New book examines sinking of tall ship Bounty

The crew from the USS Mississippi submarine get a briefing from HMS Bounty captain Robin Walbridge on Oct. 25, 2012, days before the tall ship sank. Walbridge's body was never found.
The crew from the USS Mississippi submarine get a briefing from HMS Bounty captain Robin Walbridge on Oct. 25, 2012, days before the tall ship sank. Walbridge's body was never found. Sean D. Elliot/The Day Buy Photo

New book examines sinking of tall ship

When the tall ship Bounty sank in Superstorm Sandy in October 2012 after sailing from New London, there was shock and grief for the two lives lost, but also a perplexing question.

How could it have happened?

A year and a half later, a new book recounts the ordeal faced by the crew as they sailed into the jaws of a monster storm and the heroic rescue mission by the Coast Guard.

But "Rescue of the Bounty" also attempts to answer that haunting question. The result is a tale that succeeds both as a high-seas adventure and as a psychological portrait of Bounty's ill-fated captain, Robin Walbridge, whose body was never found.

The story begins with Bounty docked at City Pier in New London, where it had come to take the crew of the submarine USS Mississippi for a day sail. As the ship prepares to depart for St. Petersburg, Fla., there is unease among the crew because of the approaching hurricane.

Walbridge gathers everyone on deck, explains his plan to sail around the storm and gives anyone who wants to a chance to leave the ship.

Reassured, everyone decides to stay.

That scene illustrates what co-author Douglas A. Campbell says is part of the explanation for why Bounty sailed. Walbridge, he believes, was trapped by his own success as a tall ship captain and surrounded by a young, largely inexperienced crew in no position to question his judgment or give opposing points of view.

Co-author Michael J. Tougias, who has produced a number of books on maritime disasters, wrote mostly about the rescue, while Campbell, a former Philadelphia Inquirer reporter, focused on Walbridge.

Campbell said that while attending Coast Guard hearings after the disaster, he could see that Walbridge still held sway over the crew even after his death.

"They just were enthralled by the guy," he said in a telephone interview.

Campbell said he sought out family members and former co-workers of Walbridge to learn what made him tick so that his decision to sail might become clear.

"To me the question was why he did it, and you couldn't ask him," Campbell said.

The narrative charts Bounty's trip south from New London into the open ocean. As the weather deteriorates, things start going wrong.

The crew loses control of sails and rigging in the wind, the boat starts to leak, and the pumps can't keep up.

Consternation sets in among the crew, rising along with the water in Bounty's bilge. Several of them are hurled about the ship and injured as the sea grows violent. Eventually, they realize Bounty is doomed.

Woven into this are chapters on the history of the ship, built for the 1962 movie "Mutiny on the Bounty," and on Walbridge's journey to becoming the captain who thought sailing into a hurricane was his best option.

The portrait that emerges is of a friendly but laconic Yankee who keeps his own counsel, patiently educating his crew in the ways of square-rigged sailing but spending most of his time holed up in his cabin while they ran the ship.

Walbridge's natural inclination was to quietly work out solutions before others realized there were problems. As a child in Vermont, the book says, he hadn't uttered a word by age 2, then suddenly began speaking in complete sentences.

It's not hard to imagine Walbridge weighing the risks posed by the storm, which he believed was an ordinary hurricane, deciding they were worth taking, then arguing persuasively that he had thought it all through.

But Campbell says that even though "he didn't know what he didn't know" about the size of the storm, Walbridge's decision raises questions about his competence because of what he did know about his ship.

Rot had been discovered in Bounty's hull and painted over because there wasn't time to fix it. While there was disagreement on the seriousness of the problem, Campbell said, Walbridge also was aware that the ship's topsides - the hull above the waterline - were dried out from months of sailing in calm waters and that the pumps didn't work properly.

With those two factors alone, Campbell said, "there was every reason not to go." Together, they were what sank the ship, as water poured in through the hull and the pumps sputtered and died.

The book provides heartbreaking details about crew member Claudene Christian, Bounty's other victim. Her sunny early days as a college cheerleader had dead-ended in failed business ventures, and at age 42, she had found new purpose aboard the tall ship, where her vivacious personality endeared her to crewmates.

At sea, when she learned how big the storm was, she texted her parents: "If I go down with the ship and the worst happens, just know that I am truly, genuinely happy." She was found floating face down, miles from the wreck.

The last third of the book is a gripping account of what happened after Bounty dumped its crew into the swirling ocean before they could board life rafts. The chaos in the water and the determined effort by Coast Guard crews flying into the worst of the storm are easy to picture and hard to forget in the authors' spare, clear-eyed prose.

Campbell says the loss of the Bounty is a story of personal responsibility, and Walbridge was not the only one who failed by not protecting his crew.

"I don't give the crew any credit for shutting up and going," he said. Before they left New London, they should have spoken up in the interest of everyone's safety, he said.

Instead, they listened to their captain, and what he told them seemed to defy logic. A ship, he said, is always safer at sea than in port.

"That's nuts," Campbell said.

j.ruddy@theday.com

"Rescue of the Bounty: Disaster and Survival in Superstorm Sandy"

By Michael J. Tougias and Douglas A. Campbell

Scribner, 232 pages, $25

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