Sailor Says Pleaded With Bounty Captain to Leave

The tall ship HMS Bounty sails on Lake Erie off Cleveland.

PORTSMOUTH -- The Bounty had been taking on water for hours when Chief Mate John Svendsen told Capt. Robin Walbridge it was time to abandon ship.

Walbridge said they had more time.

The wooden sailboat was heeling in 20- to 30-foot seas. The crew stood on deck in survival suits awaiting orders. The lower part of the tall ship was flooded. Water had killed the two engines and two generators. Svendsen watched another wave rush over the ship's rail.

Again, he told the captain it was time to abandon ship. Walbridge, who had skippered the ship since 1995, said not yet.

Svendsen thrust his left arm into his survival suit to show it was time to go. Walbridge agreed, but just then a wave slammed the Bounty onto its side. The crew spilled into the water to fight for their lives.

Svendsen on Tuesday related what happened to the Bounty as part of the Coast Guard's investigation into the Oct. 29 sinking of the 180-foot ship that resulted in two deaths.

About 40 people attended the hearing in a ballroom of the Renaissance Portsmouth Hotel and Waterfront Conference Center. The parents of Claudene Christian, a Bounty crew member who died, were there with a lawyer. Cmdr. Kevin Carroll, chief of the Inspection and Investigations Branch for the Coast Guard's Fifth District Prevention Division, presided.

Robert Hansen, owner of the Bounty, declined to testify, invoking his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination.

Svendsen said the Bounty's crew learned of Hurricane Sandy on Oct. 23 while docked in New London, Conn. A Minnesota man with five years' experience sailing on tall ships, he gave this account Tuesday:

Walbridge opted to sail Oct. 25 over concerns raised by Svendsen and other crew members, and relayed to Walbridge by Svendsen, who raised the prospect of staying in port. Walbridge said the ship was safer at sea than in port.

Walbridge called an all-hands meeting on deck to explain his decision to sail and to tell crew members they could get off if they wanted. All 15 crew members stayed.

The plan was to sail south and east offshore to a point where Walbridge could evaluate the path of the hurricane and pick a route.

They left New London around 5 p.m. on Oct. 25. Two days later, Walbridge changed course to the southwest to cut in front of Sandy for the lee of Hatteras Island, where he hoped for better conditions.

"Being a prudent mariner, I was concerned," Svendsen said.

Winds blew about 20 knots. The night passed in relative peace.

The next day, bilge pumps were running continually to keep up with water seeping into the ship. Problems arose. Lots of them.

The port-side engine and generator stopped running. The starboard generator was acting strange, causing lights to flicker. A fuel tank had leaked.

Walbridge had fallen into a table, and his back was in pain.

Down below, crew members worked on the generators and strained debris from the sloshing water so it wouldn't clog bilge pumps.

Svendsen suggested they contact the Coast Guard. Walbridge said to focus on the generators instead.

Around 6 p.m., Svendsen stood in howling wind on the deck with a satellite phone. He had a garbled conversation with the ship's owner, Hansen, and tried different Coast Guard numbers but couldn't be sure he was talking to a real person or leaving a voicemail.

Apparently, Hansen had understood and contacted the Coast Guard.

Walbridge managed to email a Bounty executive and the Coast Guard. He learned the Coast Guard would be sending out a C-130 plane to look for the Bounty and possibly drop pumps.

Down below, water penetrated sections of hull normally above the waterline.

Generators and engines were repaired but failed again. Ship engineer Christopher Barksdale was battling seasickness.

The seas had grown to 25 to 30 feet. The wind was blowing 50 mph.

Around 10 p.m., Walbridge decided the crew needed to put on survival suits. The ship had taken on too much water. The engines and generators were underwater. The boat had no power.

Walbridge estimated the ship could make it until 8 a.m. for a daylight Coast Guard rescue. Overnight, conditions worsened.

Sometime after 4 a.m., Svendsen told Walbridge he thought they should abandon ship. Walbridge said no twice in the span of about two minutes, Svendsen estimated, before a wave rolled the ship, sending the crew into the water.

Svensden radioed the circling Coast Guard plane to say they were abandoning ship.

He climbed out a mast, which was horizontal in the water, and jumped. He got snagged on debris and was pulled under the water several times before getting away from the ship.

He turned and saw Walbridge walking aft on the deck wearing a survival suit and life jacket. He never saw him again.

A Coast Guard helicopter and rescue swimmer reached Svensden just before daylight. He had multiple injuries: trauma to his head, neck, chest and abdomen; broken bones in his right hand, a twisted right knee, hypothermia and an inflated esophagus and stomach from seawater ingestion.

The Coast Guard rescued 14 of the Bounty's crew members. Christian was found unresponsive and later died. Walbridge was never found.

The hearing on the Bounty's sinking continues today.

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