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Coast Guard: 'Bounty' captain and owners 'negligent' for fatal sinking in Hurricane Sandy

The Bounty, the tall ship that once called St. Petersburg home, sank Oct. 29, 2012, in Hurricane Sandy off the coast of North Carolina, killing two of the 16 members of the crew — deckhand Claudene Christian, 42, and St. Petersburg resident and captain Robin Walbridge, 63.

And it happened for lots of reasons, according to a report released Thursday by the U.S. Coast Guard. But the 93 pages can be summed up in just six words: The ship should not have sailed.

The Coast Guard's report blames the HMS Bounty Organization and Walbridge.

The company in charge of the Bounty gave Walbridge something close to free rein, and the captain, who was in his 17th year as the master of the ship, did what he wanted.

The report points to "substantial evidence" that Walbridge, and the company, too, "through their actions or inactions, committed acts of negligence." That Walbridge "chose to embark on this voyage knowing of the vessel's defects, the magnitude of the storm, and the experience level of his short handed crew," the report states, "is unconscionable."

In aggregate, the report is blunt: The Bounty should not have sailed — not toward the storm that was accurately predicted to be historically big and destructive, not in an effort to get from New London, Conn., to St. Petersburg for two days of tours at the city's pier, not on a shoestring budget in an aging, wooden ship in subpar shape with shoddy pieces of critical equipment, not with a small, mostly young and inexperienced crew no matter the extent of their devotion.

Back in February, the National Transportation Safety Board also blamed the captain, calling Walbridge "reckless." The rest of the NTSB's report was noteworthy primarily because of its brevity. The Coast Guard's report is much more detailed. Both, though, are sure to be used by Christian's family's attorneys, who are preparing a lawsuit against the Bounty's owner, Robert Hansen of Long Island, N.Y., and the organization.

Hansen didn't testify at the Coast Guard's hearings about the sinking in Portsmouth, Va., a year and a half ago, invoking his Fifth Amendment right, and he didn't want to talk on Thursday, either. But Ralph Mellusi, one of the Christians' attorneys, said the Coast Guard's report in particular is "certainly a working blueprint with respect to moving ahead."

A lot of what's in the report was in the Times' three-part series about the sinking published in October — rotting wood on the sides of the ship that either wasn't fixed at all or was fixed quickly and cheaply; pumps that ranged from finicky to faulty; the meeting before the departure at which Walbridge told his crew about Sandy but understated its severity and offered them the chance if not the time to get off — but the Coast Guard's findings do outline the chronology and the causes of the loss.

The Bounty was classified as a moored attraction vessel — essentially a tourist draw when tied to a dock — and therefore was subject to lenient inspection standards.

Walbridge sent a text message to a friend shortly after leaving New London — the Coast Guard redacted the name of the recipient — in which he said the Bounty needed "to get east of it. I would not dare be anywhere close to land."

That was before he changed course from trying to avoid Sandy out at sea to trying to squeeze between the storm and the shore.

Christian texted a friend around the same time saying they were "shorthanded" and "we are all doing two jobs at once."

Walbridge emailed a friend the morning of the second day of the voyage: "Sandy looks like a mean one. Right now we are on a converging course. … At times like this I think about the sailors 200 years ago. There are not signs in the sky, barometer is steady, winds are light."

The conditions, of course, were not that way for long. Sandy had killed people in the Caribbean and was surging north. The Bounty's pumps couldn't keep up with the water coming through the wood, the water swamped the generators and engines, and the ship was helpless. The crew ended up overworked, under-rested, seasick, injured. Walbridge called for help much too late. Ditto for his order to abandon ship.

Christian's body was found about 12 hours after the crew abandoned ship. The medical examiner's report showed bruises and scrapes on her head and said the probable cause of death was drowning.

Walbridge was never found.

"It seemed that he had supreme confidence in himself" and the ship, the report concludes. "It can only be surmised that this confidence kept him from recognizing the very real dangers his decisions imposed on the ship and crew." Walbridge's "illogical" decisions, in the words of the report, "smacked of pride."

The first, second and third mates are not cited or sanctioned, although the report notes that the engineer, Chris Barksdale, a self-employed handyman from Virginia, "did not have sufficient experience" "to adequately perform his duties."

"I think the report was on target," Barksdale said Thursday.

"I think it's pretty damning," fellow crew member Doug Faunt added. "Obviously, a lot of shortcuts were taken; obviously, we shouldn't have been out there."

Michael Kruse can be reached at mkruse@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8751. Follow him on Twitter at @michaelkruse.

Coast Guard: 'Bounty' captain and owners 'negligent' for fatal sinking in Hurricane Sandy 06/12/14 [Last modified: Thursday, June 12, 2014 10:41pm]
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