What happened to the HMS Bounty? After Hurricane Sandy sinks tall ship, many questions remain

The HMS Bounty, a 180-foot sailboat, is shown submerged in the Atlantic Ocean during Hurricane Sandy approximately 90 miles southeast of Hatteras, N.C., Monday, Oct. 29, 2012. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 2nd Class Tim Kuklewski.

This Washington Post article by Ian Shapira is the most comprehensive account I've seen of what happened to HMS Bounty, a replica of the 18th century tall ship which starred in the 1962 Marlon Brando "Mutiny on the Bounty" film, and various Pirates of the Caribbean movies. No definitive word on exactly what caused the accident, but many theories.

Of the 16-person crew, the Coast Guard rescued 14. They recovered the body of Claudene Christian, 42, and are still searching for Robin Walbridge, 63, the ship's captain.

In the LA Times today, a remembrance of Ms. Christian.

Even other sea captains are mystified.

Above, a Coast Guard photo of the foundering HMS Bounty.

(thanks, Andrew Thaler)


    1. The HMS Bounty was scuttled in Pitcairn. 
      The Bounty was a replica of it.  There is another replica in Hong Kong, also named Bounty.  Neither of them ever were Her/His Majesty’s Ships.

  1. Fourteen people have the most spectacularly harrowing story to tell their grandchildren.  After living through that I think I’d want a quiet, landlubbing life with a a minimum of sensory input.  I have no doubt I’d literally kiss the ground and mean every smooch to the bottom of my heart.

  2. Why do wooden ships sink?  I can see them losing structural integrity, but wood itself floats, so they shouldn’t head straight for the bottom as soon as hull buoyancy is compromised. (I’m not making light of the tragedy, it’s an honest question.)

    1. Probably because of the crap load of non-wood items attached to the hull – especially the engine (yes sailboats usually have engines)

        1.  At her size about 250 tons of it.  Engines don’t weigh remotely enough. 
          Calling a ship a boat is like calling a barn a shed. 
          It’s just funny. 
          If it has a “captain”, not to be confused with “skipper”, it’s generally a ship. 

    2.  Tall ships and sailboats typically have tons of ballast to keep them upright, so yes, they sink when filled with water regardless of the construction material.

    1. Read the article … the other captain does not understand why the Bounty’s captain would have taken her out knowing that a hurricane was approaching.

  3. Bounty’s FB admin. says in W. Post article:
    Sometimes true, but the crew is always safer in port.
    If decisions were made based on this kind of thinking…
    Leaving port was a terrible, unpardonable mistake!

    1. True this.  I worked on a crewboat for about 18 months as a deckhand then engineer.  My first day in class after I quit that job, Katrina hit Louisiana.  I talked to the guy who got promoted behind me to engineer afterwards and he told me the boat was tied up to a dock in Freshwater City, La, not too far away from Katrina’s landing.  Yeah, the mooring lines were tugging when the tide and surge did its thing, but everyone onboard was SAFE!  IN PORT!

      This was a 100-foot crewboat with four Cummins K19s and two Detroit generators   Powerful enough and with backup, so IMHO, this was a dumb idea to be only 90 miles from land in the path of Sandy…in a boat that was a glorifed toy, not a supertanker with 40-foot draft that would get stuck in port and needs to be out at sea. If push came to shove, I’d rather be in a sinking boat in a 10-foot deep dock slip than two miles of deep blue beneath me if I can help it.

    2. It’s not just that simple. Leaving port could have been an excellent decision, if a mooring that could deal with the expected swell was unavailable…heading down so close to shore directly towards your destination? That’s the mind boggling part. If they’d headed due east or something that might have made sense (that was what they tried to do, way too late, right before the engines died and they lost both propulsion and bilge capability).

      1. You make a good point, but this ship tracker site that I forgot about had the Bounty heading south over the last ten days.  Someone failed there. Looking at those speed figures, I’m just thinking that fighting swells out of the east to head east wasn’t going to get anywhere.


        That said, I would have taken my chances tying up to another boat in a slip.

        1. This is exactly the point I was trying to make, perhaps I should have said “south” to Florida instead of “down” to Florida, but yeah…basically they didn’t turn east until the last minute and that’s the part that has everyone going WTF.

          1. That’s why I ended up here instead at the news sites regurgitating this stuff.  I’m WTFing it, too.

          2. They turned south west.  Inshore.  They crossed the (known to them) path of the storm to get squeezed between the capes and the storm. 
            I don’t get that part.  They’d have been SAFER OUT AT SEA. 

