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A year after Sandy, Bounty rescue highlights courage of Coast Guard

Oct. 29, 2012: A member of the U.S. Coast Guard is lowered to a life raft in the Atlantic Ocean approximately 90 miles southeast of Hatteras, North Carolina. The U.S. Coast Guard rescued 14 of the 16 crew who abandoned the HMS Bounty while in the path of Hurricane Sandy off North Carolina, using helicopters to lift them from life rafts, the Coast Guard said.REUTERS

Superstorm Sandy’s devastation on shore was unprecedented, but Sandy also created a tragedy at sea that would become one of the most puzzling aspects of the disaster -- the loss of a wooden sailing ship that had bizarrely sailed straight into the storm.

A year later, that footnote to the larger story of a superstorm is yielding two lessons, one about the dangers of hubris and blind allegiance, and the other a counterpoint to remind us that even in the worst circumstances there are still courageous people in the military who will respond when called.

The Bounty, a replica of the original HMS Bounty that became legendary after its crew mutinied in 1789, floundered in the winds and seas of Sandy. The captain and a crew member died, and fourteen others were traumatized by their near deaths.

In the end, the only thing the Coast Guard crews regretted was not being able to save two of the sixteen people in distress.

As soon as the news hit that the Bounty was in trouble, nearly everyone asked the same question: What in the world was that ship doing out there in the middle of a hurricane? This was no aircraft carrier, no super tanker, no fishing boat caught trying to return to port. This was a creaky, old wooden ship built for the 1962 movie "Mutiny on the Bounty," and even in calm seas and blue skies it was known to leak like a sieve.

Yet there it was, 90 miles off the coast of Cape Hatteras as this Superstorm bore down on Oct. 29, 2012, struggling with failing engines and pumps, and taking on water faster than anyone had ever seen before. And the ship was there intentionally.

As I explain in my book, "The Gathering Wind: Hurricane Sandy, the Sailing Ship Bounty and a Courageous Rescue at Sea," it was there because the captain, Robin Walbridge, made a series of tragically wrong decisions that would cap off an otherwise admirable career at sea. And some believe it might have been there partly because the owner was trying to sell the vessel for millions and gambled on trying to outrun the hurricane.

The ship could have ridden out the hurricane in a New England port and most likely would have survived with minimal damage. Instead, it sailed on schedule from New London, Conn., to its destination in Florida.

In doing so, the captain went against conventional maritime practices for avoiding such a storm, but he violated no laws or Coast Guard regulations. The crew trusted their captain completely, and there was no regulatory oversight that could prevent him from putting these mostly young, inexperienced people in harm’s way.

The Bounty was vastly outmatched by the storm. When Scottish novelist John Buchan wrote of the lessons learned by English seamen, he said chief among them was that “the sea endured no makeshifts. If a thing is not exactly right it will be vastly wrong.”

The crew of the Bounty learned this lesson well and two paid for the lesson with their lives. The Bounty was not exactly right and taking it into Hurricane Sandy turned out to be vastly wrong.

Fortunately for the crew of the Bounty, other men and women of the Coast Guard were ready to rescue them. 

When the call came in to the Coast Guard station in Elizabeth City, North Carolina, every pilot, co-pilot, technician, and rescue swimmer on duty was willing to fly into the worst weather they had ever seen, conditions they hoped to never see again, to save people they had never met. And without second-guessing how they came to be in such trouble.

As the Bounty was losing its fight with Sandy, they flew directly into the storm in airplanes and helicopters that were tossed around like toys in the wind, risking their lives with every moment they were out there.

In the end, the only thing the Coast Guard crews regretted was not being able to save two of the sixteen people in distress.

The courage of dozens of Coast Guard rescuers saved 14 Bounty crew members when a worse outcome would have surprised no one. The Coast Guard recovered the body of one Bounty sailor, Claudene Christian, and her family is grateful for that small grace. The captain was never seen again.

As one Coast Guard pilot told me, he does not relish going on such a mission because it means someone is in serious danger. But he will go because someone has to, and what he does can mean more than saving one life.

After meeting a crew member he helped rescue from the Bounty, the pilot realized that because of what he and his colleagues did that day, a young woman he rescued probably would go on to have children one day. For him, that makes risking his own life worthwhile. But like every Coast Guard member I have ever encountered, he is utterly humble and modest about what he does.

The tragic end of the Bounty taught many lessons to those who were aboard and survived. For the rest of us, the lessons on this anniversary of the Bounty rescue are more about humility and the impact one person can have on another.

We should be thankful for the men and women of the Coast Guard who stand ready to respond when we have erred, every mission reminding us of the value of a human life.

Gregory A. Freeman is author of "The Gathering Wind: Hurricane Sandy, the Sailing Ship Bounty, and a Courageous Rescue at Sea" (New American Library 2013).