The 17th Passenger – Bounty Hearings – Day 7

Mario Vittone
Total Views: 116
February 22, 2013

Anna Sprague – the youngest member of Bounty’s crew – testifies on Day 7 of the hearings.

At the start of each day of the hearings, Commander Kevin Carroll does the same thing: he reads a statement.  He tells all in attendance, “The purpose of the investigation is to determine the cause of the casualty and the responsibility therefore to the fullest extent possible; and to obtain information for the purpose of preventing or reducing the effects of similar casualties in the future.”  A worthy purpose, to be sure.  It’s the reason for the discussions about dry docks and caulking, shipwrights and rot, architects and owners, and why there has been so much talk about the crew and what they knew – and what they didn’t.  But then he says something that some may have missed:

“This investigation is also intended to determine whether there is any evidence of any incompetence, misconduct, or willful violation of the law on the part of any licensed officer, pilot, seaman, employee, owner, or agent of the owner of any vessel involved…”

The hearings are also intended to look for evidence of negligence or incompetence.

Incompetence; it’s an ugly word largely because it is so misunderstood. It’s not about intent.  Being incompetent isn’t really about fault.  It’s about ability – or specifically lack of ability – to do a required job. The federal code defines it as “the inability on the part of a person to perform required duties, whether due to professional deficiencies, physical disability, mental incapacity, or any combination thereof.”   While I’m not competent to be judge or jury in this regard, I can say without reservation that there was – by definition – incompetence aboard Bounty. It was the unaccounted for 17th passenger that ended the life of the ship, of her captain, and of Claudene Christian.

When Adam Prokosh fell from port to starboard on the tween deck and broke his back and ribs, he was instantly made incompetent as an able seaman. He was hardly able to crawl anymore. That wasn’t his fault. It just was. How he got in that situation is another matter. But how can Carroll find evidence of incompetence due to professional deficiency?  In some cases it won’t be a stretch.

The engineer, Chris Barksdale, seemed like a very nice guy but he wasn’t competent.  That he wasn’t licensed doesn’t mean he was professionally deficient – that he couldn’t correctly answer the simplest questions about diesel engines did. Believing that Bounty’s engines burned all the supplied fuel and that her engines “didn’t return any fuel to the tanks – they burned it all,” was all anyone needed to hear. When asked to describe Bounty’s bilge system Barksdale replied, “I’m not sure if it was brass or what it was,” and described the manifold as “a series of levers.”  In his questioning of Bounty’s last engineer, Carroll was specifically trying to determine Barksdale’s knowledge about the bilge piping in the individual compartments of the ship:

Carrol: “So they didn’t have any flexible material?” (referring to how the strainers were attached)

Barksdale: “They may have had some, I don’t know.”

Every other witness testified that each strainer was connected to the bilge piping by a three to four foot length of rubber hose. The man on their ship most directly tasked with maintaining the ship’s mechanical systems couldn’t even describe the bilge system.

However, it is important to remember that Bounty’s engineer didn’t hire himself. He wasn’t to blame for his incompetence as a vessel’s engineer. He certainly wasn’t to blame in any way for the tragedy; not at all. But his presence aboard as the engineer points to a larger problem on Bounty – a system of incompetence.

Barksdale did have a lot of experience with mechanical systems (backhoes, tractors, plumbing, and small craft), but who would think that maintaining small skiffs would immediately translate into being a qualified ship’s engineer? Well, his friend John Svendsen, for one. By his acceptance of that suggestion, so too Captain Walbridge.  (Did Hansen, the Bounty’s owner, approve? He’s not talking. But either he didn’t know Barksdale was incompetent, or he didn’t care.)

HR on Bounty

Svendsen and Walbridge appeared to do all of the hiring of crew for the HMS Bounty Organization. Walbridge had decades at sea. Svendsen had worked tall ships prior to Bounty. The rest of the crew- so far it seems –  had an experience base of one:

  • The third mate, Dan Cleveland (25), came aboard from a career in landscaping.  Bounty was his first wooden tall ship.
  • The Bosun, Laura Groves (28), had experience on smaller boats in the Keys. Bounty was her first wooden tall ship.
  • Joshua Scornavacchi (25), was on his first wooden tall ship.
  • Second mate Matt Sanders (37) had worked on a series of ships, including the schooner Margaret Todd, but Bounty was (wait for it) his first wooden tall ship.
  • Testifying Wednesday morning was Anna Sprague (20); of course it was her first wooden tall ship.
  • Claudene Christian (42) , was on her first wooden tall ship.

When the new cook, Jessica Black (34), put on her immersion suit to abandon ship on the 29th of October, she had been aboard Bounty – her first wooden tall ship – for a grand total of about 79 hours. Walbridge and Svendsen had hired a crew – including several ships officers – who wouldn’t know any better. When they were told that “a ship is safer at sea,” and that “all wood boats leak*,” they had to believe  it. They had learned everything they knew about their jobs from their captain and from each other. They were “professionally deficient” and didn’t even know it.

(* – All wood boats may leak a little, but all wood boats do not require constant bilge pumping.)

