Drama at Sea: The Final Hours on the HMS Bounty

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

HMS bounty sinking
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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.

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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.

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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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