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At festivals that draw tall ships, the sailors usually get together to swap sea stories and discuss best practices.
They share a love of adventure on the high seas, and many become fast friends. That’s how Cmdr. Michael Turdo, executive officer on the U.S. Coast Guard barque Eagle, got to know John Svendsen, chief mate on the HMS Bounty. The Bounty sank Monday off the coast of North Carolina during Hurricane Sandy.
“Obviously, I was shocked, worried and concerned,” Turdo said Tuesday. “As fellow members of the tall ships community, any ship in trouble at sea resonates with us, and our thoughts are with that crew and their families. It’s especially surreal when you have a personal relationship with the crew.”
Of the 16 aboard, the Coast Guard rescued 14, including Svendsen, and were continuing to search for the captain, Robin Walbridge, Tuesday night. Crew member Claudene Christian was unresponsive when she was pulled from the water, and she was later pronounced dead.
Svendsen sailed on the Eagle in September, and he met Turdo for lunch Oct. 24 when the Bounty was in New London to host submariners from the USS Mississippi for a day sail the next day. Bounty owner Robert Hansen had invited the crew after he toured the Naval Submarine Base in Groton last year.
The Bounty had been in a dry dock in Boothbay Harbor Shipyard and had stopped in Connecticut en route to St. Petersburg, Fla., Turdo said. He said the crew was excited about the upcoming season and the work that had been completed in Maine.
“They were looking forward to a good year,” he said.
After leaving New London Thursday night, the Bounty was south of Hatteras, N.C., on Monday when it lost power and began taking on water. The ship was battered by 40 mph winds and 18 foot waves.
Turdo spoke with Svendsen on the phone from Coast Guard Air Station Elizabeth City, N.C., Monday night.
“He sounded pretty shaken up,” he said. “It was a brief conversation to let him know the entire crew of Eagle was thinking about the entire crew of Bounty, and our thoughts and prayers are with them.”
Some have questioned why the Bounty would be at sea during a hurricane, but Turdo said they did not discuss how events unfolded. The Eagle was at the submarine base for maintenance and stayed there during the storm. It was not damaged.
Capt. Eric C. Jones, who served as commanding officer of the Eagle until July, said Walbridge is a “very good friend,” and one of the most experienced, skilled captains he knows. Deciding whether to keep a ship in port during a storm or to head out to sea, he said, is “always a tough, tough call.”
“I would never try to second-guess the captain,” said Jones, who is now the assistant superintendent at the Coast Guard Academy. “It’s just as easy to lose anchor and get thrown up on shore and lose the ship.”
Jones said the Bounty must have been in “dire straits” after it lost power, because a ship needs a lot of people on board to operate the manual pumps. He called the sinking “heartbreaking.”
Bert Rogers, executive director of Tall Ships America, said he expects an inquiry into why the Bounty stayed at sea in case anything can be learned.
“I know Capt. Walbridge as a sound-thinking, reliable, seasoned mariner, and I do not imagine he would knowingly, willingly take reckless risks,” said Rogers, adding later that he could not speculate on what the right decision was “from the safety of my armchair.”
“We will miss Bounty,” Rogers said.
Walbridge has been on the Bounty since 1995.
There are roughly 200 tall ships in North America, and Capt. Raymond “Wes” Pulver, Eagle’s current commanding officer, said, “This is a loss to the entire community.”
He praised the Coast Guardsmen involved in the rescue for their tremendous efforts during an “incredible storm.”
Eagle and Bounty visited many of the same ports during this summer’s Operation Sail events and tall ships festivals.