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NTSB pins most of blame for Bounty sinking on captain

The Bounty, the tall ship that used to call St. Petersburg home, sank on Oct. 29, 2012, in Hurricane Sandy off the coast of North Carolina, and a federal report released Monday pinned most of the blame on longtime captain and former St. Petersburg resident Robin Walbridge and his decision to sail toward the storm.

Of 16 members of the crew, two died — deckhand and novice sailor Claudene Christian, 42, and Walbridge, 63, whose body was never found.

The report from the National Transportation Safety Board is the first of two that are expected. The Coast Guard's report isn't finished yet. Both agencies had investigators who asked questions last February in Portsmouth, Va., at a week-and-a-half-long hearing.

For anybody with anything more than passing knowledge of the Bounty and the sinking — including readers of the three-part series published late last year in the Tampa Bay Times — the NTSB report was surprising only because of its brevity.

If nothing else, though, the 16 pages marked the first time an official document assigned the word "reckless" to the actions of the captain.

"The Bounty's crew was put into an extraordinarily hazardous situation through decisions that by any measure didn't prioritize safety," NTSB chairman Deborah Hersman said in a statement.

The assessment almost certainly will be used by Christian's family's attorneys. They're planning a lawsuit against the owner of the Bounty, Robert Hansen of New York, and the organization that ran the ship. Hansen chose not to testify in Portsmouth, invoking his Fifth Amendment right, and he didn't return a message left for him on Monday.

Ralph Mellusi, one of the Christians' attorneys, didn't deny the word "reckless" might be useful in the suit, but he said what "puzzled" him the most about the report was "that it doesn't measure up to the level of particularity I'm used to seeing in NTSB reports."

The Coast Guard, NTSB spokesman Peter Knudson said, is doing "a more detailed report." The timetable for its release remains unclear.

Christian's mother on Monday had no specific reaction to the report and said only that she and her husband were having "a very hard time dealing with things right now."

Jessica Hewitt, one of the surviving crew members, who was good friends with Christian, said Monday of the sinking "it didn't just happen because of one man."

The NTSB did cite other reasons for the sinking. The failure of critical equipment like generators and pumps. The relative inexperience of the crew. Injuries to the crew in addition to general mounting fatigue over the course of the five days of the voyage from New London, Conn., to St. Petersburg. Rotted wood on the sides of the ship that Walbridge knew about but opted not to address in the most aggressive possible manner before sailing south. None of this is new.

Last February, during the hearing, the crew stood up for their captain.

"He had a lot of experience," deckhand Josh Scornavacchi said in his testimony.

"He thought rationally," able seaman Doug Faunt said.

"I never saw him nervous or scared," third mate Dan Cleveland said. "It made you feel like you could handle things."

The report, though, said the voyage "should not have been attempted," calling it a "needless risk." The NTSB also concluded "the vessel organization did nothing to dissuade the captain from sailing."

On Monday, Chris Barksdale, a survivor who was the engineer on the voyage, said: "I will just say in hindsight we had no business out there."

Fellow survivor Hewitt said the worst thing about the report was the worst thing about the sinking itself — not the word "reckless," but the reminder of what was lost. Her ship. Her captain. Her friend.

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

NTSB pins most of blame for Bounty sinking on captain 02/10/14 [Last modified: Tuesday, February 11, 2014 1:19pm]
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