Life & Death on the Bounty

By Thom Patterson, CNN

Editor's Note: This is an excerpt from an original, investigative, narrative-based feature article first published by CNN in 2013. Click here to read the entire story.

Chapter 1: What went wrong?

 

(CNN) -- The Bounty departed New London, Connecticut, on October 25, 2012 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.

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