PORTSMOUTH, Va. (AP) — A Coast Guard official testified on Thursday that the closest Navy ship to the HMS Bounty before it sank during Hurricane Sandy was about 260 miles away, highlighting just how isolated the tall ship was in the October superstorm.
“Because of the size of the storm, because of how large Sandy was, everybody got out of the way,” said Cmdr. James Mitchell, search and rescue mission coordinator for the Coast Guard’s North Carolina sector.
It isn’t uncommon for the Navy to send some of its ships that are in port out to sea before a storm strikes. It does so in order to reduce the risk of major damage to ships and piers during high winds and seas. But unlike the HMS Bounty, the Navy sent its high-tech warships built of steel out of Sandy’s path. The wooden Bounty, which had parts of its frame rotting, sailed directly into it.
One crew member died and the captain was never found after the 18th Century-replica ship rolled over and sank about 90 miles southeast of Cape Hatteras, N.C., in the early morning hours of Oct. 29.
The three-mast sailing ship was built for the 1962 film “Mutiny on the Bounty” starring Marlon Brando, and was featured in several other films over the years, including one of the “Pirates of the Caribbean” movies.
The Coast Guard and National Transportation Safety Board held a series of hearings in the past two weeks to determine what caused the ship to sink and the subsequent loss of life. The Coast Guard’s investigation, which could include possible recommendations for policy changes and referral of evidence to prosecutors, is expected to take several more months to complete.
Throughout the hearings, there has been testimony that Capt. Robin Walbridge believed a ship was safer at sea than in a port during a hurricane. It was a sentiment echoed on the ship’s official Facebook page during the storm, which was updated from Illinois by the father of one of the crew members.
“I’ve tried to find one person who will say a ship is safer at sea. I can’t do it,” said Cmdr. Kevin Carroll, the Coast Guard’s lead investigator into the sinking.
After leaving New London, Conn., on Oct. 25 for St. Petersburg, Fla., Walbridge decided to head on a southeastern track to allow the storm to pick its path. The next day was described as one filled with pleasant weather. But the following day things changed, and it was evident the crew was headed for bad weather as wind picked up and the seas got rougher.
With conditions continually worsening, Chief Mate John Svendsen testified that Walbridge overruled him when he suggested that the Bounty seek safe harbor in Bermuda to ride the storm out. Instead, Walbridge decided to head west toward Cape Hatteras. That would take the Bounty, which was taking on water and having problems with its bilge pumps, directly in the path of the storm. Crew members testified he did so in hopes of finding more favorable winds and slipping by the storm as it headed north.
But with the ship taking on water, its generators failing and its engines no longer working, the Bounty couldn’t cut across fast enough and had to alert the Coast Guard that it might need to abandon ship.
“It was our opinion,” Mitchell said, “that perhaps that the Bounty didn’t know the situation they were getting themselves into.”
The Bounty had hoped to make an orderly exit off the ship once daylight hit to allow Coast Guard helicopters and ships to safely find them after most of the storm had passed. But with everyone on deck as the water rose within the ship, a large wave hit the Bounty and tossed everyone into the sea.
The 14 surviving crew members were rescued by a team of Coast Guard helicopter pilots, hoist operators and swimmers within hours after a Coast Guard plane that had been circling the area to serve as a communications bridge spotted the ship turned over.
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