October 30, 2012 10:16:04 AM
ELIZABETH CITY, N.C. -- When the Bounty set sail last week, the captain running the ship made famous in Hollywood adventure films believed he could navigate around Hurricane Sandy and weather the storm. After two days in rough seas, he realized his journey would be far more difficult.
"I think we are going to be into this for several days," Robin Walbridge said in a message posted Sunday on the vessel's Facebook site, which reads like a ship's log of her activities. "We are just going to keep trying to go fast."
By Monday morning, the vessel had started taking on water, its engines failed and the crew of the stately craft had to abandon ship as it went down in the immense waves. One crew member died and Walbridge was still missing.
Most of the sailors were plucked from life rafts shortly after the ship went down, but Claudene Christian was found hours later, unresponsive and floating in the water. She was pronounced dead after being taken to a hospital, Coast Guard Petty Officer 3rd Class David Weydert said.
The rest of the crew was in good condition.
By the time the first rescue helicopter arrived, all that was visible of the replica 18th-century sailing vessel was a strobe light atop the mighty ship's submerged masts. The roiling Atlantic Ocean had claimed the rest.
The final hours of the HMS Bounty, as it was officially named, were as dramatic as the movies she starred in.
"When a crew decides it's safer in an inflatable than it is on deck, then you know she's in peril," said Bill Foster, mayor of St. Petersburg, Fla., a frequent winter port for the ship and where it had been expected to arrive in November.
The ship was originally built for the 1962 film "Mutiny on the Bounty" starring Marlon Brando, and it was featured in several other films over the years, including one of the "Pirates of the Caribbean" movies.
Rochelle Smith, 44, met Christian this summer when they sailed the HMS Bounty in Nova Scotia.
"She loved the Bounty. She absolutely loved it. She was so happy to be on it and doing something that she found that she loved to do," said Smith, a medical transcriptionist who lives in Thunder Bay, Ontario, Canada.
The vessel left Connecticut on Thursday with a crew of 11 men and five women, ranging in age from 20 to 66. Everyone aboard knew the journey could be treacherous.
"This will be a tough voyage for Bounty," read a posting on the ship's Facebook page that showed a map of its coordinates and satellite images of the storm. Photos showed the majestic vessel plying deep blue waters and the crew working in the rigging or keeping watch on the wood-planked deck.
As Sandy's massive size became more apparent, a post on Saturday tried to soothe any worried supporters: "Rest assured that the Bounty is safe and in very capable hands. Bounty's current voyage is a calculated decision ... NOT AT ALL ... irresponsible or with a lack of foresight as some have suggested. The fact of the matter is ... A SHIP IS SAFER AT SEA THAN IN PORT!"
But as the storm gathered strength, the Facebook posts grew grimmer. By mid-morning Monday, the last update was short and ominous: "Please bear with us ... There are so many conflicting stories going on now. We are waiting for some confirmation."
Tracie Simonin, director of the HMS Bounty Organization, said the ship tried to stay clear of Sandy's power.
"It was something that we and the captain of the ship were aware of," Simonin said.
Coast Guard video of the rescue showed crew members being loaded one by one into a basket before the basket was hoisted into the helicopter.
When they returned to the mainland, some were wrapped in blankets, still wearing the blazing red survival suits they put on to stay warm in the chilly waters.
"It's one of the biggest seas I've ever been in. It was huge out there," said Coast Guard rescue swimmer Randy Haba, who helped pluck four crew members off one of the canopied life rafts and a fifth who was bobbing alone in the waves.
A helicopter pilot said the waves appeared to be 30 feet high during the rescue. The Coast Guard said in a news release that waves in many places topped out around 18 feet.
The survivors received medical attention and were to be interviewed for a Coast Guard investigation. The Coast Guard did not make them available to reporters.
Gary Farber was watching crewman Doug Faunt's house while his friend sailed. He hasn't heard from Faunt directly, but made sure he relayed Faunt's Facebook postings he made as the ship went down, including "The ship sank beneath us, but we swam free and mostly got into two rafts."
"Doug is a jack-of-all-trades, but I am surprised he was able to get his cellphone and send messages as the ship went down," Farber said by telephone of his friend.
The mother of another crew member, 20-year-old Anna Sprague, said her daughter had been aboard the Bounty since May.
Mary Ellen Sprague, of Savannah, Ga., said she had spoken with her daughter twice but didn't know many details because her daughter, normally talkative and outgoing, was being uncharacteristically quiet.
"She's very upset," Sprague said by telephone.
The crew was eager to return to St. Petersburg -- and to calmer waters.
"I know they were very much looking forward to being here," said Carol Everson, general manager of the pier where the vessel docks. "They were very excited about coming down."
The Bounty's captain was from St. Petersburg, she said.
Wallbridge learned to sail at age 10, according to his biography on the Bounty's website. Prior to the Bounty, he served as first mate on the H.M.S. Rose -- the Bounty's sister ship.
"The ship was almost like his home," said Smith, who met Walbridge in 2010 when she sailed the Bounty. "That's where he spent most of his time was aboard the ship. He was so full of history and so interesting to talk to. And he knew his sailing stuff."
A man who answered the door at a home listed as being owned by the captain and his wife said: "Not a good time," and closed the door.