Walbridge often addressed his crew as “Future captains of America.”  They all speak of Bounty as a great place to learn and as a school where they would learn from the master, Robin Walbridge.  They were “honored to work for him.”  But there has been a theme in the testimony that  “getting better” on Bounty was a substitute for good enough to begin with.  The organization didn’t seem to care how little you knew about your job – so long as you were willing to get better, everything was just fine.  The sea doesn’t see it that way.

Svendsen questioned Anna Sprague, the youngest Bounty survivor:

Svendsen: “Were you trained well on Bounty?”

Sprague: “Oh yes.”

She was twenty years old and on the first boat she had ever known working for the only mariners she had ever worked for.  Honestly, how on earth would she know how well she was trained?

Picton Castle under full sail.
Picton Castle under full sail.

Interview with The Masters

“Evidence of any incompetence”  of a licensed captain would not come by asking questions of the crew that worked beneath him.  They had never been in his position, they didn’t know what he knew or what he should have known. They simply believed and admired the man and trusted his decisions.  To determine whether or not the trip itself was evidence of incompetence or negligence, Carroll had to find similarly credentialed and experienced captains to testify.  He needed to ask them to put themselves in Walbridge’s place, and say what they would have done.  He needed to speak with the best.

On the phone was Captain Daniel Moreland, arguably the most respected captain in the traditional sailing ship community. Moreland was calling in to testify from Tahiti.  His ship, the Picton Castle, is on a six month voyage in the South Pacific. Moreland has taken the barque around the world five times since he’s been captain. His personal sailing experience started in the 1970’s. He is without question one of the most competent sailing ship masters in the world.  When Carroll asked what his thoughts were when he found out Bounty was at sea from New London, Moreland’s response was no surprise:

Moreland: “I couldn’t believe it. I still don’t.”

At the time Sandy was tracking up the Atlantic, the Picton Castle was scheduled to leave home port for the world cruise she was now on. Moreland had cancelled because of the storm days before Bounty had left New London. He went on to discuss the much safer options available to Walbridge if he thought New London was unsafe due to storm surge. “New Bedford – up above the bridge,” Moreland offered.  New Bedford, 100 miles to the north of New London, has a “hurricane barrier” specifically designed as a hiding place for ships that need to avoid storm surge.

When asked by Carroll if he believed that a ship is “safer at sea,” Moreland discussed the difference between a Navy vessel that had the ability to move at 22 knots and be 400 miles from the storm, and a slow-moving historic sailing vessel. “…and the Navy is paid to take that risk so that they can respond if needed for war…but between the ship and crew, you always have to go with what is safer for  the crew.”

Moreland made it clear to investigators that he would not have made the same choice as Walbridge if put in that situation. In fact, he was in the same situation and hadn’t.  The primary difference between Walbridge’s choice to leave and Moreland’s to stay, was that Picton Castle was larger, made of steel,  rigorously inspected, and prepared for a global voyage. If Moreland wasn’t thinking about leaving port in late October – what was Walbridge thinking?  Only the HMS Bounty Organization’s attorney had the nerve to ask:

Moreland: “I can’t imagine what he was thinking.”

There were no further questions from the Bounty Organization.

Ralph Mellusi, the attorney for the estate of Claudene Christian, wanted more specific testimony:

Mellusi: “What if the bilge system of your ship wasn’t in perfect working order and in fact your crew had told you they were concerned that it wasn’t working properly; would you have taken the ship to sea in those conditions?”

Moreland: “That would be unconscionable on a good day.”

Investigators interviewed two more captains of tall ships, including the captain of the Pride of Baltimore II , Jan Miles.  Captain Miles, also a well-respected captain and a friend of Robin Walbridge, was so dismayed by his decision to sail into Sandy’s path that he wrote an open letter to Walbridge calling his decision to sail “reckless in the extreme.”  He too told Carroll he wouldn’t have sailed, and that a ship wasn’t safer at sea, adding “I don’t know what would have caused her [Bounty] to go.”  His responses to Mellusi’s questions were chilling.  Mellusi simply read the most damning passages from Miles’ letter and asked the wooden tall ship captain, “Do you still stand by that statement.” Without hesitation, Captain Miles answered with only one firm word, “Yes.”

The masters had given no quarter to the deceased Walbridge.  Leaving New London on October 25th and sailing toward hurricane Sandy was – in itself – negligent. No competent sailing captain would have done it.

But Robin Walbridge had competently sailed Bounty for seventeen years. Why, indeed, would he do something that no other captain would have done? The investigation continues; Commander Carroll has a massive job still ahead of him. But perhaps Robin Walbridge was suffering from the same thing his crew was – a lack of the right kind of experience.  He had faced down storms before and won, he had tangled with hurricanes and made it home, his experience was that if he headed into harm’s way, he would get away with it.  He had clearly confused the lack of failure with success, and may have begun to truly believe his own advice. Maybe it was something else, I don’t know. Robin Walbridge, the last captain of Bounty, isn’t here to ask.

At the start of each day of the hearings, Commander Kevin Carroll does something else: he reminds us of what brought us there in the first place. When his opening statement is finished, he asks everyone to stand and observe a moment of silence “for those who have lost their lives to this tragedy.” Carroll, like the tall ship sailors he has been questioning, is hard not to like as well.

Next: Day 8 – The Whole Truth

Continued Bounty Coverage:

(Note: In the original posting I stated that Adam Prokosh was new to wooden tall ships. This was incorrect.)

Back to Main