I have been thinking about how I would surmise the end of HMS Bounty, quite a bit these last few months. On several internet forums the Captain, Owner, and crew have been lionized, demonized, and had their tragedy thrust into an uncomfortably hot spotlight. Not long after the sinking I spoke to an author writing an article about the vessel and found myself struggling to find a balance between respect for those involved, and at the same time being as forthcoming as possible with the information I had. It was while on the phone during this interview I came to two conclusions, I did not want to spread rumors and I simply needed to sit back and wait for more information to surface to get a clearer image of everything that happened. So I bit my tongue on a lot of things and watched the coast guard interviews online with rapt attention. I also continued to read discussions on several forums about the incident, and soaked up the words of people known in the blogosphere as industry professionals.
At this point it should be made clear I am not writing this to point fingers, or place blame, or even seek a peace. I was stirred to start writing by the CNN article Life and Death on the Bounty written by Thom Patterson. In my opinion it was one of the better researched and written articles about the incident, and I really can only follow in its lead. What it did best was show respect, because no matter what you think of the surviving crew, they are people and two of them are very real to me. I attended school with one, a young woman of truly unique energy and an absolute love of traditional sail vessels. The other a co-worker on a sister vessel at Entertainment Cruises, I will admit we only worked together a few times, however he gave the impression of a nice guy and he was a good shipmate.
Bounty existed in a legal grey area, and by all accounts operated their intentionally for primarily financial reasons. Many tall ships are known to have money issues, it is a fact of life when it comes to operating these vessels. Traditional wooden sailing vessels require a lot of specialty knowledge in addition to equipment and the usual large facility’s to maintain them. Couple this with the fact that many earn their keep carrying passengers, always a cargo of small profit margins, you get a situation where without oversight and good management it can quickly become corporate culture to cut corners to save a dime. This begs to question why don’t we have more Bounty’s, more vessels of dubious condition operating so far in left field? The answer being how U.S. vessels are inspected for different uses. Bounty only had to pass an inspection as a “dockside attraction”, in other words she was deemed fit by the USCG to have paying customers aboard alongside the dock, but not under way. In fact whenever she made an ocean or coastwise passage she did so as essentially a large yacht. She and her Capt. operated in this grey area for years and years with no deaths, no major incidents, and a darling reputation with the general public. However Capt. Walbridge’s lack of failure should not and cannot be taken as a record of success.
What sank the Bounty? There are a lot of factors, however one overrides all. If she had remained in New London, gone upriver to Mystic, or even made the short run up to New Bedford, she more than likely would still be afloat today. A lot of things, many of them cruel and impolite have been said about Capt. Walbridge and I will not defend his decision to sail, or the way he operated the vessel. However that die is cast and rehashing isn’t something I am interested in doing. I will break down the issues I can see helped contribute to the sinking and subsequent loss of life.
Major reasons for loss of vessel:
-The decision to leave safe port and attempt out sail a well forecasted, large, and powerful weather system.
Contributing reasons for the loss of the vessel:
-Lack of and improper maintenance. The use of household sealant on seams for one, rot to structural members. Also while it is normal for a wooden vessel to make some water. Having to be pumped, as I understand once or twice a watch”, is a lot more than making water. It is an outright condition of sinking.
-Lack of understanding and experience with the electrical generating and bilge pumping systems. The fact that the “engineer” testified before the USCG panel that diesel engines did not return any fuel to the tank is honestly all that needs to be said. In her darkest hour Bounty would have needed one hell of an engineer to keep the generators running and the pumps primed. The fact that it never occurred to those involved in the bilge pumping to crack the sea chest to help maintain a prime on the pumps as the vessel rolled also shows a lack of experience and proper training.
-Inaction by the Master to correct known problems with the bilge pumping system. It was reported on several occasions that the bilge pumping system appeared to be operating a reduced capacity.
Major reasons for the loss of life:
-The decision to leave safe port and attempt to out sail a well forecasted, large, and powerful weather system.
Contributing reasons for the loss of life:
-Delay in the decision to abandon ship. By the time the decision was made to abandon ship, the vessels was nearly swamped and the rigging posed a serious hazard to those entering the water.
-Confusion while abandoning ship. I choke this up to two reasons, the lack of a station bill and formal emergency stations and duties system. As well as the aforementioned delay in abandoning ship. I can only imagine the main deck as akin to a war zone as the crew mustered, and it would have been hell trying to stay together and work as a cohesive unit.
Yes there are a lot of other issues and minor details to nit pick, however when all and said and done the above reasons for the sinking and subsequent loss of life are what in my opinion matter most here.
What can we learn from all of this? First I would like to point out that were it not for my love of expensive toys and big cool pieces of equipment, there is a good chance I would be working in the sail training industry. In fact many of the vessels in the industry are well manned, maintained, and operated to a very high standard. Bounty and her Capt. for all their charm and charisma were outliers that operated on a shoe string budget in a very grey area of legality. In my opinion the fact that she was allowed to operate in the manner she did for so long is a major failure by the USCG to keep tabs on an industry that many hold as dear as baseball and apple pie. American sailors in tall ships took our nation from a rebellious set of colonies to a world power in a dramatically short period of time. The vessels in this industry are not only living piece of our history, but incredible learning tools for many young people. If a vessel seeking a dockside attraction classification was only allowed to operate as such, without an approved voyage plan, this incident could have been prevented. Claudene Christian would still be alive.