Published: October 30, 2012Heavy Seas Claim Famous Tall Ship
By Cameron McWhirter
PORTSMOUTH, Va.—A ship’s captain remained missing Monday after the crew of a replica of the HMS Bounty abandoned the vessel in stormy seas, leaving the ship built as a prop for a Marlon Brando movie to sink off Hatteras, N.C.
The 180-foot, 412-ton sailing ship—which appeared in films from “Mutiny on the Bounty” to “Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest”—went down about 90 miles southeast of Hatteras.
The U.S. Coast Guard rescued 14 crew members via helicopter. Another crew member, Claudene Christian, 42, was later found unresponsive, while the captain, Robin Walbridge, 63, remained missing Monday evening, according to Coast Guard Lt. Commander Jamie Frederick.
It was unclear why the ship was sailing in a gigantic storm. Tracie Simonin, director of the HMS Bounty Organization LLC, which owns the ship, couldn’t be reached for comment. The Associated Press reported her as saying the crew had been “in constant contact” with the National Hurricane Center and had been trying to “make it around the storm.”
Those rescued escaped the ship in two lifeboats, radioing a distress call Monday morning to the Coast Guard before abandoning ship, said Coast Guard spokesman Lt. Michael Patterson. They were taken to a Coast Guard base at Elizabeth City, N.C.
Survivors told rescuers the ship was taking on water, and the crew decided to leave after the generator was flooded. While attempting to leave in lifeboats, three crew members—the captain and Ms. Christian among them—were swept into the ocean. One of the three made it to a lifeboat, but Capt. Walbridge and Ms. Christian didn’t, Lt. Cmdr. Frederick said.
After the vessel was abandoned, it was hit by 40-miles-per-hour winds and 18-foot waves, which caused it to fill with water and sink.
On Monday afternoon, Coast Guard crews using a HC-130 Hercules airplane and a helicopter found the body of Ms. Christian. She was unresponsive when pulled up and didn’t revive when taken to the hospital in Elizabeth City, he said. The search for Capt. Walbridge continued.
The ship was built for 1962′s “Mutiny on the Bounty”—which starred Mr. Brando—about a famous revolt by British seamen in 1789. The replica has had several owners, including MGM film studio, which based it in St. Petersburg, Fla., as a tourist attraction.
In 2001, the HMS Bounty Organization, in Setauket, N.Y., bought the ship. Under its new owner, the vessel toured ports, charging for visits. This year it went up the Atlantic coast, stopping at ports along the way.
The waters off North Carolina’s coast, for a host of environmental factors including sharp winds, shifting currents, hurricanes and a large shoal off shore, make it particularly dangerous for shipping. Its depths hold anywhere from 6,000 to 8,000 shipwrecks, according to Lawrence Babits, professor emeritus and retired director of maritime studies at East Carolina University in Greenville, N.C.
“It’s a place where bad things can happen, that’s for sure,” he said.
Mr. Babits, who had been aboard the HMS Bounty replica several times and has sailed on other tall-mast ships, said he didn’t understand why the ship entered the path of a large storm that everyone knew was coming. Whatever happened on board, he said, it had to be very serious.
“It has to be pretty bad before you give the order to abandon ship,” he said.
Write to Cameron McWhirter at Cameron.McWhirter@dowjones.com