PORTSMOUTH, Va. – A Canadian-built ship that looked straight from an earlier century got caught in Hurricane Sandy’s wrath and began taking on water, forcing the crew into lifeboats in rough seas off the North Carolina coast. The Coast Guard rescued 14 people by helicopter Monday, but two people were missing.
Coast Guard rescue swimmer Randy Haba helped pluck several crew members off a 25-foot rubber life raft. He was also lowered to a crew member floating in the water alone. He wrapped a strap around his body, and raised him to the chopper.
“It’s one of the biggest seas I’ve ever been in. It was huge out there,” Haba said.
Two crew members of the HMS Bounty were adrift wearing survival suits designed to help keep them afloat and protected from cold waters for up to 15 hours, but so far the Coast Guard hasn’t seen any sign of them.
The HMS Bounty, which was built at Smith and Ruhland Shipyard in Lunenburg, N.S. for the 1962 film “Mutiny on the Bounty,” had left Connecticut last week en route to Florida.
“They were staying in constant contact with the National Hurricane Center,” said Tracie Simonin, the director of the HMS Bounty Organization. “They were trying to make it around the storm.”
The Coast Guard received a call from the ship’s owner late Sunday, saying communication had been lost with the crew. The Coast Guard later received an emergency distress call from the Bounty, confirming its position.
Coast Guard Vice Adm. Robert Parker, Operational Commander for the Atlantic Area, told ABC’s “Good Morning America” that the ship had taken on about three metres of water when the crew abandoned it.
Amid high winds and 5.5-metre seas, two helicopters flew in for the rescue around dawn Monday, plucking crew members from the lifeboats.
Lunenburg Mayor Laurence Mahwinney called the incident a tragedy, saying the town’s residents were praying for the safety of the two missing crew members.
Gerald Zwicker, 76, who worked on the building of the HMS Bounty in 1960, said he was devastated when he heard the ship had been abandoned.
“I really feel bad about it. It’s a piece of history gone. It’s a big loss,” he said in an interview from his home in southern Nova Scotia.
“They were talking about that hurricane all last week. They should have been out of that area.”
Zwicker recalled making $1.12 per hour as a labourer who handled enormous pieces of timber and wielding an adze to carve out the ribs on the vessel’s hull.
“We were proud to have built her. It was the only vessel ever built that I worked on that was used for a movie,” he said.
Zwicker last visited the ship in August when the replica docked in Nova Scotia for a tall ships festival. He proudly showed family members the bowsprit and stern and explained the details of his work.
Ralph Getson, a historian at the Fisheries Museum of the Atlantic in Halifax, said residents of the community and shipwrights considered HMS Bounty an example of the province’s shipbuilding heritage and are saddened by its loss.
“Those fellows worked. There wasn’t much to make your job easy. It was hand work … It was an example of Nova Scotian craftmanship,” he said.
Those rescued Monday were taken to Elizabeth City. Most of the crew were in their 30s, although one man appeared to be in his 70s, Coast Guard officials said.
The mother of one of the crew members said she had talked to her daughter after the rescue. Mary Ellen Sprague said her 20-year-old daughter Anna Sprague had been aboard the HMS Bounty since May. The ship had travelled to London, then to St. Petersburg, Fla., and was going to spend the winter in Galveston, Texas.
“She was probably the youngest member of the crew,” Mary Ellen Sprague said.
She said she hadn’t learned many details yet because her daughter, normally talkative and outgoing, was being uncharacteristically quiet.
She’s very upset because the ship’s captain and another crew member are still missing, Sprague said from her home in Savannah, Ga.
The HMS Bounty has docked off and on over the years at The Pier in St. Petersburg, Florida., and was scheduled to eventually arrive there in November, said Carol Everson, general manager of The Pier.
“It’s devastating,” Everson said. “Obviously you want all of the crew to be safe. It’s a shame that the vessel has gone down because it’s a tremendous piece of history.”
The ship was permanently docked in St. Petersburg for many decades. In 1986, it was bought by Ted Turner, and in 2001, it was purchased by its current owner, New York businessman named Robert Hansen.
About 10 years ago, the ship underwent a multi-million dollar restoration.
_ With files from Canadian Press reporter Michael Tutton in Halifax and CKBW.