A Legendary Ship’s Final Hours Battling Sandy

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by Marc Hujer and Samiha Shafy Spiegel Online

As Hurricane Sandy approached the East Coast in late October, Captain Robin Walbridge wanted to save his ship, the legendary Bounty. He set out to sea to ride out the storm – a decision which ended in disaster. He lost the ship, a crewmember and his own life. (Photo: Tim Kukl/ U.S. Coast Guard)

It was still a mild fall day in New London, Connecticut, when Captain Robin Walbridge stepped on deck to prepare his crew for the possibility of dying. It was 5 p.m. on Thursday, Oct. 25.

About 1,200 nautical miles to the south, Hurricane Sandy, billed as the storm of the century, was making its way northward from Cuba. With wind speeds of more than 100 miles per hour (165 kilometers per hour), the storm was rushing across the ocean, headed for the east coast of the United States. At least 70 people had already died in the Caribbean, after being drowned, buried alive or struck with debris.

Captain Walbridge had a decision to make. He could leave the ship, the Bounty, in the harbor at New London, where it would be tossed back and forth by the storm and would presumably sustain serious damage. Or he could try to save the ship by taking it out into the Atlantic, thereby putting his life and the lives of his 15 crewmembers on the line.

Walbridge wanted to save his ship. A ship versus 16 human lives. How can such a decision be explained?

It wasn’t just any ship that he had under his command. Walbridge was the captain of the Bounty, a replica of the most famous sailing vessel in seafaring history, and a treasure of the Hollywood world. Legendary films like Mutiny on the Bounty, starring Marlon Brando, and Pirates of the Caribbean, with Johnny Depp, had been made on board the Bounty. A legend like that can’t just be left at the mercy of the weather.

While Captain Walbridge stood on deck, the US weather services were monitoring the hurricane as it became larger and more powerful on its way north. The media had dubbed it "Superstorm Sandy" and were calling it a "Frankenstorm," one that would be even more devastating than the so-called "perfect storm" of 1991. Coast Guard pilots flew over the shipping routes along the coast, sending radio messages to all ships to move to safety.

Levelheaded and Patient

At the Coast Guard base in Elizabeth City, North Carolina, pilot Mike Myers, 36, prepared for a catastrophe. He filled the tanks of his aircraft, checked equipment, and studied weather maps and forecasts. He also put together a plan: Once wind speeds along the coast reached 25 knots (46 kilometers per hour), he and his crew would board their plane, a Lockheed C-130 Hercules, and fly it inland to Raleigh, so that they would be able to take off in the event of an emergency.

Captain Walbridge was 63, a quiet, contemplative man with thinning gray hair and glasses. He had stood at the helm of the Bounty for 17 years, and it was hard to say whether he was more in love with the ship or his wife, although he did spend most of his time on the ship. The crew changed, and so did its owners, but Walbridge remained.

People who have sailed across the world’s oceans with Walbridge praise him for his modesty, levelheadedness and patience. He taught young people how to sail, and he took disabled children out to sea.

But there must have been another Captain Walbridge, one who overestimated himself and his ship, and who felt invincible after all those years at sea. In one interview, he talked about "chasing" hurricanes. It was important not to sail in front of a hurricane, but to stay behind it, in the southeastern quadrant, in which case it would make for a smooth ride, he said. He had sailed through 20-meter (66-foot) waves that way, Walbridge said – not exactly the words of a cautious captain.

When he stood on deck that afternoon, he wasn’t just speaking as a captain, but perhaps also as an underling. He knew that the owner of the Bounty, a New York businessman, wanted to sell the ship for $4.6 million (€3.55 million). There was no official buyer yet, but when a ship is worth that much money, you don’t just leave it at the mercy of the elements.

Walbridge began his address to the crew with the words: "If anybody wants to get off the boat now, I won’t hold it against you."

Not Much Time To Think

Then he explained his plan. He didn’t want to spend the night in the harbor, as planned, but instead intended to set sail immediately, and to get the ship as far offshore as possible, in an easterly direction, before the hurricane could catch up with them. They would monitor the weather en route and adjust their course accordingly. The destination was St. Petersburg, Florida, the last stage in the current tour before the ship was to be taken to its winter moorage site in Galveston, Texas.

This account is from those who accompanied the captain on the journey. Their memories were used to reconstruct the ship’s duel with the forces of the sea, a duel that began as a daring exploit and ended in catastrophe.

"I know that some of you all have been getting e-mails and phone calls regarding the hurricane," Walbridge told his crew as he stood on the deck. Then he said that the ship would be safer out at sea than in port.

The youngest member of Walbridge’s 15-member crew was 20, the oldest was 66. Some were experienced sailors, while others were on board a sailing ship for the first time.

Chris Barksdale, 56, the ship’s engineer, didn’t know what the captain was talking about. Barksdale is a quiet man with a broad face, gray temples and metal-rimmed glasses. He had sailed a few times before, but he had never been responsible for the engine room of such a large ship. When its sails were lowered, the Bounty was propelled by two diesel engines. At home in Nellysford, Virginia, Barksdale worked as a handyman. He was divorced, and he no longer had parents who could worry about him. He had also had few conversations with the other crewmembers, which is why he hadn’t even heard that a storm was approaching.

There wasn’t much time left to think about it and Barksdale hesitated for but a moment. If he wanted to go on land, he would have had to go into the cabin immediately to pack his things. The thought of it felt like betraying the crew, which had become like a family to him.

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