The tall-ship crew enjoyed a life of adventure -- until the Bounty went down in Hurricane Sandy. Two deaths in the disaster have sparked an inquiry. Among the questions: Did the crew mistakenly put its trust in the hands of a risk-taking captain?
Chapter 1 What went wrong?
The Bounty departed New London, Connecticut, on October 25 for a voyage to St. Petersburg, Florida, that was expected to take two weeks. The plan was to sail wide to the east and south as fast as possible around the Florida Keys to avoid Hurricane Sandy.
Before dawn, October 29, 2012
Rain hammered the ceiling, and they could hear the wail of hurricane winds. Below them, the engine room was at least waist-high in seawater. Their ship was without power, its engines and generators dead.
It was a few hours before sunrise, Monday, October 29, 2012, and the magnificent three-masted wooden square-rigger HMS Bounty was losing its battle with Hurricane Sandy.
The captain, Robin Walbridge, wanted answers.
What went wrong?
At what point did we lose control?
Gathered in the ship's navigation shack and exhausted from struggling for more than a day to keep water out of the leaking boat, none of the crew had answers.
They all knew: The Bounty was going down.
For eight days last month, the U.S. Coast Guard and National Transportation Safety Board held hearings on the sinking of the Bounty. The agencies posed the same question Walbridge asked in the eleventh hour: What went wrong?
And another: Why?
Why did none of the crew publicly question the captain when he chose to sail toward a hurricane? Why weren't the pumps examined more closely before the Bounty got under way? Why did the ship leak so badly so soon after it had been repaired?
Why did two people die?
Investigators probed for human motive and error as they questioned the witnesses, including surviving crew members. The aim: to determine responsibility, culpability and possible negligence.
The outcome of the inquiry won't be known at least until the end of the year -- the earliest the NTSB and Coast Guard expect to issue their reports. But plenty about the Bounty and its last days has already emerged. This story is based on testimony at the hearings, as well as interviews with survivors. The Bounty's owner declined to testify or discuss with CNN the allegations made by witnesses and former crew members.
The hearings focused on the Bounty's seaworthiness and on its seasoned captain, who commanded a nascent crew. Ten of Bounty's 15 crew members had been aboard for less than a year – including two who'd joined less than a month before its last voyage.
Crew members testified that the word in the tall-ship community was that the Bounty suffered from shoddy maintenance and spotty training. But some believed the vessel's reputation was turning around. Extensive repairs had been made twice in the past decade and some work had been done weeks earlier.
But the way it was licensed, Bounty wasn't subject to tough Coast Guard inspections or mandatory repairs. Crew members didn't seem to care. They flocked to the ship anyway – to the opportunity to learn seamanship skills from a captain they revered. A man who, by his own admission, was unafraid of sailing through hurricanes.
They trusted the skipper almost without question.
By the time they'd sailed into the path of Hurricane Sandy, the crew was already a family of sorts, bound by a thirst for adventure – and a life built around a stiff wind and open water.
But the ship itself didn't prove to be as tightly knit as its crew.
During the boat's final hours, Bounty turned into a crucible that tested them beyond their experience.
By the time it was over, the disaster had changed them all. It shifted their perspectives on danger, caution and risk – in surprising ways.
Chapter 2 The 'Frankenstorm' decision
The HMS Bounty, seen here in 2010 in Cleveland, sailed around the world as a tourist attraction vessel. Because of how it was licensed, the ship wasn’t subject to tough Coast Guard inspections.
The Plain Dealer/Landov
Late afternoon, Thursday, October 25
Walbridge scanned the faces of his crew members as they stood on deck at the ship's berth in New London, Connecticut.
It was an all-hands meeting at the capstan, a spool-shaped piece of equipment that sits near the helm – a place made sacred by its role as a gathering place for the Bounty family. In just a few hours, the vessel was scheduled to set sail for St. Petersburg, Florida, where it would host tours for paying customers.
