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Writer transports listeners to Bounty for its final, tragic trip from New London

By Deborah Straszheim

Publication: The Day

Published May 05. 2014 4:00AM
Tim Martin/The Day
Michael J. Tougias, author of "Rescue of the Bounty: Disaster and Survival in Superstorm Sandy," provides a slide presentation of the sinking of the Bounty. Tougias described the events in his book in a program Sunday at the Custom House Maritime Museum in New London.
Tall ship sank in Superstorm Sandy after leaving city

New London - Thirty-foot waves slammed into the ship, the hull took on water, the engineer got seasick and waves threw the captain against a table and injured another crew member, breaking his collarbone and cracking his vertebrae.

Then Superstorm Sandy overturned the HMS Bounty, throwing 16 people into the sea, some tangled in or clinging to the ship's rigging.

Author Michael Tougias, who co-wrote "Rescue of the Bounty: Disaster and Survival in Superstorm Sandy" with Doug Campbell, recalled the disaster and heroic Coast Guard rescue in a presentation Sunday at the Custom House Maritime Museum in New London.

"I was right there on that boat going through everything that happened," said Jean Johnson, of Old Lyme, one of about 20 people who attended.

The ship, built in 1960 as a slightly larger replica of the 18th century HMS Bounty of mutiny fame and used in the 1962 movie "Mutiny on the Bounty," had undergone repairs shortly before it left New London to sail to St. Petersburg, Fla., in October 2012. Workers replaced rotted planks and noticed additional rot in the hull.

On the ship's way from the repair port to New London, pumps designed to keep water out of the ship failed to work as efficiently as they should.

The crew also heard about a hurricane forming, and some were hesitant about a trip from New London to St. Petersburg.

But Capt. Robin Walbridge wanted to keep a schedule, Tougias said. The captain called his crew together and offered to let them opt out. No one did. The ship left two hours later, Tougias said.

Then, four days into the trip, the ship hit Superstorm Sandy. Walbridge tried to escape by sailing toward shore but failed to avoid the historic and deadly storm.

The engines failed. The hull began taking on water.

That night, at the urging of the first mate, the captain notified the Coast Guard that pumps weren't keeping up with the water, though he said the ship would be all right until dawn.

The Coast Guard sent a plane anyway to take a look. Tougias said the Coast Guard crew talked to the captain by radio. Though he said the ship would get by, they could hear in the background how bad it was.

Then at 3 a.m., they heard: "Abandoning ship!" Then, nothing.

The plane flew down and found the ship perpendicular and submerged in the sea.

Bounty crew members had just put on survival suits or all would have died, Tougias said. Some people were thrown into the ocean and some hung on the masts that slammed up and down in the storm, he said.

Those in the water gathered into two groups - one of six people and one of seven, both with life rafts. Three people were alone.

Helicopters found Chief Mate John Svendsen, then 41 years old, first. He was alone in the dark, one mile from the sinking ship, Tougias said.

Then rescuers found the first of the two life rafts, and pulled four of the seven people from the water, leaving three behind because the aircraft needed fuel.

A second helicopter crew, along with rescue swimmer Dan Todd, pulled in six people from the second raft, including the injured Adam Prokosh.

"They stuffed him in a basket. I can't even imagine how painful that must have been with cracked vertebrae," Tougias said.

Todd said the current pulled him down as he tried to reach people. "Sometimes it would just take me right into a breaking wave and bury me," Tougias recalled him saying.

After six rescues, Todd was exhausted, but then found the other three at the now overturned first raft. He pulled them to safety.

Rescuers later found the body of crew member Claudene Christian one mile from the Bounty. They believe she became tangled in the rigging and drowned shortly after the boat went down, Tougias said.

The captain was never found.

"It's a sad story because it didn't have to happen," Tougias said. On the other hand, he told the audience, he thinks about rescuers from the Coast Guard who risked their lives to save strangers.

"It's incredible," he said.

d.straszheim@theday.com

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