            There, right at the edge of the continental shelf the gulf stream, 90 miles wide, runs north east at peak velocities of
            greater than 2 m/s (5 knots), colliding with the storm’s swell, creating seas.  
            The heavy seas must have made it necessary to head into, to take on less water over the sides.  You can only hold that heading when making way, engines running.
            That explains the course deviation in her final hours. 

            Just my speculation.

      2. “Leaving port could have been an excellent decision”
        Yeah, if the damn boat is worth more than a life, let alone a crew!!!
        The mind boggling part is obvious.

        1. People kill themselves all the time by staying in massive fire zones so that they can hose their roofs.

          1. People kill themselves all the time by…
            When you’re responsible for others lives and safety, you are operating under an entirely separate paradigm.
            If I want to take my schooner out to frolic in a major storm, that’s my business.
            If I convince my family it’s a sensible idea for them to come with me… not!

  4. As a late-blooming sailor, I’ve become friends with several Bounty crew and even had plans to sail on her myself, especially after seeing her in all her glory in San Juan last year.  I’m completely devastated by what has happened to this magnificent vessel.  I didn’t feel anything watching Larry Ellison’s $8 million America’s Cup Catamaran capsize in the San Francisco Bay a few weeks ago (and even laughed a little, knowing that he has two others to use as back-up craft).  But the loss of this amazing Tall Ship leaves a deep, dark hole in the heart of a sailor.  My friend who was on board says he’s going to adopt his Gumby suit, since he owes his life to it and the training he went through inside of it, but he’s sailed on Bounty at least four times before and has absolute undying respect for one of the best captains he’s ever known, and is grieving deeply over the loss of his shipmates.

    I don’t know what more to add to the discussion until I have a chance to talk with him some more, but when it comes to hurricanes, any captain would prefer being well out of its way in deep water with plenty of room to avoid solid hazards, rather than being tied to a dock, hammered to kindling by waves that could crush your boat in an instant against your slip or in the path of other, perhaps even larger, boats tied nearby.  Robin had been sailing since he was 10, and grew up on the sea.  I’d trust his judgment much more than I trust my own on a boat.  I’m truly sorry I won’t be able to sail with him myself.

    1.  Saving a boat is NEVER worth a life.
      There is NO excuse for this. The storm was obvious, the ship could have been sunk in harbor and probably salvaged.
      This insane decision resulted in the loss of the ship, 2 lives, and the rest were incredibly lucky.
      Let alone the risks to the rescuers!

      1. These caps lock angry pronouncements are very confusing. It’s fine to be upset by an avoidable loss of human life, but why do folks need to make generalizations that contribute nothing and make no sense?

        “Saving a boat is never worth a life.”

        This is ridiculous. What if the boat that gets saved carries a number of other people to safety? What if the boat is carrying medical supplies that people somewhere need? What if the boat itself is critical to someone’s defense, or represents a priceless cultural treasure? Of course no such situation existed in this case, but there are dozens of others one could propose, so of course sometimes saving a boat is worth a life, or several lives. Just not in this case.

        1. Only speaking of this case and/or others that fit these fundamentals. Where the decision isn’t based on any other, over-riding concern. Yes, I feel very strongly about this, sailors losing their lives because of (who knows what)
          What happened here is imo inexcusable.

  5. Why was it out to sea at all?  Wasn’t there an obvious hurricane threat? And no, I’m not being callous, just trying to figure out why they would take such a risk…

    1. There’s no reason not to be out to sea when a hurricane might be ripping your port up, the confusing thing is why they weren’t very far out to sea at all, but rather in the storm’s path. They had plenty of fair warning and time to put out further to the east where they could have been fine. The power failure was tragic, but it seems like they were in a pretty ridiculous situation well before their power failed anyway. I suppose in the coming days more details will be made public.

      1. What happened is exactly the reason “not to be out to sea”
        Also consider, 40 knot winds and 18 foot seas are not that big a deal; IF the ship and its systems/rig are sound and the captain AND crew know what they’re doing.
        To founder (as opposed to getting wrecked) in these conditions points to ignorance or fool-hardiness.
        The decision to leave port cannot be justified by ANY argument.

  6. Contrarian thought here. I’m a Naval Architect by education (though not current profession) and intermittent inshore sailor.

    Harbors ARE more dangerous than at sea in many storms, and the idea that crews would go sit it out in a nice comfy hotel on dry land is sort of naive. For fishing boats maybe. Working ships, not so much. They’re designed to take pretty much any storm, and for severe storms they do sail out of the way preferably to hunkering down in port.

