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Former 'Bounty' sailor finds ship's life jackets floating in Atlantic

Andrew Jagger of St. Petersburg left France in early August headed west on a 41-foot catamaran sporting a Spanish name. Adelante. Onward.

On Sept. 7, about 100 miles from Bermuda, on a sunny afternoon with no wind and flat seas, one of the crew spotted something roughly a quarter mile to their right.

"Hey, Captain," he said, "what do you think it is?"

Jagger, 59, raised his powerful binoculars, magnifying by 14 times what there was to see. Life jackets. One life jacket is not unusual, he thought. A bunch of them, though, and all roped together — that suggests a ship abandoned. He put Adelante in reverse and approached the cluster, shaded orange and sun-stressed yellow. The crew member leaned over the side and reached down.

"Cap," he said. "Look here."

He pointed at the name of the ship they had come from, written in faded black letters.

BOUNTY.

A little more than 10 months before, the Bounty had foundered and sunk off the coast of North Carolina, about 400 miles from Adelante's position. The improbability of Jagger's find came through in his terse log entry:

NAME "BOUNTY" STENCILLED ON THEM. MY OLD SHIP THAT SANK LAST OCTOBER IN HURRICANE SANDY.

• • •

The Bounty, a replica of the famous HMS Bounty that MGM built for the 1962 movie Mutiny on the Bounty, was a longtime St. Petersburg landmark. The ship was a tourist stop in the Vinoy Basin in the '60s, '70s and '80s, and later spent winters parked at the Pier. Many residents considered her the city's ship.

Robin Walbridge, 63, the veteran captain who lived in St. Petersburg with his wife, decided on Oct. 25 to leave New London, Conn., despite the predicted threat of the historic storm. He and 15 other crew headed this way. They were due for tours at the Pier the second weekend of November.

Over the next three days, the weather worsened, water seeped through the sides of the wooden ship and the pumps faltered. One of the last things the crew did in the middle of the night, surrounded by furious water and wind, was to bind together the ship's extra life jackets.

Before dawn on Oct. 29, 30-foot waves overwhelmed the Bounty, sweeping her crew overboard approximately 90 miles southeast of Hatteras, N.C. Coast Guard rescuers saved 14 of them and started a search for the other two.

In St. Petersburg, Jagger, who planned to board the Bounty after the stop at the Pier and sail with the ship to Galveston, Texas, went to Walbridge's house to comfort his wife. He had been Walbridge's first mate from 2003 to 2005.

That afternoon, the Coast Guard found deckhand Claudene Christian, face-down eight miles from the ship. She was 42.

The search for Walbridge lasted three more days. Teams from the Coast Guard, in boats, planes and helicopters, followed the line of debris for more than 100 miles, flowing east and south, blown that way by Sandy's harsh winds.

They never found the captain.

All they saw was all the debris. They saw pieces of wood. They saw empty full-body survival suits. They saw life jackets.

• • •

On the Adelante, 100 miles out of Bermuda, Jagger offered on his blog an understated update. "Today we found some life jackets fastened together," he wrote. "There is a story coming. I am bringing them home."

Four days later, when he arrived in Annapolis, Md., he posted about what he had found on a private Facebook page for former Bounty crew.

Five days after that, he put it on his own Facebook page, making the discovery more public. He uploaded a pair of pictures. "One in a million chance that I would be the one to find them," he wrote.

There were 14 survivors of the sinking of the Bounty. And there are hundreds of former crew — Walbridge was the captain for 17 years — and many of them, too, continue to mourn.

Their reactions to the life jackets range widely. Awesome. Amazing. Shocking. Touching. Unbelievable. They think all these things. Some think they don't know what to think.

"I'm not quite sure," survivor Josh Scornavacchi said this week.

For fellow survivor Doug Faunt, the pictures put him back on the deck, where he had last seen those life jackets, just before he and the rest of the crew were thrust into the towering black waves and forced to fight for their lives. Faunt, 67, sat in his house in California and cried.

It has made former crew wonder again about what happened to their captain. It's made them consider what else might be out there, still, floating.

It made one of them rewatch a video animation of the oceans' vast, interconnected rhythms — a reminder that movements in nature are not always linear, following instead the vagaries of eddies and currents that can't be controlled.

The other day, in St. Petersburg, the life jackets rested on a floral pattern patio chair outside Jagger's home. The Coast Guard was ready to pick them up as evidence in the ongoing investigation into the sinking. Jagger was hopeful he would have them back in time for a gathering of former crew in Massachusetts toward the end of October to mark the year anniversary.

People want to see them. "People," he said, "want to at least put their hands on them."

Michael Kruse can be reached at mkruse@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8751.

Former 'Bounty' sailor finds ship's life jackets floating in Atlantic 09/26/13 [Last modified: Thursday, September 26, 2013 11:35pm]

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