HMS Bounty Sinking USCG Photo

Photos of the HMS Bounty replica sinking during Superstorm Sandy Image: USCG

With bruising and cuts to his face, broken bones in his hands, chest trauma, a twisted knee, and a dislocated shoulder, John Svendsen swam toward a strobe light.  The tall ship Bounty had just sunk underneath him. It was early in the morning of October 29th, last year.   He was likely the last person to see the ship’s captain, Robin Walbridge, alive as both men crawled across the foundering ship.  Several hours (and probably miles) later, Svendsen – the last Chief Mate of Bounty – was pulled from the Atlantic by a Coast Guard MH-60J – lucky to be alive.

This morning he was sitting alone at a desk at the Renaissance Hotel in Portsmouth, Virginia. Commander Kevin Carroll – the man assigned by the U.S.Coast Guard to investigate the incident – engaged him in hours of Q & A.  Today’s testimony, included the details of Svendsen’s injuries, ended at about 4:00 PM Eastern.  By the time I drove home from the hearing, local reporters had already misrepresented Svendsen’s testimony.

The first time I weighed in about Bounty’s sinking I said that  if “I’ve learned anything in my career, it’s that speculation rarely lines up with facts.”  It turns out that facts rarely line up with facts, either.  My own local paper – The Virginian Pilot – reported that  Svendsen stated that he “twice urged Walbridge to abandon ship before Walbridge agreed,”  and later in the same article reported that “Svendsen twice told Walbridge they should abandon ship before Walbridge agreed. The boat rolled before an orderly evacuation could happen, spilling crew members into the ocean.”  Other newspapers used the headline “Mate Pleads with Captain to Abandon Ship.” What they all left out was that the time between his first urging and Walbridge’s agreement was two minutes, and he never said that he “pleaded”.  Sincerely – there was a time for an “orderly evacuation,” and it was long before Svendsen first urged his captain.

What was made clear by the Chief Mate was that crew members did, indeed, have concerns about leaving New London with Hurricane Sandy on the loose. The Chief Mate brought those concerns to Captain Walbridge before they left port, offering up other options for mooring up-river.  The captain held a meeting telling the crew they could stay behind with no hard feelings, but that Bounty was safer at sea than in port, and that he was heading out, according to Svendsen.

Testimony today including a number of things far more concerning than a two-minute dissonance between the mate and the captain.  Svendsen testified about alterations to the ship’s construction arrangement in the yard period just prior to sailing that including the moving of fuel tanks and the addition of other tanks, new hatches, new tonnage openings and ladders, and all of it without  Coast Guard or class oversight.  The ship routinely sailed – according to Svendsen’s comments on Coast Guard evidence – with sails not in Bounty’s approved sail plan and carried removable ballast forbidden by the ship’s stability letter.  Caulking on the ship’s plank seams and the replacement of planking raised eyebrows as well.  But without access to all the evidence, it was hard to draw conclusions about what Svendsen was commenting on.  There was a picture that none in the gallery could see and a reference to DAP and the number 33.  Did the crew that caulked the seams of Bounty in the yards prior to sailing use house-grade DAP sealant on the planking seams?  I don’t know.  It seems more likely that they were bottom coating with Interlux 33 – but these are facts that were alluded to, not verified.

One rumor confirmed by Svendsen  was that Bounty routinely needed bilge pumping in normal conditions. “We had to run the pumps once or twice during every four-hour watch.”  Bounty made water – lots of it.  During his last watch on the morning of October 28th – less than 24 hours before she went down – Svendsen said, ” the bilge pumps were running constantly.”  Perhaps he attributed that to the sea state and water coming down from the weather decks, but he hit the rack just after noon thinking the ship was in good shape.  Six hours later he was convinced that the ship was taking water through the planking at two spots on the port side (according to his testimony today). Six hours after that, he was alone in the Atlantic and swimming for his life.