St. Petersburg was also home for Bounty's captain, a lifelong sailor with a weathered face, hearing aids and thinning gray hair he often tied back in a tiny ponytail. There, he shared a comfy 1930s home with his wife, whom he fondly called Miss Claudia. She hadn't seen her wandering sailor for a month. But it was Walbridge's 63rd birthday, and the couple had spoken via Skype that morning. They were both eager for a reunion. Between them loomed Hurricane Sandy.
The skies over Connecticut were mostly clear, with light winds and temperatures in the high 50s. But the Internet was already screaming warnings about the storm, located about 125 miles east-southeast of Nassau, Bahamas. Forecasters predicted Sandy would grow larger in the next couple of days and zigzag northwest, then north-northeast, up along the Eastern Seaboard.
Walbridge knew there was concern among his crew. Worried friends and family had called and texted. First mate John Svendsen would later say he privately urged Walbridge to delay the trip – to stay in New London or head to an out-of-the-way port. So the captain, with 17 years at Bounty's helm, called the crew together.
Meetings around the capstan traditionally allowed for give and take between commander and crew. This time, Walbridge didn't invite discussion. Instead, he did all the talking.
Describing Sandy, Walbridge used the word "Frankenstorm," by one account, a reference to the media frenzy surrounding the hurricane. He described its predicted path and, as another shipmate put it, his "plan of attack" aimed at harnessing the storm's winds to increase Bounty's speed.
Ships are safer at sea during hurricanes, Walbridge said. I've sailed into hurricanes before.
Next, Walbridge revealed the bottom line: Anyone who wants to abandon the voyage has the option to do so, he said. The commander made it clear there would be no hard feelings.
There was no mention of future employment on the Bounty for departing crew, the third mate testified, nor did the captain offer to pay expenses home.
Any takers? No hands went up.
And no one at the meeting -- including the first mate – voiced any worries about the journey.
On this day, there was no mutiny on the Bounty. Its crew members put their faith in the captain.
Chapter 3 Ocean nomads
They ranged in age from 20 to 66.
Four had been on the Bounty only a few months. Others, a few years. For the engineer and the cook, it was their maiden voyage.
Landing a job on a traditionally rigged wooden tall ship isn't easy. U.S. vessels number in the mere dozens. The Bounty crew members were typical of those who compete for the coveted spots. Many grow up in coastal towns with proud sailing traditions. Some are students or retired naval enthusiasts or Maine schooner bums. Or even middle-aged women who play Mama Bear to a boatload of ocean nomads.
Robin Walbridge, Bounty's captain for 17 years, chose to leave port in Connecticut with a crew of 15 and sail toward Sandy, one of the worst hurricanes in recent memory.
Dave Souza/Herald News
Boarding Bounty for the first time – as a tourist – was all it took to make 20-year-old Anna Sprague yearn for that life. The Auburn University journalism major inherited her love for sailing from her father and nurtured it by competing on the school sailing team. But it was at a festival in her hometown of Savannah, Georgia, last May that she caught the tall-ship bug.
From the moment her feet touched the deck she made up her mind to sign on. She knew that winning a job on a tall ship could open doors to her dream: adventure combined with constant travel.
Sprague explored Bounty's 180 feet of oak and Douglas fir. Her eyes followed the lines of its three wooden masts stretching a hundred feet into the sky. Every part of the ship, she knew, served a unique purpose, including its 100-plus rope lines and complicated rigging.
With her trademark drive and confidence, Sprague marched up to a crew member and asked, "How can I be you?"
Later that day, she encountered John Svendsen who, as first mate, was second in command. At 41, with hair reaching down to the middle of his back, Svendsen had spent most of his life on the ocean, logging time as a diving teacher and boat captain. He'd joined the Bounty in February 2010.
Confronted with Sprague's enthusiasm and confidence, Svendsen offered her a chance to volunteer as a deckhand. A few months later, she'd earned a paid gig.
She was in.
Like Sprague, Claudene Christian, 42, signed on to the Bounty last May. And like Sprague, she'd never before worked on a tall ship.
Christian had lived in places as diverse as Alaska, Los Angeles, and Oklahoma. Never afraid to try new things, she'd competed in beauty pageants and cheered for the University of Southern California as one of its Song Girls. Christian seemed to like shifting gears in life. She launched a doll-making company. At one point, she co-owned a bar in L.A.
