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'Bounty' sailed into storm with rotted frame, shipyard worker testifies

PORTSMOUTH, Va. — The HMS Bounty, which sank on its way to St. Petersburg during Hurricane Sandy, had a decaying frame with an undetermined amount of rot, a Maine shipyard worker told federal officials Wednesday.

One member of the 16-person crew died when the Bounty went down in stormy seas Oct. 29, 90 miles off Cape Hatteras, N.C. Fourteen crew members were rescued by the Coast Guard. The skipper, Capt. Robin Walbridge, 63, was never found. He and his wife lived in St. Petersburg.

The three-masted replica 18th-century sailing ship was built for the 1962 film Mutiny on the Bounty, starring Marlon Brando. It was featured in several other films over the years, including one of the Pirates of the Caribbean movies.

The ship spent winters docked at the Pier. Walbridge took it over in 1995 and had experience with ships of its type.

Officials from the Coast Guard and the National Transportation Safety Board are holding eight days of hearings to determine what caused it to sink and make recommendations to prevent similar deaths.

Shipyard worker Todd Kosakowski told the panel Wednesday that he showed Walbridge the rot he found in the ship when his workers were replacing several planks at Boothbay Harbor Shipyard several weeks before the storm.

"I told him that I was more than worried about what we found," Kosakowski said.

Rather than replacing the rotted wood — as Kosakowski said was the only way to fix it — the ship's crew painted it over, he said.

Walbridge was "terrified'' at what he saw, but he decided against removing additional planks to see how extensive the damage was, Kosakowski said.

"It was very quickly shot down by the captain," Kosakowski said. "That would have required a significant amount of time and money."

Kosakowski said that he was concerned about the ship's condition when it left the shipyard and that he had advised Walbridge to avoid heavy weather. The 180-foot, 412-ton ship would later head directly for the path of the hurricane's 30-foot seas before taking on water, losing power and rolling over as it tossed the crew into the Atlantic Ocean.

After the ship left the Maine shipyard, it headed to New London, Conn. There, it provided a tour for Navy sailors stationed at a submarine base. Bounty officials also met with a potential buyer for the ship before it started making its way to Florida and heading into the hurricane's path.

Kosakowski said that Walbridge had told him that he had told the ship's owner, Robert Hansen, that he should get rid of the boat as soon as possible.

Hansen has declined to testify at the hearings, invoking his Fifth Amendment right to be protected from incriminating himself.

The Bounty left Connecticut on Oct. 25. The ship sent a distress signal to the Coast Guard on Sunday, Oct. 28. Walbridge and another crew member had been knocked overboard by a wave. The body of Claudene Christian, 42, was later recovered. The Coast Guard searched for Walbridge until Nov. 5.

Walbridge's resume included time on the Governor Stone, a cargo schooner built in 1877 and restored; training crew members of the USS Constitution warship ("Old Ironsides" in the War of 1812); and serving aboard the HMS Rose, a square-rigged replica similar to the Bounty.

On Tuesday, Chief Mate John Svendsen told the hearing that Walbridge twice refused his pleas to order the crew to abandon ship.

Svendsen said he had told Walbridge that he and other crew members were concerned about his decision to head directly toward the top of the storm as it approached.

Svendsen said Walbridge wanted to head out to sea and then judge where the storm's path would be to allow for safer passage, giving him options to go east or west depending on the route.

Walbridge explained his decision to the ship's crew before leaving Connecticut and offered to let anyone who wasn't comfortable with it to leave, but nobody chose to do so.

Svendsen said Walbridge believed the winds on the southeast side of a hurricane were more navigable. The original plan for the ship had it taking a more direct route along the East Coast between Florida and the Bahamas.

Svendsen said he thought Walbridge was looking for the safest route around the hurricane once it approached.

Although the hearing being administered by the panel isn't a criminal proceeding, any evidence of wrongdoing could be referred to federal prosecutors.

Walbridge's wife, Claudia McCann, reached by phone, said, "I have absolutely no comment on any of this."

Times staff writer Dan Sullivan contributed to this report, which includes information from Times files.

'Bounty' sailed into storm with rotted frame, shipyard worker testifies 02/13/13 [Last modified: Wednesday, February 13, 2013 11:37pm]
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