After Svendsen’s testimony was finished, Carroll and the panel discussed a piece of evidence (CG-12) – a 2010 survey report from the American Bureau of Shipping – that outlined 19 deficiencies requiring attention if Bounty was to be issued a Load Line certificate.  The issues ranged from weather-tight fittings and missing hatch gaskets to improper drainage and problems with watertight bulkheads.  The Coast Guard investigator kept repeating the phrase “that repair was not done”  when referring to an interview with the ship’s owner following the sinking. The load line certificate was never issued.

There are seven days of testimony left and I intend to be there for all of them.  You can be sure that I’ll only tell you what I know for certain based on what I see and hear and I’m not willing to draw conclusions just yet.

It turns out that an investigation is no place for absolutes either – at least not from the press gallery.

Next: Day 2 – Rotted Frames on Bounty

Continued Bounty Coverage:

Tagged with →  
Share →
  • Henning

    Nothing surprising reported here, all these boats are operated on the cheap.

    • C. Wallace

      @ Henning: Do not be so quick to lump all “these ships” into the same mold. You don’t know what you are talking about, or to whom.

    • vissionquest

      “All these boats are operated on the cheap” is quite a slap to those who do things right. Your lack of knowledge is trying to group the huge talent of so many in with an obvious incompetent captain. You really should apologize.

    • Al

      Not arguing your main point, but as a matter of keeping the facts straight, Sandy was not a category 5 hurricane. It was “only” a category 1. That being said, other elements contributed to this hurricane being much more dangerous than your typical CAT 1 hurricane, which was advertised nationwide before it hit. Agreed it was a lunatic decision.

  • tim mcshane

    I think we should all notice that all three mast tops are gone!

    • Ralph M Bohm

      Interesting notice. So they were going through some tough moments before she foundered.

    • Christopher A. Gillard

      I wonder if the topmasts were swayed down with the approach of bad wx. It was normal to do this in the age of sail so she wouldn’t roll her sticks out.

    • Rick Owens

      The topmasts were struck before leaving,in anticipation of the storm they (Captain Walbridge) fully expected to face.

  • Umberto Stellari

    In my view, the Master’s decision to sail out despite warnings on the deterioration of the weather conditions, is another act of ‘bravado’that regrettably at times afflict ocean-going senior officers. It comes to mind the Torrey Canion, Exxon Valdez, Erika and, more recently, the Costa Concordia disaster. Such risky and fatal actions,could they also be defined as recklessness, or diseregard for human life or, simply put, lack of competence? More condemnable an action if the late Captain Walbridge knew the unseaworthy conditions of his ship.

    • Rick Owens

      DPA? DAP is a construction product: a putty used to install window glazing. It was, purportedly, used to pay some plank seams in the boat by the Bounty crew. ( And by the shipyard prior to the most recent Bounty repair.).
      Not an acceptable use in ship repair.

      • Fred

        DAP is not a product. DAP is a company that makes a number sealants, adhesives and construction repair specialty items.

    • Captain AZ Abdullah

      DPA = Dedicated Person Ashore

      • Rick Owens

        Thanks, Capt. Abdullah, for eliminating at least a little of my ignorance.
        My bad!

      • Mario Vittone

        A DPA is a requirement of the ISM code, which Bounty was not subject to.

        • Captain AZ Abdullah

          If the Bounty NOT subjected to ISM, what rule does she bound for? Surely there must be something she MUST complied to!

          Does she required a Port Clearance as well every time she leave port?

          After reading the article above again and again I feel so sad because WHY the Captain did not object all those modifications done to his vessel without Class nor Coast Guard approval.

          As a Master my self who only command for 12 years, I always remind myself I rather lost my job than loosing my crew and or my ship.
          Meaning I will not take the ship out where I knew the vessel is not seaworthy.

          This kind of marine accident MUSCT be stop. The Master, Owner and the Class+Coast Guard play a big role in it.

  • C. Wallace

    I want to say a quick thanks to Mister Vittone for taking the care to be accurate and to stick to the facts of testimony and evidence at hand. Very refreshing, given the speculation and self-promotional second guessing that has plagued this story since it’s occurrence.
    I shall keep reading your coverage.