The idea of crewing on a tall ship dawned on her after she visited a replica of Christopher Columbus' famous wooden vessel the Nina. She seemed destined to join the Bounty, if for no other reason than her DNA: Christian claimed to be a descendent of Fletcher Christian – a mutineer on the original Bounty centuries ago.
The replica of the Bounty had a history of its own rooted in the 1962 MGM film "Mutiny on the Bounty," starring Marlon Brando. Unlike the 18th century version, this ship had two engines to propel it in addition to its sails. The boat was bigger than its namesake in order to accommodate a film crew and fuel tanks required to sail to the remote South Pacific.
It was never supposed to last 50 years. In fact, the plan was to destroy it.
Igniting the Bounty and turning it into a floating inferno surely would have created a spectacular movie image. But Brando said no. The ship was too good to burn. MGM acquiesced.
Over the decades, ownership of the Bounty passed to billionaire Ted Turner, who eventually donated it to the Fall River Chamber Foundation in Massachusetts as an educational vessel. It was overhauled in 2001 and again in 2006. Now it belonged to the New York-based HMS Bounty Organization, which sailed it from port to port as a tourist attraction. The ship wasn't licensed to carry passengers out to sea.
In the weeks before the Bounty left New London, Christian, Sprague and other crew members spent time maintaining its hull. Wooden vessels need special care to protect them from tiny waterborne organisms that eat away at the ship. Rotted planks must be replaced. Cracks and open seams are plugged with special materials. At the half-century mark, the Bounty was expected to leak a little. Rough seas could make it worse.
Though Christian had no tall ship sailing experience, crewmates warmed to her upbeat personality. And it didn't take long for Christian to grow attached to her colleagues. She doted on some like a mother.
Christian and Sprague had joined a band of sailors with different backgrounds and personalities, but they shared the same desire: to see the world as ancient mariners did, when Columbus, da Gama and Magellan were reshaping the Earth from flat to round.
Left: A sailor steers the ship in 2010. Bounty’s crew was a family of sorts, bound by a thirst for adventure – and a life built around a stiff wind and open water.
Right: Every part of a traditionally rigged sailing ship serves a unique purpose, including its 100-plus rope lines. Bounty shipmates hoist a sail in 2010.
The Plain Dealer/Landov
Adam Prokosh, 27, was an earnest, thoughtful five-year veteran of tall ships who'd been on board for eight months. He hoped to captain his own vessel someday.
Deckhand Jessica Hewitt -- a trusting, strong-willed 25-year-old and a licensed graduate of the prestigious Maine Maritime Academy -- had a big smile and a bright attitude.
Another MMA grad, 37-year old Matt Sanders, was the second mate. The tall, broad-shouldered and square-jawed sailor had never served aboard a wooden tall ship.
Ship engineer Chris Barksdale, 56, and cook Jessica Black, 34, were Bounty's newest crew members, coming on board within a month before the ship set sail from Connecticut.
Mark Warner, 33, was a bright deckhand who'd joined the crew the previous May. He came with experience: Bounty was his fourth tall ship.
Deckhand John D. Jones, 29, was a tall-ship first-timer from St. Augustine, Florida, who'd never before worked aboard a wooden vessel.
Drew Salapatek, 29, hailed from Blue Island, Illinois. With long blond hair and a beard, Salapatek had a gentle way about him and a great deal of respect for Walbridge.
Laura Groves, 28, was a three-year Bounty veteran. She held the rank of bosun – the ship's taskmistress in charge of assigning and prioritizing duties. With dark hair and glasses, she was short in stature but towering with confidence.
Doug Faunt, 66, had been with the Bounty for five seasons as its volunteer electrician. After two decades working at IT giant Cisco Systems, he could afford to follow his tall ship passion without getting paid. The wiry, balding, white-bearded resident of Oakland, California, possessed valuable knowledge about computers, engines and communications equipment.
He also had a sensitive side. He brought his prized teddy bear onboard and took some shipmates under his wing, including Christian and another deckhand named Josh Scornavacchi.
