The captain of the HMS Bounty and crewmate Claudene Christian died solely because he made undeniably wrong decisions for inexcusable reasons. That’s what the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) concludes in its report on the sinking of the tall ship Bounty on Oct. 29, 2012, in the midst of Superstorm Sandy.
Incredibly, the tragedy was prompted in part by the captain’s superstition that leaving port on a Friday brings bad luck.
That is one reason he insisted on sailing into the storm’s track rather than waiting a day for the path to clear, according to testimony of several crew members cited in the NTSB report.
Captain Robin Walbridge put his ship and his crew up against one of the worst hurricanes of recent memory because he was afraid of some bad mojo.
He compounded that recklessness with astoundingly wrong decisions to proceed in his always-leaking ship even though the ship’s bilge pumps were not working properly and then to cut directly across the path of 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.”
Walbridge chose to sail into Sandy with a ship full of makeshifts, a ship and crew not exactly right.
The easily foreseeable result was that it succumbed to its own poor condition and the battering of Sandy, costing the captain and a crew member their lives. Fourteen others were traumatized by their near deaths.
As I explain in my book, "The Gathering Wind: Hurricane Sandy, the Sailing Ship Bounty and a Courageous Rescue at Sea, " the surviving crew members of the Bounty have been fiercely loyal to their late captain, refusing to criticize his actions even under oath at the hearings conducted by the NTSB and the U.S. Coast Guard. The NTSB report, however, lays all the blame for the Bounty loss on Walbridge, and rightly so.
The NTSB concludes that every fatal decision was made by the captain alone – deciding to sail into the storm, when to sail, what path to take, whether to turn back, and when to call for help. With a pitiful over-confidence now seen clearly, “the captain seemed to believe that he could outrace the storm,” the report concludes.
The only questionable part of the NTSB report is how the ship’s owner, Robert Hansen, is essentially exonerated of having influenced Walbridge to sail into the hurricane.
There has been speculation that, along with the captain’s desire to make a scheduled charity event in Florida, Hansen may have pressured Walbridge into sailing because Hansen was trying to sell the Bounty for $4 million and wanted to gamble on outracing the storm rather than having it battered in port. Hansen pled the Fifth Amendment to avoid testifying at the hearings, raising eyebrows but leaving the NTSB with nothing to support that theory.
“No evidence suggests that the captain was under any pressure to risk both vessel and crew” by sailing into the hurricane, the NTSB concludes.
That statement will surely be used by Hansen’s attorneys in settlement talks with the family of 42-year-old Christian, the crew member who died.
Her mother, understandably bitter and seeking a pound of flesh, is suing Hansen and the Bounty organization for $90 million.
The Coast Guard report that is expected soon almost certainly will reach the same conclusion as the NTSB, laying blame on the one man who at several critical junctures had the ability, the experience, and the resources to make the right decision, yet made the wrong decision every time.
The surviving crew of the Bounty will be pained to hear that the man they so deeply respected, and whose loss they still mourn, is being held solely responsible for the tragedy.
One can only hope that they take away the last lesson their captain can teach them: superstition and hubris is no way to run a ship.
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).