    • g.reid

      same words I scrolled down to say. An Emphatic thank you for ditching the sensationalism and writing up the hearings as they are. Lots of sailors, tall ships and otherwise, just want to know what happened out of concern, not to throw blame. I’m watching what I can catch of the hearings but I too will keep reading your coverage

      • Mario Vittone

        Thanks to G. and C. for that. I’m doing my best to not draw conclusions too soon. There is much testimony still to hear and none of have access to all the evidence.

    • Rick Owens

      Thanks for injecting some old school perspective. I know you are instrumental in the Portland Yacht Services concern.
      What was the reason for using DAP instead of the Interlux or Pettit compounds?
      Do you recommend DAP over the others.
      Are there any insurance concerns? Either yours or the customers.
      Interesting point about closing the port or allowing the Bounty to tie up somewhere.
      Certainly, though, it does not sound as if Capt. Walbridge was inclined to stay in New England.
      But those are questions that need to be raised, seems to me.

    • Mario Vittone

      Thanks Rob – I made the fix. You are, of course, correct. I do apologize for the error.

  • Gennadiy

    Would be nice to get more clear picture about the accident. It is very important for professionals to know real situation in order to avoid same mistakes ….

  • Doug Pollard

    I have been a sailor of old wood at least in my earlier years. It’s my experience that if a baot needs recaulking that there is soemething seriouse going onlike bad fastenings, rotted frames, or rotted planks. I an taling about have to recaulk with okum, and cotton. It is not unusual to have to replace seam filler that is not really caulking. I don’t know how many times she had been rebuilt in her life time but a boat of that age has to be maintained with massive doses of rebuilding. The old sailing ships at some point had their top masts removed permantly and were reduced to sailing barges. Y The clipper ships only mad a few reips to the far east and the were turned into coatsers.

  • Dwayne Knickle

    The Captain,yes the Captain is right about there are times when going to Sea is the right thing to do BUT in this case with the condishion of the Bounty should of been moored alongside as I know from expereice the ship was not fit for this sea state.I am sorry about the lose of the seamen and also the ship.There were to many unaswered question.


  • vissionquest

    The captain seemed to have a very misguided view of what shape the ship was in and that was not the biggest mistake. He took an untrained crew out (and he was the one responsible for training) with untested equipment, in a boat he did not understand. There does seem to be a continuing conspiracy to pretend this boat was in good shape, from the owner to the surveyor to the crew. The captain is responsible, but no owner could be that much in the dark.

  • http://www.kirklarsenfineart,com Kirk Larsen

    I found a post on facebook by a fellow sailor/seaman that noted Mario’s coverage as well as the commentary posted was of high value to all wise sailors. I concur and acknowledge that we are indebted for the clarity of Mario’s relation of facts (in terms of testimony) and that this discussion is a thoughtful exchange of value to anyone that goes to sea in ships. Even the tone and addressing of mistakes or misstatements of those posting is in real time, fostering an open format for the right kind of discussions and reduction in speculation. I sail regularly on old, classic properly maintained wooden boats. It is at times a costly and time consuming task to maintain these vessels. The craftmanship and labor is critical to seaworthiness. A temporary fix may used until a safe harbor is reached. I will refrain fom further commentary util I read the rest of the testimony.

    • Mario Vittone

      Thanks Kirk

  • Philip Brown

    Thanks for the coverage,and I do appreciate your writing style.Good comments also.

  • Myron T Babler

    There seems to be a lot of speculation on many topics, but after ridding out Sandy in my slip on my 50 year old wood sailboat, Sandy was more of a strong blow and Bounty could have been saved if she just stayed in port. Two questions in my mind, first “Was the one responsible for the repairs satisfied that the repairs were done and done right? and second, If there were any doubts were they given consideration?”

