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The official USCG and NTSB reports on the sinking of Bounty aren’t out yet. Even so, the lawyers for Claudene Christian’s mother (also named Claudene) felt they had more than enough to bring suit against owner Robert Hansen and the HMS Bounty Organization.  On April 6th, attorney Ralph Mellusi filed a lawsuit on behalf of Claudene Christian who is seeking a total of ninety million dollars for the wrongful death of her daughter.  Citing Hansen’s knowledge of the rotted frames, the general disrepair of Bounty, the relative inexperience of the crew he employed , his decision to allow Bounty to sail from New London at all along with Walbridge’s actions during the voyage, the complaint calls the trip into Hurricane Sandy “…the greatest mismatch between a vessel and a peril of the sea that would ever occur or could ever be imagined.”

The complaint alleges twenty-nine separate acts of “negligence, gross negligence, willful, callous and reckless conduct” by  Hansen and the HMS Bounty Organization that directly led to Claudene Christian’s death. These allegations range from the mismanagement of repairs and alterations to the reckless actions that occurred during Bounty’s last days.  There were the obvious ignored warnings about the approaching storm. There were warnings from shipyard personnel about the condition of the ship.  There were even warnings from members of the crew that were ignored. After leaving New London, Bounty suffered numerous mechanical and structural failures and actually began flooding on Saturday, yet Walbridge made no mention of any trouble to anyone until late Sunday night. When he finally did, he included the phrase, “We are not in danger tonight.” This statement allegedly led to confusion and delayed Coast Guard response.

Included in the complaint are several passages from emails sent from Walbridge to Hansen and Tracy Simonin.  Mellusi uses them to make the point that Walbridge – despite his years of experience aboard Bounty – “lacked a level of professional knowledge and experience which would even allow him to appreciate the imminent danger awaiting BOUNTY and her crew.”

October 26th, 12:54 PM:

“..Sandy looks like a mean one. Right now we are on a converging course. I am actually headed to the dangerous side of it. Hoping like a deer if I am at it, it won’t be there when I get there.”

(The phrase “actually headed to the dangerous side of it” is only slightly less absurd than, “Hoping like a deer…it won’t be there.”)

bounty course sandy chart

click for larger

The chart on the right – included as Exhibit 5 – shows that Walbridge’s hope was misplaced.

A full reading of the complaint contains surprises even for those who followed the public hearings back in February. There are charts derived from testimony that depict the sailing experience aboard Bounty at the time of her sinking.  With only sixteen persons aboard, Bounty was sailing short by any reasonable measure.  But if Hansen intends to argue that the crew was sufficient, the charts alone settle that argument before it begins:

  • 10 of the 16 had been aboard Bounty less than six months
  • 9 of the 16 had never sailed aboard any tall ship other than Bounty
  • Only 5 of the 16 had more than a year aboard any other tall ship; of those, only 3 had more than 2 years, including Walbridge

Exhibit3 Exhibit4Exhibit2

It is doubtful, though, that Hansen will argue at all.  Hansen, owner of the multi-million dollar IslandAire, has a lot to lose and almost nothing to gain by taking this all the way to court.  He would have to explain why it was so important to get his ship to Florida by early November; he would have to defend why Bounty was in disrepair, or deny he knew it was; he would have to sit in front of a jury and try to make sense of the senseless.  That could only end badly. No, I don’t believe Robert Hansen is going to let this case go to court.

It would be the legal equivalent of sailing a leaking old ship into a hurricane.

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  • Paul G.

    The suit provides an excellent summary of the lengthy proceedings. Good job reporting!
    It should be remembered that he told his crew he would head East(away from the track); but headed SSE right into it-the deceitfulness is as shocking as the stupidity.
    It is unfortunate that the crew did not repeat history and mutiny off Long Island before it was too late.
    There were so many butt-head decisions made that this story provides such a rich trove of what not to do at sea;that it could be used in mariner’s classes.

  • Jerry

    Money, money, money…the root of all evil!

    • Jerry

      Well, perhaps he did it to get away from the Yank-land… He was unlucky though!