Scornavacchi, 25, gave off the quiet, intense vibe of an old soul. Born with the heart of an explorer, the Eastern Pennsylvania resident came to the Bounty with a dream of one day circumnavigating the globe.
They all came to work for Walbridge, a Vermont native who'd borrowed a sailboat at age 18 and discovered his passion. He worked his way from houseboat field mechanic on Florida's Suwannee River to Massachusetts, where he trained crew for the Navy tall ship USS Constitution.
In 1995, he took command as Bounty's captain -- and teacher to a host of sailors who Walbridge liked to brag were the "future captains of America."
For new crew, basic ship training included a safety tour and lessons on how to don emergency immersion gear called Gumby suits. Later, they would learn how to climb the masts to tend the sails -- "going aloft," as it's known.
The captain sometimes quizzed his crew on how to maneuver the ship under various circumstances. It was his way of keeping them thinking about the big picture -- how their roles came together to sail the boat.
His recipe for bonding with his shipmates was as simple as spaghetti. He'd boil up a batch and invite them to eat and shoot the breeze. With each spaghetti supper, the Bounty crew bonded a little tighter as a loyal family.
In small ways, Walbridge revealed his personal side. The captain practiced seafaring superstitions: Pots and pans were to be hung in the galley in the direction in which they could catch the prevailing winds. And he had his own language of sorts – what the crew called "Robin-isms." "Wakey, wakey little guppies," or "Wakey, wakey little snakies," he would say to rouse sleeping mates.
Work rotations were eight hours on, eight hours off. Some shipmates found time for a game of Twister or an electric guitar jam session. They challenged each other to jump off the Bounty in every port. On clear nights, experienced sailors turned off the GPS and steered the old-fashioned way: with nothing but a compass and the stars.
Canoodling on the boat was common. Some crew worried the captain would crack down on shipboard romances.
That fear loomed large one day when Walbridge called a meeting. The subject, he announced: reproduction. What would he say? As they gathered to listen, shipmates shot each other worried glances.
We have a big problem on the boat, the captain said, wearing a stern face.
Then he broke into a smile. A bike had "reproduced" from one to two, he said. He asked his crew to limit the number of bikes on board.
Left: As Bounty left Connecticut for what was expected to be a two-week voyage to St. Petersburg, Florida, Hurricane Sandy was kicking up a fuss over the Bahamas.
Right: On the day the Bounty sank, Hurricane Sandy was growing into one of the largest storms on record – eventually spanning more than 900 miles.
Chapter 4 Setting a course
Early evening, Thursday, October 25
OK, we're going to get under way, Walbridge ordered. Cast off lines.
With that command, the Bounty began its journey toward the hurricane.
It was a gorgeous Thursday evening with no sign of Sandy kicking up a fuss near the Bahamas, a thousand miles to the south. But deckhands got busy securing gear; rougher seas were sure to come.
With both engines up and running, the captain ordered the Bounty to "make tracks" to the southeast. The mates knew he wanted to go as far south as possible -- as fast as possible.
The plan was to swing out wide.
By sailing east of Sandy, they would put some room between the ship and the hurricane, then cut back west toward Key West, Florida, and around to Florida's west coast and St. Petersburg.
As Bounty sailed past the eastern tip of New York's Long Island on Thursday night, water in the bilge area -- at the bottom of the boat, below the water line -- appeared to be at routine levels.
The bilge is designed to hold water that routinely finds its way aboard a ship from rain, rough seas and small leaks. Electric pumps in the engine room, just above the bilge, eject the water back into the sea. Bounty's pumps didn't seem to be performing at their usual speed, but the crew was not alarmed.
The engine room itself worried Bounty's newly hired engineer, Chris Barksdale. He thought it needed a good cleaning. Sawdust and wood chips littered the floor. Everything just looked old.
Before arriving in Connecticut, the vessel had undergone repairs at a shipyard in Boothbay Harbor, Maine. Rot infested 18-foot wooden planks on Bounty's forward right and left sides. Workers replaced them and caulked cracks and gaps in the ship's hull below the waterline.