    In port, in shallow water, more waves are breaking, and dragging anchor puts you up on shore or a dock at the worst time. Rescue from a ship driven ashore even in port in the teeth of a storm may be impossible.

    Not heading out to say Bermuda seems to have been a mistake, but the idea of staying in port doesn’t make a lot of sense either.

    1.  By that thinking, all of Norfolk’s Naval vessels went out to sea?!
      This Bounty is a ‘working’ boat? What job was it responsible for that warrants the loss of life?
      The idea of staying in port may be naive, but 2 sailors would likely be alive today.
      Finally, the ship wasn’t fit for the conditions, it foundered/sank and had to be abandoned!

      1. Navy ships at facilities elsewhere routinely sortie in the face of oncoming hurricanes.  I don’t know what they did at Norfolk this particular time, but you will not see many ships sitting at anchor in Pearl Harbor or the Japanese ports or Guam or US Navy facilities on the Gulf Coast when there’s a hurricane coming in.  They, and most of the civilian shipping, move out both to get around the hurricane if possible and to stay away from shore.

        Again, if you stay in port, a serious wind and wave surge like that and you drag your anchors and end up wrecked on shore in port.  Ships aren’t tied down in port better than all those yachts you see piled up on people’s front yards in New Jersey now.  Bigger lines, but proportionally bigger wind exposure from the larger hull and superstructure.

        Again, it’s not clear why they were near shore and not out at Bermuda sitting it out.  Being at sea and charging up into the worst of the storm is not a good idea, often.  Being at sea and sailing around the hurricane is best.

  7. A three-masted brig requires at least 40-50 people to safely sail in bad weather. Each mast can carry two or three square sails and several narrow triangular sails to each side (though infrequently). As you can see in the photo, the top masts were broken off. In a heavy storm, it was normal practice to remove the top masts and sway them down to the deck to avoid having them snap off. A ship would use typically run with a single sail (the lowest sail on the most forward mast) and that sail would have several reefs (ropes that provide strength to the canvas) to make the sail flatter so it would spill air and not shred. Losing a sail in a vicious storm could result in the wind blowing the ship so that it is the beam on to the incoming waves and being broached (being buried by a large wave) and snapping off the masts. Though the masts and yards (the cross-pieces from which the sails are slung) are vulnerable to high winds even in good weather. My bet is that they were broached.

    In an extreme case, the ship might furl all sails and put a drogue sail, or sea anchor, (an open-ended cone of sail) into the water off the bow. The drogue would help keep the bow of the ship pointed into the storm. At that point, all a person could do would be to pray.

    Hundreds if not thousands of sailing ships have gone down in storms in those very waters between 1500 and 1900.

    I’m not familiar with the amount of mechanization on that particular ship. They might have had motorized winches to hoist and furl sails and make other adjustments to the rigging. If not, I can guarantee you that 16 people was not a sufficient number to safely take to sea when trying to outrun a gale/hurricane.

    1. I don’t know where to start:
      There’s no such thing as a “three-masted brig”
      Reefs aren’t ropes that flatten the sail, they’re used to make the sail smaller.
      As far as I know, when running before a storm you get rid of the courses before the topsails.
      Sailing ships three times the size of Bounty routinely survived worse weather than this with smaller crews- look up the steel-hulled Cape Horners. These didn’t have motorized winches (well, they did, but they were only usable in port for loading and unloading), though they did have muscle-powered mechanical winches.

      More importantly- we know what sank the ship. It was a bilge pump failure. 18-foot waves are not a problem for a ship the size of the Bounty even if they start breaking- a 25-foot breaking wave beam-on would be, but not an 18-foot one.

      1. Exactly this. Though to be fair, those steel Cape Horners could have smaller crews because they had split topsails, rather than full topsails that had to be reefed down in hard weather.

    2. Three crew per watch should have been enough to motor the bounty with her two John Deere 375 hp (280 kW) diesel engines.  As they were. 
      So they needed about nine people for comfort. 

      1. Incidentally, the last voyage of the original Bounty might have been with a crew of 9. There were 18 Tahitians (6 men, 11 women and a baby) on board as well as Fletcher Christian and 8 other mutineers, but given that the Tahitians may have been kidnapped I’m not sure how much part they took in sailing the ship.

        Of course, that was in the South Pacific…

  8.  What happened to the HMS Bounty? 
    She was burned and scuttled in Bounty Bay, Pitcairn on  January 23rd 1790. 

  9. Bounty foundered in gale force conditions not Hurricane force. Therefore there is reason to suspect she was not structurally or mechanically well found, and should not have put to sea in adverse weather.

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