Drama at Sea: The Final Hours on the HMS Bounty

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

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Lieutenant Wes McIntosh of the U.S. Coast Guard was watching Sunday Night Football with his seven-man flight crew around 9:30 p.m. last October when his phone rang. It was the Coast Guard command center alerting him that they’d received a call from the owner of the tall ship HMS Bounty. The ship, located in the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of North Carolina, was taking on water, had lost all power, and was requesting assistance. By 11 p.m., McIntosh was airborne in his turbo prop plane heading east, into the storm.

Locating the ship on radar would be impossible in such rough weather. McIntosh and his copilot, Mike Myers, pulled on night-vision goggles. The skies were clear for the moment, a full moon fixed above them, but directly ahead McIntosh could see a sharp wall of dark clouds rising from the surface of the water to 7,000 feet.

They approached just above the clouds but were unable to see down to the ocean surface. Hoping for visual contact, McIntosh lowered the plane into the storm. The plane lurched and shook violently. Hard rain pelted the windshield. McIntosh wrestled the controls, guiding the plane lower until the clouds shredded and revealed a churning black ocean.

They circled, holding at the lowest point they could.

“Anything?” McIntosh asked.

Myers sat back in his seat and said, “There’s a pirate ship in the middle of a hurricane.”

The tall ship the HMS Bounty was one of the most recognizable ships anywhere in the world. Built in 1960 for the MGM film Mutiny on the Bounty, she was a scaled-up replica of the 1784 original on which Fletcher Christian led the revolt against Captain William Bligh. The modern Bounty was a classic tall ship. Its three masts rose more than 100 feet high, supporting 10,000 square feet of sailcloth and laced with more than two miles of line. She was 120-feet long—30 feet longer than the original—and built of hand-hewn Douglas fir, oak, and spruce.

In recent years, however, the ship had fallen into disrepair; she was plagued with dry rot and leaks, and her owner had struggled to keep up with the expensive maintenance. Tired and sagging from 50 years of sailing and dock tours, the ship had been for sale since 2010, but no one was buying. Its crew was now sailing from New London, Connecticut, to St. Petersburg, Florida, to entice possible buyers, and, with dockside tours, to help raise funds for a nonprofit organization supporting kids with Down syndrome.

The Bounty left New London on Thursday (an old mariners’ superstition held that it was bad luck to set sail on a Friday) with a crew of 16, ranging from first-time volunteers to career boatmen. Three, including Robin Walbridge, 63, were licensed captains. Another four were Merchant Marine–certified able-bodied seamen. The rest were new to the ship, either entry-level hires or volunteers. The most recent addition was Claudene Christian, 42, a professional singer and beauty queen from California who claimed to be a descendent of Fletcher Christian himself.

Captain Walbridge was soft-spoken and gravel-voiced, wore wire-rimmed glasses and hearing aids, and bound his flyaway gray hair in a short ponytail. The Bounty’s owner, New York businessman Robert Hansen, had hired Walbridge in 1995, and Walbridge had since helmed hundreds of voyages on Bounty up and down the Atlantic coast, in all kinds of weather, including at least two serious tropical storms. Walbridge was thought of as a good sailor, but he was also considered something of a cowboy. A few weeks before Bounty departed New London, he’d told an interviewer, “We chase hurricanes … You can get a good ride out of them.”

Before they left port, Walbridge gathered the crew on the ship’s deck and informed them that there was a large storm off the coast. He believed they could safely skirt it, but they’d likely be encountering rough seas along the way. Anyone who wasn’t comfortable with this was free to leave, no questions asked. The next day, Bounty departed under clear skies and light winds, all 16 crew in tow. The mood on board was cheerful. Walbridge had said he expected the trip to take 14 days.

As darkness fell on Sunday evening, however, Bounty sailed into one of the worst storms ever recorded in the Atlantic. Dubbed Superstorm Sandy, it stretched nearly 1,000 miles across, covering an area nearly twice the size of Texas. Out at sea off the coast of North Carolina, winds gusted more than 80 miles per hour.

