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HMS Bounty: A ship's final hours

  • A U.S. Coast Guard crew member uses a hoist to bring up a survivor of the sinking of rhe HMS Bounty into a helicopter.

    u.s. coast guard

    A U.S. Coast Guard crew member uses a hoist to bring up a survivor of the sinking of rhe HMS Bounty into a helicopter.

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By Jay Price
The News & Observer
  • A U.S. Coast Guard crew member uses a hoist to bring up a survivor of the sinking of rhe HMS Bounty into a helicopter.

    u.s. coast guard

    A U.S. Coast Guard crew member uses a hoist to bring up a survivor of the sinking of rhe HMS Bounty into a helicopter.

ELIZABETH CITY, N.C. -- Four pagers went off simultaneously early Monday, and the on-duty helicopter crew pulled themselves from their warm bunks at Coast Guard Air Station Elizabeth City. It was 3 a.m.
About 180 miles away, the 180-foot replica of the three-masted tall ship HMS Bounty, built for a 1962 Marlon Brando movie, was dying. Its 16-member crew, heading south from Connecticut to Florida, had gambled that they could beat Hurricane Sandy by driving far east, but the storm was too big, too powerful.
On Saturday, as the sea began to get rough, someone posted on Bounty's Facebook page: "Riding the Storm Out...Day 2. ... Rest assured that the Bounty is safe and in very capable hands. Bounty's current voyage is a calculated decision ... NOT AT ALL ... irresponsible or with a lack of foresight as some have suggested. The fact of the matter is ... A SHIP IS SAFER AT SEA THAN IN PORT!"

By afternoon Sunday, Bounty's engines had stopped and the ship was taking on water in 50-knot winds. The ship's crew sent distress signals, so when a Coast Guard HC-130 Hercules transport plane was dispatched Sunday, they were able to talk to the air crew by radio.
The ship's crew radioed that the water was coming in too fast, about two feet an hour. They were going to abandon ship.
At 4 a.m., they launched two orange life rafts with canopy roofs and flashing strobe lights on top, and at least 14 of them climbed in, nine in one raft, five in another. It was still unclear Monday night what happed to the other two -- the ship's experienced captain, Robin Walbridge, 63, and Claudene Christian, 42, whose Facebook page says she is a descendent of Fletcher Christian, the mutineer on the original Bounty played by Brando.
Late Monday afternoon, the Coast Guard recovered Christian's body and took her to Albemarle Hospital in Elizabeth City, where she was pronounced dead. Walbridge, 63, is missing.
A few minutes after the crew climbed into the rafts, the on-duty crew at Elizabeth City lifted off in its MH-60 Jayhawk. It reached the ship, about 90 miles southeast of Cape Hatteras, about 6:15 a.m. Lt. Cmdr. Steve Cerveney flew to the place the plane had been and saw a lone sailor in an orange neoprene survival suit rising and falling amidst the giant waves, occasionally vanishing in the wind-blown spray, his rescue strobe flashing.
Nearby, Cerveney and co-pilot Jane Pena could see another strobe standing clear of the water. It was in one of the ship's masts, all that was left above water of the Bounty.
Cerveney's crew had only enough fuel for them to pull up the man in the water and four of the seven survivors on one of the rafts before it had to head home. Half an hour behind it, though, was a second chopper, piloted by Lt. Cmdr. Steve Bonn and co-pilot Jenny Fields.
They headed for the other raft, which had six people aboard. Into the water went rescue swimmer Daniel Todd.
Todd swam up to the raft knowing that he had to keep the frightened survivors calm.
"Hey, I'm Dan and I hear you guys need a ride," he said.
Then he gave the survivors instructions about what to expect, the wind, the stinging spray, and how to position themselves in the basket.
Once they had all six survivors from the raft aboard, the fatigued Todd figured he would have at least a few minutes to recuperate, but the other raft was just a few yards away, and he was back in the water.
Two of the Bounty's crew were still unaccounted for, but the helicopter had just two minutes of fuel left. Bonn wheeled it into one sweeping circle as the crew looked down into the blue-black water. Nothing.
By the time a third crew had pulled Christian's body from the water, the Bounty was on its side. By dark, the Coast Guard had stopped the air search for the day, but had one cutter on site and another on the way to keep looking for Walbridge through the night. A decision about resuming the air search was expected early Tuesday.
The 14 survivors were still at the Coast Guard station Monday night, but sent word they didn't want to talk. Somewhere, 180 miles away, their skipper was still lost.

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