  • Carl Ring

    After reading the hearings I now begin to form conclusions about the disaster. Just too many speculations make way, but of course, people have the right to make themselves heard.
    I have been a tall ship captain since 1970 and also a shipwright and I believe i know what I am talking about.
    First, I would like to give a wider surrounding to the topic:

    It is a well known and widely accepted fact that wooden ships through time had a lifespan as a sound and active ship for about 20-25 years. Hereafter sold, the price for the vessel was generally drastically reduced. One could expect service another 5 years in blue salty oceans. Then most ships start to soften up. Joinings start to loosen up due to constant movement and the elasticity of the ship is gradually lost. Compare this with an elderly person or even a car made of steel and joined in all corners.
    It is not possible to regain the elasticity other than total rebuild, which for smaller yachts may be feasible. Bigger ships have relatively shorter timbers and replacing these will not make the job. In Sweden we have a lot of wooden ships that are 70-80 years of age, sometimes more. The cruise in light service and don’t have the belly full of cargo. They are constantly subject to rebuilding and the grade of quality varies a lot. Very skilled craftsmen do what is possible to give these ships a longer life. An ocean sailing ship with a heavy rigging and 50 years old- I say goodnight! Sorry to to put it down like this, but that is a fact.

    What happens when a ship softens up? The bolts find themselves playing in the holes, the timbers wear in their joinings and get more space. And not least- the lignine leaves the wood. ( Here many boat repair men go in with epoxy saturation to fill up again, however this does not give the properties of a fresh new plank. The strength and elasticity of the whole will not be even. You get load points. Here also the same method to fill up rot.) The hearings have not concluded how much epoxy flirting was performed. Ships like Bounty normally have timbers and frames built of oak. This wood is vulnerable to effects of iron. Therefore many builders wrap the bolts in red lead with -I don’t know the word for the stuff- you use for caulking- it is a kind of linen anyway (Please help). The read led preserves wood and also works like an anode protecting iron. Nice marriage between wood and iron.
    So now, we can see how a sound ship is elastic and strong and can take up loads right through the whole construction. Imagine a weak skip touching the stone pier- it says “TUD”. A fresh ship says ” Boing!” I love those expressive words (many times I invent hem myself, but everybody gets the message). I have been towing a lot of old wooden ships and just all the time they feel somewhat soft.
    There was a lot of talk about caulking, DPA. Now I want to explain to you what caulking is. It is not any polyurethane or Stockholm tar, DPA or other sealant that makes the ship not leak. No, it is what you hammer in in loops with your caulking iron. (The word I told you about) This puts a pressure between the planks an further swells when wet. The compound later makes A BIT more watertight. The compound also to a certain degree prevents the linen to work itself out. It is like a top glue. On modern yachts the caulking compound gets a more advanced role since it is sealed to the sides of the grove in a more progressive way, – never to the bottom. Now go back to the hearings about Bounty. People don’t know what they are talking about. Especially not the investigators.

    The crew.
    A common rule: A ship is never better than its crew. The hearings have reported on fresh crewmembers who had poor knowledge and experience. How instructions were simply not there. Would you take this crew on a 50 year old wooden ship that was constantly leaking out in a severe storm you KNEW was ahead? Thankyou!

    Further- the investigations have little report on crews on Bounty at earlier stages. How much were they educated, experienced?
    Again USCG requires experince and education at different levels. The “engineer” is a person who must have passed an machinist examination with USCG. He must know functions and how to maintain equipment. The hearings only let Barksdale slip through here. A crew of a ship is to be informed about function and emergency. Where is periodic emergency excercises reported? IMS? Hearings did not show.

    The investigators followed a program much standardized for sea accident investigation. However investigators showed lack of specific competence to this particular case. This preventing them to conclude and follow into further revealing questions. And I want to tell you- there was a lot. To a degree that if answered, the picture would be very much clearer. In a trial you put questions and hopefully get answers. People rarely add extras to the scene.

    Leaving port.
    I am very well experinced with the waters in New England and know all shelters. I have sailed there for 4 years with my 76 ft schooner. I sat there in one hurricane, steadily tied to poles in Centerport in Long Island Sound. No big deal. Staying in New London for Bounty would be as safe at a match in the box.

    The pumps and technical equipment.

    The pumps were partially untried and in poor condition. They had not been tried out on those implemented periodic surveys conducted by the Coast Guard?? The rules for inspection follow internationally set rules and can not be mistaken. My ships are subject to the same type of inspection. My schooner Svanen af Stockholm I haf or 37 years, so I have been trained. Only- what was the USCG doing. Report on the table please!

