Published February 12, 2013
PORTSMOUTH, Va. – The chief mate of a replica 18th-century sailing ship that sank off North Carolina during Hurricane Sandy told investigators Tuesday that the ship's captain twice refused his pleas to order the crew to abandon ship.
It wasn't until he made a third plea that the captain gave the order — moments before the ship rolled and tossed the crew into the water.
One member of the HMS Bounty's 16-person-crew died, and the captain was never found after the ship sank 90 miles off Cape Hatteras during the October storm. The three-mast sailing ship was built for the 1962 film "Mutiny on the Bounty" starring Marlon Brando, and was featured in several other films over the years, including one of the "Pirates of the Caribbean" movies.
A federal safety panel began hearing testimony in a Portsmouth hotel about what led to the sinking, with chief mate John Svendsen providing a detailed account of what happened in the days, hours and minutes leading up to the loss of the ship.
Svendsen said the ship was taking on water and had no power when it rolled over and sank. He also told investigators the captain didn't alert Coast Guard officials of the ship's deteriorating condition when he first suggested it, with Capt. Robin Walbridge choosing to focus on fixing failing generators instead. Svendsen disagreed with Walbridge on that decision, along with several others.
Before ever leaving New London, Conn., for St. Petersburg, Fla., Svendsen said he had told Walbridge that he and other crew members were concerned about his decision to head directly toward the top of the storm as it approached.
"I had mentioned other options as far as staying in and not going out to sea. Robin felt the ship was safer at sea," Svendsen said.
Svendsen said Walbridge wanted to head out to sea and then judge where the storm's path would be to allow for safer passage, giving him options to go east or west depending on the route.
Walbridge explained his decision to the ship's crew before leaving Connecticut and offered to let anyone who wasn't comfortable with it leave, but nobody chose to do so.
He said Walbridge believed the winds on the southeast side of a hurricane were more navigable. The original plan for the ship had it taking a more direct route along the East Coast between Florida and the Bahamas.
Under questioning by Coast Guard investigators, Svendsen said he didn't believe that Walbridge was chasing the hurricane. Instead, he said he believed Walbridge was looking for the safest route around the massive storm once it approached. The line of questioning was inspired by an interview Walbridge gave while in Belfast, Maine, for a public access television show that aired in August and is posted on YouTube.
"We run into stormy seas. We chase hurricanes," Walbridge said. "You try and get up as close to the eye of it as you can and you stay down in the southeast quadrant and when it stops, you stop. You don't want to get in front of it. You want to stay behind it. But you also get a good ride out of the hurricane."
However, getting in front of the hurricane is exactly what Walbridge did when he chose to head west toward Cape Hatteras in search of calmer waters. When asked whether he was concerned about that move, Svendsen said he deferred to Walbridge's greater wealth of experience on navigating through a hurricane.
Although the hearing being administered by the Coast Guard isn't a criminal proceeding, any evidence of wrongdoing could be referred to federal prosecutors.
The owner of the HMS Bounty declined to testify at the hearing by invoking his Fifth Amendment right to be protected from incriminating himself. Another member of the HMS Bounty organization was scheduled to testify on Wednesday.
Surviving crew members, captains of similar multi-mast sailing ships and representatives of the Maine shipyard where the Bounty underwent repairs weeks before sinking were among those subpoenaed to testify. Svendsen said that water was seen coming through the planks of the ship in the storm.
A representative from Boothbay Harbor Shipyard was scheduled to testify on Wednesday. The hearing is scheduled to last through Feb. 21.
Brock Vergakis can be reached at www.twitter.com/BrockVergakis