Drama at Sea: The Final Hours on the HMS Bounty

A cowboy captain sails an iconic tall ship into a hurricane—with deadly results.

By Nick Heil
HMS bounty sinking

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The urgent message crackled over the intercom on board the Coast Guard plane, still circling above. The plane’s radio operator repeatedly called back but received no reply. McIntosh flew down again toward the water. He could see the Bounty foundering and lights in the water: the strobes attached to the survival suits.

The flight crew called sector command, informing them that the Bounty’s crew had abandoned the sinking ship. The situation was now most critical, though the full extent was unknown. Were there survivors? Was anyone still on board, trapped below?

McIntosh circled again, though the plane was running urgently low on fuel. Despite their battered, airsick condition, the crew, clipped into safety harnesses, opened the rear door and dropped two rafts down into the hammering wind. They could only hope they would land close enough to the ship to be of use.

No sooner had they deployed the rafts than the aircraft’s fuel light flashed on the dash, indicating they had to head back to base right away. McIntosh veered away from ship while his radio operator continued to try to hail the Bounty. There was no response.

Treading in frothing water, John Svendsen floated amid the wreckage next to the ship. The Bounty was lost, and he needed to get away from the sinking carcass as fast as possible.

The water surrounding the ship was now a deadly mess of rigging, loose boards, and detritus from the ship. With each wave pulse, the masts would lurch back up to 45 degrees. Then they would crash back into the water, sink under the surface, and repeat the cycle. Adam Prokosh later described the wrecked ship as “moving fast, up and down, like a fishing bobber.”

In the chaos, deckhand Josh Scornavacchi, 28, grabbed hold of a mast as it rose out of the water. As he was carried above the water he heard a voice tell him to jump, and he did. He is certain the move saved his life. Later, no one else would recall witnessing the incident or yelling such a command.

The entire crew was now in the water, swimming and thrashing amid the huge swells and breaking waves. As the ship slowly sank, she pulled everything around her down with her, so the only safe course was to try to get away from the wreck. The emergency suits made every maneuver difficult. Water leaked inside and filled the boots, weighting them down. Dan Cleveland reached out to grab a raft that was floating past him, but he couldn’t reach it. The built-in gloves had no grip, so the safety line attached to the rafts slid right through the palm.

Not far away, second mate Matt Saunders, 37, clung to a wooden grate with six other survivors. One of the Coast Guard rafts drifted nearby, but they couldn’t catch it. Soon, however, they found one of the life raft canisters and inflated it. It looked like a large kiddie pool with a tent over it. They clambered inside, pushing and pulling one another till they were all aboard.

Six more crew members sat inside a second raft. Meanwhile, first mate John Svendsen was drifting out to sea, clinging to a floating signal beacon. Later, he would credit Walbridge for saving his life; it was the captain’s idea to pack the buoys as standard equipment. But where was Walbridge himself? And where was Claudene Christian, last seen on deck as the ship tipped into the sea?

With no way to communicate, neither raft, nor Svendsen, alone out in the waves, knew the fate of their shipmates. At last, four Coast Guard helicopters arrived on the scene, the sound of the propellers echoing above the din of the storm.

Dawn’s light filtered into the eastern sky as Coast Guard rescue swimmer Randy Haba was lowered from a hovering chopper into the towering waves. After a short swim, he reached Svendsen, who had now drifted a half mile from the wreckage. The first mate was battered and exhausted; he’d smashed his right hand on the ship, rendering it useless. He had also involuntarily gulped down a dangerous amount of seawater, polluted with diesel fuel.

Haba slung Svendsen into a harness and got him safely on board the chopper. Then the rescue crew moved to the first raft, the one containing Saunders and company. The Bounty survivors had heard the rotors above and realized help was at hand. But it was still a shock when Haba’s head popped through the raft door.

“I bet you guys are ready to get out of here,” said the swimmer, flashing them a smile.

It was dicey getting the remaining survivors on board the helicopter. At one point, Haba got smacked hard by a breaking wave that ripped his goggles and snorkel away. “In 15 years, that’s never happened before,” he said later. “It was huge out there.” As Haba worked with the first raft, a second rescue swimmer, Dan Todd, helped survivors from the other raft on board a second helicopter.

In all, 14 survivors—Adam Prokosh, Doug Faunt, John Jones, Jessica Black, Mark Warner, Josh Scornavacchi, Chris Barksdale, Jessica Hewitt, Laura Groves, Drew Salapatek, Anna Sprague, Dan Cleaveland, Matt Saunders, and John Svendsen, ranging in age from 20 to 66, staggered off the choppers onto the tarmac at the Elizabeth City, North Carolina, air base—shaken but alive. A scrum of reporters waited for them, along with some bad news: Another rescue crew had found Claudene Christian, unconscious, floating near the ship. Despite heroic efforts to revive her, she didn’t survive.

Sandy had flooded towns from Maine to Florida, causing 147 deaths and widespread flooding. During the next three days, after the waters calmed, the search continued for Walbridge. Coast Guard personnel covered roughly 1,500 square nautical miles, but no sign of the captain was ever found. Meanwhile, “Losing two people was tough, but when we saw the survivors getting out of the helicopter on TV, we were overjoyed,” recalls Wes McIntosh. “When we had to leave the Bounty that morning, we didn’t know if anyone had survived. We were out there with them that night for a long time. And even though we didn’t meet any of the crew personally, you go through something like that together, and it feels like they’re family.”

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