ELIZABETH CITY, N.C. – The Coast Guard used ships and airplanes to search the Atlantic on Tuesday for the captain of the HMS Bounty, a Canadian-built ship which went down during Hurricane Sandy.
The Coast Guard was optimistic Robin Walbridge, 63, of St. Petersburg, Fla., could still be alive in his blazing red survival suit 145 kilometres off the North Carolina coast. Walbridge went overboard early Monday when the ship rolled over 5.5-metre waves.
The searched for the replica 18th-century sailing vessel, which was built at Smith and Ruhland Shipyard in Lunenburg, N.S., was hampered by 4.5-metre waves.
“There’s a lot of factors that go into survivability. Right now we’re going to continue to search. Right now we’re hopeful,” Coast Guard Capt. Joe Kelly said.
The Coast Guard rescued 14 crew members of the Bounty by helicopter Monday. Hours later, they found Claudene Christian, 42, unresponsive. She was later declared dead. The rest of the crew was in good condition.
Rochelle Smith, 44, of Thunder Bay, Ont., said she met Christian this summer when they sailed the HMS Bounty in Nova Scotia.
“She loved the Bounty. She absolutely loved it. She was so happy to be on it and doing something that she found that she loved to do,” said Smith.
The search through the night for the captain encompassed 3,366 square kilometres, aided by a Miami-based plane with night-vision capability, he said. A decision on how much longer to search will come later Tuesday, Kelly said.
When the Bounty set sail last week, Walbridge believed he could navigate the ship around the storm. After two days in rough seas, he realized his journey would be far more difficult.
“I think we are going to be into this for several days,” Robin Walbridge said in a message posted Sunday on the vessel’s Facebook site, which reads like a ship’s log of her activities. “We are just going to keep trying to go fast.”
By Monday morning, the vessel had started taking on water, its engines failed and the crew of the stately craft had to abandon ship as it went down in the immense waves.
By the time the first rescue helicopter arrived, all that was visible of the ship was a strobe light atop the mighty vessel’s submerged masts. The roiling Atlantic Ocean had claimed the rest.
The final hours of the HMS Bounty, as it was officially named, were as dramatic as the movies she starred in.
The ship was originally built for the 1962 film “Mutiny on the Bounty” starring Marlon Brando, and it was featured in several other films over the years, including one of the “Pirates of the Caribbean” movies.
The vessel left Connecticut on Thursday with a crew of 11 men and five women, ranging in age from 20 to 66. Everyone aboard knew the journey could be treacherous.
“This will be a tough voyage for Bounty,” read a posting on the ship’s Facebook page that showed a map of its co-ordinates and satellite images of the storm. Photos showed the majestic vessel plying deep blue waters and the crew working in the rigging or keeping watch on the wood-planked deck.
As Sandy’s massive size became more apparent, a post on Saturday tried to soothe any worried supporters: “Rest assured that the Bounty is safe and in very capable hands. Bounty’s current voyage is a calculated decision … NOT AT ALL … irresponsible or with a lack of foresight as some have suggested. The fact of the matter is … A SHIP IS SAFER AT SEA THAN IN PORT!”
But as the storm gathered strength, the Facebook posts grew grimmer. By mid-morning Monday, the last update was short and ominous: “Please bear with us … There are so many conflicting stories going on now. We are waiting for some confirmation.”
Tracie Simonin, director of the HMS Bounty Organization, said the ship tried to stay clear of Sandy’s power.
“It was something that we and the captain of the ship were aware of,” Simonin said.
Coast Guard video of the rescue showed crew members being loaded one by one into a basket before the basket was hoisted into the helicopter.
When they returned to the mainland, some were wrapped in blankets, still wearing the blazing red survival suits they put on to stay warm in the chilly waters.
The survivors received medical attention and were to be interviewed for a Coast Guard investigation. The Coast Guard did not make them available to reporters.
Gary Farber was watching crewman Doug Faunt’s house while his friend sailed. He hasn’t heard from Faunt directly, but made sure he relayed Faunt’s Facebook postings he made as the ship went down, including “The ship sank beneath us, but we swam free and mostly got into two rafts.”
“Doug is a jack-of-all-trades, but I am surprised he was able to get his cellphone and send messages as the ship went down,” Farber said by telephone of his friend.
The Bounty’s captain was from St. Petersburg and learned to sail at age 10, according to his biography on the Bounty’s website. Prior to the Bounty, he served as first mate on the H.M.S. Rose — the Bounty’s sister ship.
“The ship was almost like his home,” said Smith, who met Walbridge in 2010 when she sailed the Bounty. “That’s where he spent most of his time was aboard the ship. He was so full of history and so interesting to talk to. And he knew his sailing stuff.”
Meanwhile, many in Nova Scotia were devastated when they heard the ship had been lost.
Premier Darrell Dexter said the Bounty was a spectacular ship and a symbol of Lunenburg’s proud tradition of shipbuilding.
“It is a sad loss for the community, but no ship is as important as the safety of its crew. I commend everyone involved for their swift action,” Dexter said in a statement late Monday.