Earlier that day, a gust had ripped the ship’s forecourse, one of its 16 sails and the only one that could be used for stability in storms. The damage required a daring operation to scale the mast and stow the sheet. As daylight faded, conditions deteriorated. Five feet of water sloshed around the engine room. The power surged, and the cabin overheads flickered until the generators and engines gave out entirely, leaving only the ghostly glow of the emergency lights.

Belowdecks, Walbridge made his way to the communications room. He moved gingerly; earlier, a powerful wave had thrown him across the cabin into a bolted table, severely injuring his back. He took a seat near the communications console with Doug Faunt, 66, a volunteer who helped with general engineering work. The storm had rendered their cell and satellite phones useless. Walbridge and Faunt were attempting to e-mail Bounty’s shoreside office, alerting them to the grim situation.

Walbridge had instructed anyone who wasn’t on watch or tending to a crisis to hunker down and, if possible, try to rest. It was going to be a long night. Another crew member, Adam Prokosh, 27 had also been injured, breaking two ribs and separating his shoulder when the ship was rolled by a wave. Several other people were severely seasick. In the dim communications room, Walbridge and Faunt hunched over a makeshift transmitter, tapping out an e-mail message with their coordinates, praying it would reach someone on shore.

In the skies above, McIntosh banked hard, looking down on a sight unlike anything he’d ever seen. Below was the Bounty’s hulking black shadow, its giant masts listing at 45 degrees. Someone flashed a searchlight at the plane. From the aircraft, the mission system officer radioed down on the emergency channel.

The response was instantaneous: “This is HMS Bounty. We read you loud and clear!” It was John Svendsen, 41, the first mate. In short exchanges, Svendsen briefed the rescue crew on the situation. Bounty was still taking on water at a foot an hour, but he felt they could hang on until daylight.

McIntosh had hoped to drop backup pumps to the vessel, but conditions were too dangerous to get close enough. His seven-man flight crew had been taking a severe beating too. Several were airsick. Periodically, McIntosh climbed above the worst weather, providing temporary breaks from the nauseating turbulence. Then he would circle back down into the maelstrom for updates.

As the early hours of Monday morning dragged on, Walbridge positioned himself at the Bounty’s helm, leaving Svendsen to communicate with the Coast Guard plane. Svendsen told McIntosh that they were planning an orderly evacuation at daybreak. Around 3 a.m., Walbridge and Svendsen directed the crew to the stern and briefed them on the plan.

“No one panicked,” Dan Cleveland, the third mate, recalled later. “The mood was calm, professional. I was really impressed.”

For the next hour the crew tended to tasks—gathering their “Gumby suits” (bright red, neoprene survival suits) and assembling supplies for the life rafts—or tried to find a place to rest, survival suits at the ready. Claudene Christian tended to the injured Adam Prokosh, helping him move to the high side of the ship.

By 4 a.m., Walbridge told the crew to put on the suits. They would depart from the rear of the ship at first light. The water was coming in faster, at around two feet per hour, and the bow was now submerged. It was too rough to stand up on deck, so the crew crawled along the boards on their hands and knees. Those who didn’t have a particular task preparing supplies simply clung to fixed objects. Doug Faunt wedged himself against the deck rail firmly enough that he briefly dozed off.

Around 4:30 that morning, Bounty was broadsided by a massive wave that rolled her a full 90 degrees. A few people screamed. Several crew members were tossed through the air and into the sea. Some slid across the soaked deck, hitting the low rail and toppling into the water. Others, fearing the ship was capsizing completely, jumped from their perches into the ocean. Bounty now lay on her side, masts in the water, surrounded by a web of tangled rigging.

John Svendsen was near the radio and grabbed the handset. “We’re abandoning ship!” he shouted into the mic. “We’re abandoning ship now!”

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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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Originally Published in Reader's Digest