    • https://www.facebook.com/watersafety Mario Vittone

      Walbridge told his crew – made up of people who would not know the difference – that he knew what he was doing. I believe he told them that because he actually thought he did know what he was doing. He didn’t(obviously).

      What Hansen is now learning is the difference between blame and responsibility. He can claim that Walbridge was in charge of all operations aboard Bounty – and be correct. But the law is clear: as the owner of a ship that employed a crew, he was “responsible” for their safety as much or more than anyone else.

      Yes – she knew the ship was going to sea in a hurricane. Her captain told her that. She also believed it would be safe, because her captain told her that. You are correct; this is definitely a case about responsibility.

      • kbidd

        HMS Bounty Organization, LLC v. Prokosh, et ano.
        More Sharing ServicesShare |
        Claimants: Chris Barksdale and Adam Prokosh
        Petitioner: HMS Bounty Organization, LLC

        Case Number: 2:2013cv02547
        Filed: April 26, 2013

        Court: New York Eastern District Court
        Office: Central Islip Office
        Presiding Judge: Sandra J. Feuerstein
        Referring Judge: Arlene R. Lindsay

        Nature of Suit: Torts – Injury – Marine

  • Rick Owens

    I find it not only harsh to call Walbridge “deceitful” but ignorant of at least some of the testimony.
    A close look at the timeline compared to the on board conditions, leaves a less subjective observer room to see that much of the course decisions were due to priorities that arose with the deteriorating weather; ineffective pump-out attempts; equipment failure; sail damage; crew injuries and exhaustion; narrowing of real-time options. It seems to me more likely these were the motivations, not some craven desire the deceive crew.
    And at least room for some doubt about the structural condition of the vessel. If, as has been implied, if not charged, the Bounty was “75%” rotten, it would not, in my opinion anyway, have been afloat as long as it was.
    To be clear, I think Walbridge made some bad, fatefully wrong decisions, as did the crew for going along, a certain amount of the responsibility lay at their feet as well. So, let the ad hominem begin, at least I’m here to defend myself, and did my bit for those not able to.

    • https://www.facebook.com/watersafety Mario Vittone

      I don’t believe Walbridge had nefarious intentions of any kind. I think he truly believed he knew what he was doing. His was a completely unchecked incompetence. Of the 15 persons under him, only 5 had been aboard for more than a single season. There is a reason for that kind of turnover.

      http://d32gw8q6pt8twd.cloudfront.net/wp-content/uploads/2013/05/Exhibit3.jpg

      • Eaglos

        Would you say Mario that Naomi Klein’s “Shock Doctrine” and “Disaster Capitalism” are even applicable to the HMS Bounty and all the related story…??

        • https://www.facebook.com/watersafety Mario Vittone

          No – I wouldn’t. Klein’s theories are interesting, but sincerely – Bounty isn’t giving us anything new to think about. The case just reaffirms what we already knew about the human nature, normalizing, and risk decisions.

    • Eaglos

      So in other words you’re saying that there is something seriously wrong with humankind – to put it mildly and globally and avoid offending only the Americans… All sorts of weird things happen that cannot be explaied by logic. Hmmm, spooky..!

  • Paul Preston

    Captain Walbridge had full knowledge of the financial situation and the lack of adequate maintenance. He appears to have intentionally put the Bounty in the most dangerous position possible. When does the question of insurance become an issue? He may not have said his intention was to have the Bounty go down for insurance purposes, but that is precisely what he did. Any prudent mariner would have alerted the Coast Guard long before Walbridge did.

  • Richard Dein

    This lawsuit through the discovery process will teach us much more about what happened and why aboard the Bounty than the Coast Guard/NTSB hearing ever did. The vessel was apparently in deplorable materiel condition. Why? The answers lie in within the ship’s organizational command and control, budget, and maintenance program. Don’t recall the hearing going into much detail about these issues.

    What did come out in the hearing was that the ship was operated on a shoe-string budget, crewed by inexperienced sailors, and commanded by a captain driven by hubris. Why did she put to sea in the face of a hurricane? The answer was probably money. Certainly, the predicted path of the hurricane was well known prior to departure. At the time, New London was never in its path so why leave? But, that next engagement in St. Pete; how critical was that to Bounty’s annual income?