    I have much, much more to this and I hope that I or someone else can hold up the hearings and be allowed to come in and put the proper questions!

    The owner.
    Yes, he is also responsible due to the fact that USCG reports have reached him and even though he ordered the ship to sea. He should also be the one to call the operator and require action according to USCG report.

    I have also strong concerns about the ship and passengers. It is quite clear that Bounty in fact was a passenger ship. Even if not listed so. Regardless this USCG should take up in their inspections that the ship was often operated with unexperienced hands and this vulnerable to passengers. Passengers are in this case crew who have no registered duties based on emergency trials and proper education. IMS. We are talking safety at sea, USCG, Mario and all.

    the ship was old and worn. The equipment unsurveyed and in poor condition. The crew unexperienced. The captain had overseen basic requirements for crew and ship handling. Captain Walbridge would not have been leaving for sea unless required by the owner. Ask Mrs. Walbridge.
    The USCG clearly has responsibilities in this since they have not followed their very clear directions.

    With this in mind I must disregard from the hearings in whole and urge to take them up again- from start.
    Call me and I will come.
    My english is a bit homemade, hope you make up for this.

    Anyone forward this to authorities? I would be happy.
    Good seamanship is law!

    I can be reached-


    • Carole

      Is the word you are looking for oakum?

      • Carl Ring

        Must be. Thank you Carole.

  • Carl Ring

    We are waiting for further hearings to occur. Anybody knows when they will continue?

    Further, I would like to continue a bit on my referring to aging of wooden ships. There is a stage before rot. That is softening of the wood. This is due to loss of lignin which is the glue in the cell walls and these decomposite. Planks and timbers already in this phase are no good for caulking since they cannot put up enough elasticity. So, whatever efforts, the result will be poor. Now put his in consideration when valuing a 50 year old ship. As I said earlier, a common fact is that active life for a cargo bearing wooden ship is around 25 years. If in light service, like Bounty, you have another 10 years. After that most maintenance and rebuilding is more cosmetic and can never remake the ship to the strength it it was intended to have. It can be usable for in fact- many years, but ALL rot must constantly and instantly be removed. I guess that also laymen understand this now. There are many wooden ships that are in class and are inspected by authorities. In Sweden we have a lot of old wooden ships, mainly sail training vessels. They are due to very competent inspections all two years. The service is reasonably light and there are firm restrictions.
    Further I was reached by information by the shipwrights of the last yard Bounty visited, that several frames and other structures had rot in them. They advised Walbridge about the danger going to sea at all with Bounty. This statement also reached the investigators and was actualized in the hearings. By asking these people I could most likely wash out some more, but I think that now we already have enough evidence that this ship was basically finished and should be scrapped long time ago. Captain Walbridge, after what I have noticed, was well aware of the state of the ship. That makes up for very severe negligence, bad judgement and poor to no responsibility. However I am not the judge.

    The fact that Bounty was registered as a private vessel should not diminish the captains responsibility for those other people on board. There is no inspection on this category ships. It is bad, since a ship of Bountys size always needs a substantial crew. It is not possible to have all crew be experienced sailors, engineers and other people in positions. First of all authorities should formulate rules for equipment, maintenance and manning for theses ships. Self control would have to be the way to go since the room is big here.
    There are just too many private boats and formal USCG inspection would not be legislated or imposed. Thankyou for that, Mario.
    It is up to us other mariners to help to push the topic and work to get a change. Note, this could never be only a USCG or American issue, but would need involvement of IMO and marine authorities from many countries. I will take up the matter with IMO myself.
    Perhaps it is soon time to start up another thread on this.

    Regards, Carl

  • Poommoxiamumn

    I’d have to check with you here. Which just isn’t some thing I generally do! I take pleasure in reading a post which will make many people believe. Also, thanks for permitting me to comment!

    [url=]christian louboutin store[/url]

Sign up for the gCaptain Newsletter!

Over 31,000 people receive the gCaptain email newsletter every single day. Get the maritime and offshore industry headlines that matter sent straight to your inbox. Or LIKE us on Facebook!

We will not share your email address with anybody for any reason