NEWBURYPORT — It was a pleasant July weekend in 2012 when the HMS Bounty pulled into Newburyport Harbor. Thousands thronged its deck, eager to see what life was like aboard the handsome tall ship.
It was a landmark event for Newburyport, a shipbuilding city that had made its fame and fortune from ships similar to the Bounty. City leaders were enthusiastic about the excitement the replica 18th-century ship had generated. They talked about the possibility of bringing the Bounty and other sailing ships to the waterfront on a regular basis.
And for some, that made the shock of what was to come that much worse.
Newburyport would be one of the final ports of call for the 52-year-old ship.
Three months after it left Newburyport, it sank 123 miles off Cape Hatteras, N.C., during Hurricane Sandy. Three crew members were badly injured, one crew member drowned, and its captain was lost at sea.
On Monday the National Transportation Safety Board released its official report on the incident, citing Capt. Robin Walbridge, a stubborn and highly experienced seaman who often said he feared no storm, as largely to blame for the sinking. It also blamed poor maintenance, an inexperienced crew and a compromised ship.
Newburyporters who went aboard the ship during its stay here witnessed some of the issues that the NTSB discussed in its report. Some also interacted with the captain. They shared their impressions with The Daily News.
The NTSB conclusions, released Monday, cited Walbridge, 63, a Vermont native with a lifetime of sailing experience, for his “reckless decision to sail the vessel into the well-forecast path of Hurricane Sandy.”
The report found that Walbridge, who had bragged to a Maine TV station two months earlier that he “chased hurricanes,” exposed the leaky, poorly maintained craft — a replica of an 18th-century British Admiralty sailing ship — to deadly risks by ignoring pleas not to sail into the path of the approaching storm. He “subjected the aging vessel and the inexperienced crew to conditions from which the vessel could not recover,” investigators concluded.
Walbridge and Claudene Christian, 42, who had volunteered to become a $100-a-week deckhand, died in the sinking. Christian’s body was found 10 hours after the ship sank and about eight miles away, still in a protective immersion suit. Fourteen crew members survived, but three were seriously injured. Walbridge’s body was never found.
Newburyport harbormaster Paul Hogg was one of several people who spoke to Walbridge and went aboard the ship during a VIP reception the night it pulled into port. Earlier in the day he had watched the Bounty pull up to the city’s downtown waterfront docks. He was impressed by Walbridge’s skill at handling the ship. The crew expertly used sails to bring the ship tight to the docks — no small feat, Hogg observed.
“(Walbridge) definitely had a lot of experience. I was impressed with him,” said Hogg. “He seemed like a knowledgeable guy.”
Hogg recalled his impressions of the Bounty. It was a graceful and beautiful ship, he noted, but from a practical mariner’s point of view, he wouldn’t want to be on it in rough weather.
“It was an aged boat. It definitely looked like it needed repair,” he said. “I wouldn’t have gone out in anything bigger than 3-foot waves on it.”
The ship, built in 1960 for MGM Studios’ Marlon Brando movie “Mutiny on the Bounty,” fought its way through 30-foot waves before succumbing to them.
One of the issues raised by investigators was the bilge pump system. The pumps, clogged by loose and soggy shavings, were unable to handle the amount of water pouring in. The shavings were something that had caught the eye of Michael Mroz, director of the Newburyport Maritime Society, when he toured the boat during its Newburyport visit.
“You might think it was charming to see a room full of wood shavings in an old ship,” he said.
He noted the shavings at the time, but the danger of them didn’t click until he heard that they had been a primary cause for the bilge pumps’ failure.
After leaving Newburyport, the Bounty made a handful of other stops before calling at Boothbay Harbor, Maine, where it underwent repairs. Some of those repairs were shoddy, the NTSB found — for example, the crew did not properly seal areas of extensive rot on the wooden hull. They also used household grade caulk, totally unsuitable for the marine environment the Bounty operated in. New areas of rot were discovered; the report said the captain ordered that they be painted and sealed due to financial constraints.
The Bounty left Boothbay in mid-October and cruised down the coast to Groton, Conn., where it docked for tours. Its next scheduled tours were to take place in St. Petersburg, Fla., on Nov. 10. It departed for Florida on Oct. 25, just as forecasters predicted a devastating hit by Hurricane Sandy as the storm lumbered up the Atlantic toward the East Coast.
Despite pleads by crew members to stay safely in port, Walbridge set sail into the teeth of the storm and its forecasted 100 mph winds.
Hogg said he felt Walbridge was trying to save the ship by attempting to bypass the storm.
“They say a ship is always safer at sea during a big storm. He was probably trying to save his asset,” he said. “Obviously, he made a huge mistake.”
That decision was inexplicable and irresponsible, the investigation concluded.
“Although this wooden ship was modeled after an 18th-century vessel, the captain had access to 21st-century hurricane modeling tools that predicted the path and severity of Hurricane Sandy,’’ NTSB chairman Deborah A.P. Hersman said in a statement that accompanied the report. “The Bounty’s crew was put into an extraordinarily hazardous situation through decisions that by any measure didn’t prioritize safety.”
Hogg, who has conducted numerous rescues in local waters, noted the extreme risk that Walbridge placed the Coast Guard in as they responded to the foundering ship. Mariners who make poor decisions in storms risk the lives of their crew and their rescuers, he said.
The NTSB’s report goes into detail on the final hours aboard the Bounty. The severe seas caused water to rush in. Engines sputtered, and so did the bilge pumps. The sails had been shredded.
The ship’s engineer was seasick and injured in a bad fall. A deckhand had been tossed into the mainmast, breaking three ribs. Walbridge had been slammed against a bolted cabin table, wrenching his back. He could barely walk. The crew was exhausted by the pounding the ship was enduring.
By the time a distress call was made on the night of Oct. 28, it was too late. The engine room soon flooded. The port generator and main engine failed. The vessel was adrift, slammed helplessly against crashing seas.
About an hour before the ship sank, according to testimony at the hearing, the captain assembled the crew and asked: “What went wrong? At what point did we lose control?”
Shortly after 4 a.m. on Oct. 29, the Bounty pitched violently on its starboard side, pitching the crew into the frigid Atlantic.
Coast Guard helicopter crews rescued 14 crew members. Walbridge was presumed lost at sea.
Hogg said he believes Walbridge may have chosen to go down with the ship, perhaps realizing the enormity of his mistakes.
Newburyport was hit by the remnants of Sandy, with high waves that pounded the waterfront. But that wasn’t the worst of the storm for many Newburyporters who were in shock from the news that had occurred nearly 1,000 miles away. It was hard to comprehend that a ship that had captivated the imagination of the city had been so dramatically and suddenly lost.
“When the Bounty sank, it was almost like a piece of us was lost,” Hogg said. In the few short days the crew had spent in Newburyport, many friendships had been made, Hogg noted, and the enthusiasm caused by the ship’s visit was contagious.
“We couldn’t believe it had sunk,” he said. “It was a sad day.”
“What a sad story,” said Mroz, who recalled watching the Bounty leave Newburyport, its masts slowly fading from view as it made its way out of the mouth of the Merrimack River and up the coast.
“I won’t ever forget that last glimpse,” he said. “The loss of the Bounty really hit everyone’s heart.”