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Report: Risk-taking and inexperience sank tall ship Bounty

Jun. 19, 2014 - 06:00AM   |  
Hurricane Sandy Bears Down On U.S. Mid-Atlantic Co
The tall ship HMS Bounty sank Oct. 29 about 90 miles southeast of Hatteras, North Carolina. Two crew members died. (Coast Guard via Getty Images)
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There are many reasons the tall ship HMS Bounty, made famous in the 1962 seafaring classic “Mutiny on the Bounty,” sank off the coast of North Carolina in 2012. Chief among them, according to a Coast Guard investigation: the captain’s decision to sail into a well-forecast hurricane.

The attraction ship took on 10 feet of water on Oct. 29, 2012, more than 100 miles offshore in what became a high-stakes rescue mission as Hurricane Sandy plowed into the East Coast. Coast Guard helicopters from Elizabeth City, North Carolina, rescued 14 crew members and found the body of a 15th; the captain remains lost at sea.

The investigator found that excessive risk-taking, on top of the HMS Bounty’s worn-out condition and the crew’s inexperience with harsh weather, were to blame for the tragedy.

“Failure to adequately assess these conditions when making operational decisions, which are magnified in an operating environment that is significantly more hazardous than normal such as an inbound hurricane or major storm, can have disastrous results,” Capt. Jonathan Burton, the Coast Guard’s director of inspections and compliance, wrote in his endorsement of the report, which was released June 12.

The 93-page report opens a porthole into the ship’s final days, with new details about the captain’s decision to sail into the gathering storm and the repercussions of that fateful choice.

The official report also concluded that HMS Bounty’s official designation as a recreational vessel was misclassified. From the way the 108-long tall ship sailed on the open ocean, it should have qualified as a small passenger or sailing school vessel, which must meet higher safety standards.

The ship, originally built for “Mutiny on the Bounty,” had been operating as an educational attraction, welcoming tourists aboard at its home port in Greenport, New York, and traveling for events since 1993.

Bounty's last days

It had been three days since the 108-foot ship, a replica of the 18th century Royal Navy ship of the same name, set sail on Oct. 25, 2012, from New London, Connecticut, for an event in St. Petersburg, Florida. Hurricane Sandy had reached full force just one day earlier, 125 miles from the Bahamas and heading north toward the East Coast.

The vessel’s leaders were monitoring the storm, according to the report, so ship captain Robin Waldridge called a meeting to explain his plan before shoving off.

“The plan was to sail out to the east to monitor the track of the hurricane, and then to choose what course to take, as he believed that, during a storm, a ship was safer at sea than in port,” Cmdr. Kevin Carroll, the lead investigator, wrote in his summary.

Waldridge gave his crew the opportunity to leave if they weren’t comfortable with his plan, Carroll wrote. None took it.

Two days into the trip, forecasts predicted Hurricane Sandy would turn west and hit New Jersey. However, Waldridge decided to alter Bounty’s course from east-southeastto southwest, putting it directly in the storm’s path, the investigation found.

Higher seas streamed into the ship’s hold on the new course. Electrical power flickered. With the hydraulic pumps unable to keep up with the flooding, Waldridge made a plan with the local Coast Guard to abandon ship at daylight on Oct. 29. But Bounty nearly capsized around 4:30 a.m., forcing an early evacuation into 25-foot life rafts.

Fourteen of the 16 crew members were recovered by Coast Guard search-and-rescue personnel. Deckhand Claudene Christian did not survive the evacuation, and Waldridge was lost at sea.

Aviation Safety Technician 2nd Class Randy Haba and AST3 Daniel Todd each received the Distinguished Flying Cross for rescuing the crew in 18-foot seas as 40 mph winds swirled around them.

In the aftermath of the sinking, the Coast Guard and the National Transportation Safety Board held two weeks of hearings in 2013 to get to the bottom of the sinking. In addition to risk-management issues and the failure of the water pumps, crew members testified that Bounty’s hull was sealed with a hardware-store products, rather than the marine-grade sealant used on ships meant for the open water.

An NTSB report noted the wooden vessel took on water even in good conditions, according to The Associated Press. Additionally, shipyard workers who had repaired Bounty testified the vessel had a decaying frame before leaving port weeks before it sank.

In the Coast Guard investigation, Carroll wrote that because the HMS Bounty Organization — the ship’s owner — chose to register the ship as an attraction vessel, the Coast Guard inspected it as a pierside tourist attraction, rather than checking load-line standards and stability as it would for seagoing vessels.

While the Coast Guard’s report put the deceased Waldridge ultimately at fault, it recommended that the commandant review policy on inspecting recreational vessels.

“While it may have made little difference in the ultimate outcome of the Bounty tragedy given the overriding issues of poor risk application, the Coast Guard should examine if legislative, regulatory or policy changes are needed so that other vessels like the Bounty are maintained and operated in a safe manner,” the report said.

Burton also recommended that, in the unlikely event the HMS Bounty Organization buys a new ship, the organization should adhere to a policy of operating based on expert consensus when sea conditions are dangerous, as well as hire a professional engineer to deal with problems on board.

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