PORTSMOUTH, Va. — The captain of the doomed replica sailing ship HMS Bounty twice rebuffed his chief mate’s desperate pleas to abandon ship as the vessel rolled and pitched in Hurricane Sandy’s fierce winds and 25-foot seas, the mate testified Tuesday.
When Capt. Robin Walbridge finally gave the order to abandon ship, the Bounty rolled over and tossed the crew into the Atlantic Ocean 90 miles off Cape Hatteras during the storm. Walbridge disappeared and is presumed dead.
One crew member drowned in the Oct. 29 sinking of the three-masted ship, which was built for the 1962 movie “Mutiny on the Bounty.” Fourteen crew members were rescued by the Coast Guard.
The chief mate, John E. Svendsen, told a Coast Guard hearing that Walbridge, 63, decided to set sail from a Connecticut port in what would be a disastrous attempt to “skirt the storm” and reach St. Petersburg, Fla. The captain sailed to Sandy’s southeast quadrant, hoping the hurricane’s powerful winds would blow the Bounty to safety.
“Robin said he had experience with hurricanes … and the ship was safer at sea,” Svendsen told the hearing’s opening session.
Even after Svendsen told the captain that winds near hurricane force were predicted for the route, he said, Walbridge assured him that “the ship was able to withstand that safely.”
After the ship’s main engine failed, two generators went dead and a fuel tank ruptured in the storm the night of Oct. 28, Svendsen said. He urged the captain to call the Coast Guard for help, but Walbridge refused, saying the crew should focus on restarting the generators.
A short time later, the captain relented. Svendsen said he stood on the deck, pounded by the storm, and relayed a distress call to the Coast Guard on a satellite phone as the ship took on dangerous amounts of water.
Much of the questioning of Svendsen focused on the captain’s intent. Coast Guard Cmdr. Kevin M. Carroll asked about a video interview in August in which Walbridge said: “We chase hurricanes. You try and get up as close to the eye of it as you can, and you stay down in the southeast quadrant.”
Svendsen said that although he never saw Walbridge “seeking out a storm,” the captain’s interview comments were “consistent with the way he approached hurricanes.” He emphasized that the captain would never intentionally put the ship or crew in harm’s way.
The Bounty left New London, Conn., on Oct. 25 as Sandy was pushing north, gathering strength. Svendsen said he reminded the captain that he had the option of staying in port. But Walbridge told him the ship had a better chance of avoiding major storm damage by sailing to Sandy’s more navigable eastern edge. He changed the original sailing plan, which had the Bounty taking a more direct route.
When some crew members objected to the new plan, Walbridge called a crew meeting and said members were free to leave the ship before it sailed “with no hard feelings,” Svendsen testified. No one left.
The hearing is expected to last eight days. It is investigating the cause of the sinking and “any act of misconduct, inattention to duty, negligence or willful violation of the law,” according to the Coast Guard.
Though the hearing is not a criminal proceeding, any evidence of misconduct could be referred to federal prosecutors. Witnesses testify under oath and may be questioned by lawyers for the ship’s owners and for the family of the dead crew member, Claudene Christian, 42, or others.
The Bounty’s owner, Robert Hansen, declined to testify, invoking his Fifth Amendment right, according to a letter his lawyer sent to the Coast Guard.
The ship is a replica of the 18th century HMS Bounty commanded by William Bligh, who was the target of a 1789 mutiny.
Svendsen, 41, described the ship’s final, frantic moments as the crew gathered on the storm-tossed deck wearing water-immersion suits and life vests. They were awaiting orders to board lifeboats when the ship rolled and dumped them into the Atlantic.
Svendsen said he managed to hold on to the ship’s mast, which had been bent nearly horizontal by the storm. At last he, too, was tossed into the water. With a broken hand and dislocated shoulder, he swam toward a strobe light from a hovering Coast Guard helicopter and was hoisted aboard.
When he last saw Walbridge, he said, the captain was wearing a life vest and making his way toward the lifeboats.
Distributed by MCT Information Services