HMS BOUNTY: Many Unanswered Questions

Rescuing Bounty survivors

SAY WHAT??? Has my esteemed SAILfeed colleague, the mysterious Mariner, been spending too much time sniffing go-juice fumes? I eagerly dove into his post yesterday, in which he hailed and linked to “the first detailed journalistic account” of the loss of HMS Bounty, but was sorely disappointed by what I found. The account in question, currently bouncing around the Internet in various (often unattributed) iterations, was originally published by Spiegel Online and is barely coherent in places and doesn’t even pretend to address some of the biggest questions raised by the tragedy.

Right at the top of the story, its authors, Marc Hujer and Samiha Shafy, totally buy into the canard that as Hurricane Sandy approached the U.S. East Coast in late October Bounty‘s skipper, Robin Walbridge, was confronted with a stark choice between staying in New London, Connecticut, where the ship “would presumably sustain serious damage,” or putting to sea “thereby putting his life and the lives of his 15 crewmembers on the line.” They do not question whether Bounty would in fact have been at risk staying tied up in New London. Nor do they ask why Bounty could not have gone to sea and sailed north, away from the storm, where she would certainly suffer no harm, instead of south toward the storm.

Did anyone in the crew ask these questions??? Apparently not. According to Hujer and Shafy, Walbridge briefed the crew prior to their departure on Thursday October 25 (after first inviting anyone who wanted to leave the ship) and told them he planned “to get the ship as far offshore as possible, in an easterly direction.”

But the ship never really headed east; instead it sailed almost due south. Hujer and Shafy do note that Walbridge’s heading on leaving New London was south-southeast, but they assert that he hoped “the storm would soon turn to the west.” And they do not ask if this was a reasonable expectation.

Spiegel map for Bounty story

Map of Bounty‘s course and Sandy’s path, as published by Spiegel Online

Bounty AIS track

Bounty‘s actual AIS track

In their account they make it seem that Sandy’s S-shaped route up the coast, heading first northwest, then northeast, then northwest again, took Walbridge by surprise. They fail to note that on the day Bounty left New London this is in fact exactly what the storm was forecast to do.

Wunderground track for Sandy

Weather Underground’s projected track for Sandy on October 25, the day of Bounty‘s departure

What the heck was Walbridge really thinking? Even if he hoped the forecast might be wrong, he must have assumed there was a good chance it would be right. Did he hope to make much more easting on his way south? Did he have a reasonable chance of doing so? Hujer and Shafy imply that when Walbridge decided to turn southwest on Saturday October 27, he was doing so only in reaction to the storm’s unexpectedly turning northeast toward him. But he must have anticipated this, and whatever he was thinking, by then he had no other options. The wind was out of the east, and he had to bear away in hopes getting west to the weaker “safe” side of the storm before it reached his latitude.

Hurricane Sandy

Satellite photo of Sandy on October 28, the day Bounty sank. Both Capt. Walbridge and crew member Claudene Christian were lost with the ship

Robin Walbridge

Capt. Robin Walbridge at Bounty‘s helm

Hujer and Shafy do point out that Walbridge apparently had a cavalier attitude to heavy weather and in one interview had bragged about “chasing” hurricanes.

You can watch that interview, conducted little more than two months before the tragedy, and draw your own conclusions. The discussion of weather begins at 10:30. My sense of it, personally, is that Walbridge is probably posturing a bit for the camera, but some part of him probably did believe what he was saying.

Hujer and Shafy also point out that Bounty was for sale for $4.6 million and raise the question of whether this fact drove the decision to set sail into the storm. Their pet premise, again, is that Walbridge was forced to make a tragic choice between the safety of his ship and the safety of his crew, but this is absurd on its face. There is no way he could endanger his crew by sailing into a hurricane without also endangering his ship.

The real question, which is never asked anywhere in this story, is whether Bounty and her crew were victims of their schedule. Bounty had a date to keep in St. Petersburg, Florida, and my very first guess would be that this is what really drove the decision to sail south into the storm.

Did Bounty‘s owner insist she sail south over Walbridge’s objections? Did Walbridge simply take it for granted he had to keep to his schedule? Did anyone in the organization ever raise the question of whether it was really necessary to get to Florida on time? Was the date in Florida a paying gig? (I’ve heard it was, but have no confirmation of this.)

These and similar questions are all worth asking, and one man in particular, Bounty‘s owner, almost certainly has some answers. Hujer and Shafy, however, don’t even identify the guy, referring to him only as a “New York businessman,” and evidently never talked to him.

His name is Bob Hansen, and he did give an interview shortly after Bounty was lost, which you can watch here. No hardball questions. Just soft stuff, unfortunately. But the key point Hansen makes is that he doesn’t believe it was the storm that sank the ship, as Bounty had been through worse weather before. “Something else went wrong,” he says.

Bob Hansen, owner of Bounty

Bob Hansen, owner of Bounty

What might that be? Hujer and Shafy should be able to shed some light on this, as they obviously spent some time interviewing Bounty‘s engineer, Chris Barksdale. Unfortunately, they haven’t come up with a very coherent account of what went on in Bounty‘s engine room. Evidently one generator was offline for maintenance and the other, thanks to a broken fuel gauge, ran out of fuel. Presumably there was more fuel (the gauge was on the day tank). Barksdale did keep one generator running (we don’t know which one), but it started faltering (a fuel problem?) and the bilge pumps got clogged. There is no discussion of why they couldn’t be cleared and no discussion of the ship’s engines and why they couldn’t power the pumps.

Chris Barksdale

Chris Barksdale, Bounty‘s engineer (Photo by Pat Jarrett/Polaris)

There’s also no discussion at all of why the ship was leaking so badly in the first place. Was this normal in heavy weather? Was Bounty always at the mercy of her pumps when things got rough? Or was there an unusual leak of some sort??? (UPDATE: Check my more recent post here for more on these questions!)

We have no answers.

Hopefully the Coast Guard may provide some when they finish up their investigation.

(The photo up top, by the USCG, is of Bounty‘s survivors being rescued the day she sank.)

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3 Responses
  1. First off I would not have volunteered to go south on the Bounty in the first place, which was folly. Further up river in New London the ship wold have been fine I am sure and even if the ship had been damaged a little at least no one would have died. Logic would have told me if I was going to get out of Dodge that i would have headed north to say Halifax, NS. I am sure more stuff will unfold as time goes on. I know they had an appointment in Florida and it seems at this point that the skipper was under pressure to make this. I am sure we will all be waiting with some anticipation for the board of inquiry.

  2. Charlie

    @Mark: I don’t think they needed to go as far as Halifax. Just getting north of Cape Cod would have done it. In Boston or Gloucester, or even laying on a couple of anchors in P-town they would have been fine. charlie

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