Monday, December 18, 2017
News Roundup

HMS Bounty captain Robin Walbridge remembered as quiet, humble

ST. PETERSBURG — On Thursday, the Coast Guard called off the search for Robin Walbridge, captain of the HMS Bounty, which sank during Hurricane Sandy.

Mr. Walbridge disappeared during a rescue mission early on Oct. 29 in which 14 of 16 on board the famous ship survived.

His death at age 63 has saddened a wide circle of friends, crew members and fellow sailors of tall ships everywhere.

As those closest to Mr. Walbridge began to comprehend going on without him, they also reflected on a life spent at sea.

By all accounts, the quiet man at the helm of the Bounty replica had nothing in common with Capt. William Bligh of the 1789 mutiny.

Though he knew nautical history and every inch of the 180-foot ship, Mr. Walbridge was more teacher than tyrant. Along with experienced crews of 15 to 25, he welcomed at-risk teens, paraplegics in wheelchairs and seniors battling serious health conditions to swab the decks and hoist 10,000 square feet of sails. Though the Bounty drew eager crowds in the United States, Canada and Europe, he did not want to greet them as its captain.

"The crew had orders not to point him out," said Claudia McCann, his wife. Sometimes she did anyway.

His shipping resume included spending 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.

"He considered square-rigged sailing a truly dying art, and he was the one keeping the idea alive," said Grant Bredeson, 32, a former Bounty crew member. "He referred to the ships as the tractor-trailers or the space shuttles of the time period."

Mr. Walbridge was a native of Apalachicola, though he never spoke much about his childhood.

He took over the Bounty, a longtime staple of the Pier and a movie prop, in 1995 and guided it on goodwill missions over thousands of miles at sea.

McCann met him in 1996 in Fall River, Mass. He struck her as kind and intelligent. She had never met a man like him.

"He was a breath of fresh air," said McCann, 59.

In 1998, they had a small wedding, reciting vows they had written for each other. As her husband sailed to other countries, McCann took a silent vow as well.

"I allowed him to continue in his passion," she said. "He was the man he was because of what he did. I was not going to go and take that away from him."

On Oct. 25, the Bounty left New London, Conn., for St. Petersburg. The problem was, Sandy was headed the other way, kicking up 30-foot seas and high winds.

The ship sent a distress signal the following Sunday to the Coast Guard. Mr. Walbridge and another crew member had been knocked overboard by a wave. The body of Claudene Christian, 42, was later recovered.

The decision to set sail rather than remain at port is now being second-guessed.

But Bredeson, who wanted to sail on that trip but was told to join the crew in St. Petersburg instead, said Mr. Walbridge would have weighed the storm against the dangers of staying docked.

In port, a 412-ton ship or its spars could easily have been tossed into other ships or onto land, endangering other lives.

Besides, Bredeson said, "All of those conditions the Bounty has been through before."

His wife said she received an email from her husband during the storm. In the blur of events, she does not remember exactly when it arrived.

"He said they were taking on water and they might have to abandon ship," she said.

She said her husband probably died trying to help Christian, a distant granddaughter of original Bounty mutineer Fletcher Christian and a new sailor.

That would be just like Mr. Walbridge, she believes — the most experienced sailor on board risking his life to save a rookie.

Times researcher Natalie Watson contributed to this report. Andrew Meacham can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 892-2248.

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