Walbridge was warned by the shipyard that some of the boat's frames – its ribs -- also contained rot, multiple witnesses testified. The shipyard manager testified that the captain said he'd do the repairs later.
Around 9:30 a.m. on Saturday, October 27, about 300 miles east of Virginia Beach, Virginia, the captain made his move: Instead of continuing with his original plan to stay east of the storm, he ordered the crew to change course. He wanted to pilot the ship northwest of Sandy to harness its winds. Turning more westerly, the boat crossed the path of the oncoming hurricane.
By then Sandy churned about 600 miles away. Eventually, it would grow into one of the largest hurricanes on record to hit the East Coast, spanning more than 900 miles.
Most of the crew had never sailed through a dangerous storm. The work can grind down even the hale and hearty. It makes simple shipboard tasks like walking -- and sleeping and eating – difficult if not impossible.
The winds stiffened and Bounty's sailors took notice. The ride turned rougher as higher waves rocked the boat.
Water crept out of the bilge area -- and up into the engine room.
Chapter 5 The Walbridge way
This wasn't the captain's first hurricane.
"There's no such thing as bad weather," he said just weeks before setting sail toward Sandy. "There's just different kinds of weather."
In a video that would eventually find its way to YouTube, he explained how to "get a good ride" out of a hurricane, by sailing "as close to the eye of it as you can" and staying behind the storm in its southeast quadrant.
"We chase hurricanes," Walbridge said, smiling.
His sailors followed Bounty’s captain, Robin Walbridge, with almost unquestioning loyalty. But former crew members said he was a brilliant chess master at finding ways to get around the rules.
Courtesy Walbridge Family
The captain's third in command on this voyage, Dan Cleveland, 25, was a graduate of the Walbridge school of hurricane sailing.
The tall, likable former landscaper with a boyish, bearded face and a calming baritone voice joined the Bounty in 2008, his first tall ship job. Later that year, Walbridge conducted a lesson in hurricane navigation by charting a course right behind a storm off Central America.
You don't want to be in its path, Walbridge taught Cleveland, but finding a safe place behind the storm is OK. As the ship closed in on the eye, the captain backed off – fearing its destructive power.
But not everyone was willing to sail the Walbridge way.
Two former Bounty crew members contacted by CNN portrayed the captain as a man who played fast and loose with the rules; a poor leader with an unpredictable command style, who was dismissive of protocol.
Just as Walbridge chose to set sail toward Hurricane Sandy, on other voyages he often made decisions about courses and destinations without consulting the crew, said Sarah Nelson, who served under Walbridge for nine months in 2007. The Bounty was Nelson's third tall ship; she is now a licensed captain.
When Nelson told friends she was joining the Bounty, they paused and took a deep breath. Not a good idea, they said. The boat was falling apart. But the Bounty was being overhauled at a shipyard, she responded. She was willing to suspend her doubts.
Her experience on the ship, however, confirmed her fears. She said that the Bounty operated in a gray area where the rules were vague and clever workarounds could save time, effort and money.
She witnessed the vessel appearing to violate maritime traffic rules while navigating the crowded Strait of Gibraltar.
She saw holes in one of the ship's masts. She reported it, she said, but nothing was done, and she felt unsafe.
Eventually, she reached her limit -- quitting in protest during the middle of a voyage.
Testimony confirmed at least one of Nelson's complaints: The mast on the Bounty was later replaced.
Another licensed captain and ex-Bounty crew member, Samantha Dinsmore, agrees with Nelson: Walbridge wasn't the best captain to work for, she said. He looked for easy solutions to potentially expensive problems like ship repairs, she said, and was a brilliant chess master at finding ways to get around the rules.
Occasionally he could be stubborn, said Dinsmore. And when sailors were on deck, they did what they were told.
John Svendsen, who'd worked with Walbridge for more than two years and was his first mate on Bounty's last voyage, said the captain could be "very firm in his ideas." But he never saw him seek out a storm. The Bounty, he said, wasn't chasing Hurricane Sandy.
Still, Nelson and Dinsmore said they weren't surprised to hear last October that the Bounty was in trouble.