    When Bounty was built, were the planks and frames ever bedded? Don’t recall that issue ever surfacing in Mr. Vittone’s reporting. Given that the vessel was only built for $750K and was planned to be destroyed at the end of the movie, bedding is doubtful.

    • https://www.facebook.com/watersafety Mario Vittone

      I don’t think we are going to learn a thing during the discovery process. I really don’t think there will be a discovery process.

      “The answers lie in within the ship’s organizational command and control, budget, and maintenance program. Don’t recall the hearing going into much detail about these issues.”

      That is because the only one left alive that knew the answers to those questions refused to testify (Hansen) – taking the Fifth.

      The planks and frames that she was built with had long been replaced.

  • JoeOvercoat

    I realize the Captain is responsible for the ship, but if I crew for a boat do I not have some responsibility for myself? it’s not like I am a tourist who has been assured of safety. but rather I am supposed to know what I was doing, aren’t I?

    I have followed the details of the hearings, and I see a crew that was selected for convenience and appeal, and can see how the Captain is at fault for taking them to sea. But, at one point does the obvious danger mean it is my responsibility to save myself?

    I dunno, but I’d like to think it is somewhere to the left of 90 million dollars.

    • Blake

      See Mr. Vittone’s reply to David J. Hastie above.

  • Charles Ipcar

    I’ve been following the news stories and testimony at the Coast Guard Inquiry since last October. Capt. Walbridge after 16 years in command of the Bounty was the only one who knew her condition fully. Yes, the owner is ultimately responsible but it was Walbridge who made a whole series of bad decisions. First, he knew that the Bounty still had rotted frames from her recent refit in Boothbay. He also knew that her pumps were unreliable. He hired a new engineer who was not qualified to do the job and did not have time to become familiar with the ship just before sailing. And yes, most of his crew could not be objectively described as able seamen. He then decided to set sail south knowing a major hurricane was surging up the coast. Then instead of skirting the hurricane to the east, as he had previously planed, he decided to cut across the front and became pinned as the storm picking up speed. Walbridge was good at deluding himself and those who depended on his judgment, it appears, until the very end when he had to prepare to abandon ship. It doesn’t make him an evil person but it does demonstrate his impaired judgment. Other tall ship skipper elected to sail north or to hunker in whatever harbors they were in. I also suspect that Walbridge did not want to disappoint the high donors who were waiting for him to arrive at St. Petersburg, Florida. But we’ll never know if that is true.

  • Herb Herman

    Only one word describes the captain’s fault: Arrogance!
    “Pride goeth before….”

    • Paul G.

      Arrogance, a character flaw that in the mileau of the open sea is more dangerous than inexperience. Another example is Capt. Edward Smith the skipper of the Titanic; who thought he could steam through iceberg infested waters at night-before the advent of radar- at full speed in his “unsinkable” vessel and get away with it. He was at the end of an, until then, exemplary career and about to retire.

      • Paul G.

        I should add that the separate catastrophes of the USS Guardian and USS Porter( see other news item on this site)originate from this same attitude.

        • Eaglos

          Dear Paul G. you fail to see the whole picture I’m afraid. It’s the greed for more money that causes many of those disasters.The companies that own the various ships (e.g. the Titanic which you mentiond, the Maersk Alabama etc.) push the captains to do dangerous things in order not to lose a single penny from delays etc. “Money is the root of all evil”.

  • Ron Palmer

    Can’t agree with Charles Ipear that the owner is ultimately responsible. The Master ()Captain) of a vessel has the ultimate responsibility and this should never be forgotten. If he is not up to the mark then the owner will sack him. Good Masters never get the sack for incompetence. There is only one other member of the crew of “Bounty” who should be held accountable and that was the 1st Mate. He did not do enough to persuade the Master that it was suicide to leave a save haven. Had Wallbridge not listened then the Mate should have lead the crew ashore. Any repercussions from the owner or Master should have been reported to the appropriate authorities and insisted on an inspection of “Bounty” to support his decision. If Walbridge had been threatened with this I doubt if he would have sailed and the Mate would have been seen to have done his job.

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