Federal investigators say a “reckless decision” by its captain to sail into Hurricane Sandy in 2012 was to blame for the sinking of the Bounty, a wooden tall ship that had been docked in Boothbay Harbor only weeks earlier.
The National Transportation Safety Board on Monday released its 16-page report on the accident off the coast of North Carolina that killed one crew member, Claudene Christian, 42, and presumably killed the ship’s longtime captain, Robin Walbridge, 63, whose body was never found. Fourteen others on board survived. Three of them were seriously injured.
The NTSB, which relied on dozens of interviews with crew members and others over the span of several months, concluded that the probable cause of the sinking was Walbridge’s “reckless decision to sail into the well-forecasted path of Hurricane Sandy, which subjected the aging vessel and the inexperienced crew to conditions from which the vessel could not recover.”
The report details how the crew, dealing with injuries, seasickness and fatigue, struggled to keep the ship’s engines running and bilge pumps operating as it sailed into 100 mph winds off Cape Hatteras.
On Oct. 29, 2012, four days after leaving New London, Conn., the Bounty began to sink. Everyone was tossed overboard, and most of them were rescued by Coast Guard helicopter crews that flew directly into the storm.
In addition to Walbridge’s decision to keep going despite storm warnings, the report cites factors including incomplete or substandard maintenance and repairs done to the ship at the Boothbay Harbor Shipyard beginning on Sept. 17, 2012.
The report says crew members who were assigned to repair the ship, specifically to caulk and re-seam a wooden hull that had rotted, were not experienced and didn’t do enough to ensure that the ship was safe. Crew members were instructed to paint over some areas of the rotted hull, rather than replace the wood. In other areas, the crew used a silicone sealant that was marketed for household use.
“Overall in terms of experience, 10 of the Bounty’s crew members had worked less than six months on board the vessel. Nine of them had never worked on board any tall ship other than the Bounty. Only the captain and four crew members had more than two years’ experience on board tall ships,” the report says. “Most of the crew members were also inexperienced in the technique of caulking and re-seaming a wooden hull. A couple of them had prior experience doing so, and they taught the newer crew members.”
Although some employees were hired in Maine to work on the Bounty, most of the repairs and maintenance before the voyage were done by crew members at Walbridge’s direction, the report says. The Maine shipyard has never been implicated in any wrongdoing.
Eric Graves, president of Boothbay Harbor Shipyard, said he had not read the report Monday. He did not return phone calls or emails seeking comment after being sent a copy of the report.
The Bounty was built in 1960 for the movie “Mutiny on the Bounty,” starring Marlon Brando, and appeared in several other Hollywood movies over the years, including one of the “Pirates of the Caribbean” movies.
The 108-foot-long, three-masted ship was a replica of the 18th-century British ship HMS Bounty, which was captained by William Bligh before mutinous crew members took control and sent Bligh and his loyalists sailing away in a small boat.
“Although this wooden ship was modeled after an 18th century vessel, the captain had access to 21st century hurricane modeling tools that predicted the path and severity of Hurricane Sandy,” NTSB Chairman Deborah A.P. Hersman said in the report. “The Bounty’s crew was put into an extraordinarily hazardous situation through decisions that by any measure didn’t prioritize safety.”
Christian’s family has filed a wrongful-death lawsuit against the ship’s owner, Robert Hansen, for $90 million. Hansen has declined to talk to media while that lawsuit is pending. He also did not testify during Coast Guard hearings last year.
Eric Russell can be contacted at 791-6344 or at: