a couple of days.
“We are just going to try to go fast and squeese by the storm and land as fast as we can.”
Bailey said he considers Walbridge a “mechanical genius” and was surprised to hear of the ship’s power failure. He said he watched Walbridge perform a complex engine repair in 48 hours, which included working through a language barrier while obtaining specialized parts in a foreign port.
He said Walbridge got his start on the Bounty in the mid-1990s, when the ship’s owner hired him to watch over it for two weeks while it was docked in Wilmington, Del.
One night, some guys came out of a bar and cast off most of the Bounty’s dock lines. Somehow, Walbridge, who was aboard, managed single-handedly to overcome a swift current, turn the ship around and get it tied up again. He became the Bounty’s captain in 1995.
The first sentence of his biography on the Bounty’s website says: “According to Captain Robin Walbridge, Bounty has no boundaries. As her captain, he is well known for his ability and desire to take Bounty to places that no ship has gone before.”
In an interview this summer in Maine on a public access TV show, Walbridge said he chases hurricanes and downplayed the danger of bad weather.
Interviewer: “Have you ever run into some pretty nasty weather while at sea?”
Walbridge: “Um, actually I’m going to answer that with a ‘no.’?”
Walbridge: “Yeah, um, we say there’s no such thing as bad weather. There’s just different kinds of weather.”
Interviewer: “OK, I won’t say bad weather. Have you run into stormy seas?”
Walbridge: “Um, have we run into stormy seas? Uh, we chase hurricanes.”
Interviewer: (laughs) “All right, what’s it like when you’re chasing hurricanes?”
Walbridge: “You try to get up as close to the eye of it as you can and you stay down in the southeast quadrant, and when it stops, you stop.”
Walbridge went on to say that the Bounty’s engine is “probably way underpowered for this size of boat. … We sail as much as we can. We just use the engines to get in and out of tight harbors.”
Steven Schonwald, a Bounty crew member for 10 years, said he’d never heard Walbridge talk about chasing hurricanes. He described the captain as a calm leader who took every opportunity he could to teach seamanship.
“Robin came across as a very warm and welcoming presence,” Schonwald said. “He wasn’t distant. He wasn’t the type of guy who shouted orders at everybody. He was always teaching you something. He was the kind of guy you felt very comfortable with as a leader.”
He said he’d been through several storms with Walbridge.
“I’ve seen him in action,” he said. “Robin had good sense of where to be and what to do. He was not a frivolous man. He did not play with anybody’s lives.
“If I’d been in New London and he said, ‘We’re going to do this. We’re going to sea.’ I would have been with him.
(c)2012 The Virginian-Pilot (Norfolk, Va.)
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