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Coast Guard finds ill-fated Bounty avoided tighter safety standards, repair warnings

BOOTHBAY HARBOR, Maine — A new investigation into the 2012 sinking of the famed tall ship Bounty released by the U.S. Coast Guard Thursday found that ship operators avoided tighter safety requirements by choosing to classify it as a “recreational” vessel instead of a “small passenger” or “training” ship.

The 100-page Coast Guard report, based on an investigation by Cmdr. Kevin Carroll, included similar findings to those in a National Transportation Safety Board review released in February.

Both found that workers at the Boothbay Harbor Shipyard warned Bounty Capt. Robin Walbridge about rotting wooden planks on the ship and inadequate caulking done while the vessel was in Maine for maintenance just prior to its sinking, but that Walbridge said he couldn’t afford the full repairs.

The Coast Guard also concurred with the safety board on the primary reason for the ship’s demise: Walbridge’s decision to sail the vessel into the path of a hurricane.

On Oct. 29, 2012, the 108-foot-long Bounty was destroyed by Hurricane Sandy’s 30-foot seas and 100-mph gusts, and it sank 123 miles off the coast of Cape Hatteras, North Carolina. One member of the 16-person crew, 42-year-old Claudene Christian, died in the incident, and the longtime captain, Walbridge, 63, was never found. He was presumed dead.

Another 14 crew members, including then 34-year-old Aroostook County native Jessica Black, were saved by Coast Guard rescuers.

Carroll’s Coast Guard report suggested that, had the Bounty been operating under the more stringent safety requirements of a training or passenger vessel, Walbridge may not have been able to put off the repairs suggested by the Boothbay Harbor Shipyard workers.

But classified as a recreational ship, Carroll said, the Bounty faced looser safety standards. The officer recommended in his report that the Coast Guard consider pursuing a new law or policy that would force “attraction vessels” such as the Bounty to take on more strictly regulated classifications.

“While it may have made little difference to the ultimate outcome of the Bounty tragedy given the overriding issues of poor risk application, the Coast Guard should examine if legislative, regulatory or policy changes are needed so that other vessels like the Bounty are maintained and operated in a safe manner,” Carroll said in his report.

The 52-year-old Bounty was a reconstruction of the 18th century British navy ship, and it was built as a fully functioning prop for Marlon Brando’s 1962 film “Mutiny on the Bounty.” The ship went on to grow its Hollywood stature with central roles in Charlton Heston’s 1989 movie “Treasure Island” and the more recent “Pirates of the Caribbean” blockbusters starring Johnny Depp.

The Nova Scotian-built ship was well-known to Maine audiences beyond its place on the silver screen, stopping regularly for repairs in Boothbay Harbor over the years, as well as several publicity visits along the state’s coast — including 2012 stops in Eastport and Belfast and a 2010 stay in Bath.

The last time the Bounty was in Maine was from mid-September until mid-October of 2012, when it was at the Boothbay Harbor Shipyard for regular maintenance work. During that period, shipyard workers — whose names, along with those of Coast Guard investigators and Bounty crew members, were redacted from Carroll’s report — were surprised by the amount of rot found on the ship’s wooden planks and frames.

The shipyard workers additionally expressed concerns over the three seam compounds Walbridge supplied for the caulking work, much of which was performed by comparatively inexperienced Bounty crew members, Carroll found. The Coast Guard officer said that Walbridge chose the compounds because they were less expensive, overlooking the fact that they weren’t recommended for water immersion or marine environments.

Concerned that the rot was extensive beneath the surface, shipyard workers urged Walbridge to remove more planks to explore the extent of the problem, but the captain declined because of money and schedule worries, Carroll said.

Walbridge only ordered the minimal replacement of rotted wood and called for other sections to be painted over, the Coast Guard officer found.

“He knew there was decay in the planking and frames of the hull but did not know how extensive the problem was. … [A] Boothbay Harbor Shipyard employee testified that he had warned [Walbridge] to ‘pick and choose how he used the boat’ and to avoid heavy weather,” Carroll said.

“Heading out to sea under normal conditions requires that the hull be sound, vessel systems be tested and functional, and crew proficiency and readiness be at the highest level possible. When headed into a storm of Hurricane Sandy’s size and scope, logic dictates that the importance of vessel seaworthiness, vital system functionality and crew readiness would increase exponentially,” the Coast Guard officer said. “That being said, [Walbridge] clearly chose to chart a course directly in the path and vicinity of Hurricane Sandy knowing all of the defects listed above.”

Carroll’s findings of shipyard warnings about the rot and caulking echo those included in the National Transportation Safety Board’s report released four months ago.

Eric Graves, president of the shipyard, did not address the details of the safety board’s report in a statement issued at the time of its released, but said he respected the board and its conclusions. Graves at the time said “our thoughts and prayers go out to” the family and friends of Walbridge and Christian, and he added, “We knew Robin well from many years working with him on the Bounty.”
 

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