Joshua Scornavacchi upon arrival at the Coast Guard Air Station in Elizabeth City, after rescue from Bounty (USCG Image)
Tangled in rigging, he was dragged under the water again. This time he wasn’t coming up. With no chance to get a breath and struggling to free himself, he started to inhale water. Joshua Scornavacchi, one of Bounty’s young deckhands, was drowning. “I started to lose muscle control…and I kept taking on water and then I got really upset because I had promised my mom and my little brother that I wouldn’t die,” Scornavacchi said. The twenty-five-year-old had come as close to dying as anyone ever has. He sounded like he was talking about the weather – almost bored. “Something said that it wasn’t time yet and the [line] broke.” Alone and on the surface now, Scornavacchi wasn’t sure if anyone else had survived. It is absolutely incredible that anyone did.
After a two-day fight to save their beloved ship, the crew of Bounty were all in the water trying to escape it. Half sunk, but buoyant enough to still be tossed in the heavy seas, Bounty’s three masts were rising and falling onto her crew. The spars, stays, and literally miles of line in her rig were trying to kill them. Adam Prokosh – lucky enough to pick his spot and jump rather than be thrown from Bounty – had been injured during a fall aboard ship hours before. With compression fractures to his spine, three broken ribs, and a dislocated shoulder, Prokosh looked up to see the ship’s rig as it came down on his head. “I got tagged by the main top yard – it came down like a dart,” Prokosh told investigators. Now he was underwater too and fighting to breathe – to live.
I’ve been listening to the crew of Bounty tell these stories for six full days now, and I have tried very hard to hold back my opinion. I’m a former Coast Guard vessel inspector and investigator, but I’m not an expert in wood hull construction and though I love the things, I don’t know much about tall ships. But this part? This part about abandoning ship and sea survival? This is what I know. This is what I’ve spent most of my adult life on. There may be people who know more about this than I do, but I haven’t met them. So here is my opinion:
Captain Walbridge called his crew to the weather deck to abandon his sinking ship at least twelve hours after he should have. His first call to the Coast Guard was made at least thirty-five hours after it should have been made.
On Saturday (the 27th), the weather started to turn and the bilges needed constant pumping. On any other ship in the world, that’s called flooding. The code of federal regulations calls that a reportable marine casualty; it’s something that should be, you know, reported. Daniel Cleveland testified that they were having problems with the ship’s generator as well – another reportable marine casualty. Throughout the hearings we have heard about failed generators, impaired bilge systems, and engines dropping off line.
According to 46 CFR 4.05-1, “An occurrence materially and adversely affecting the vessel’s seaworthiness or fitness for service or route, including but not limited to fire, flooding, or failure of or damage to fixed fire-extinguishing systems, lifesaving equipment, auxiliary power-generating equipment, or bilge-pumping systems” shall be reported to the Coast Guard. There is a reason for that. Who is supposed to remember the pesky details of federal regulations on communicating with the Coast Guard? Well, licensed mariners of the Captain/Mate variety, for one. These regulations are “designed to increase the likelihood of timely assistance to vessels in distress.” It will be argued, and should be, that part 4 doesn’t apply to recreational vessels. It’s a good argument. But common sense applies to everyone. The real reason to call someone on shore when you are having trouble is because you can. The original Bounty didn’t have that ability.
Too often sailors think of the Coast Guard as a last resort. Calling “Mayday” means that you can’t handle things and you’re giving up. But “Mayday” (and again, I’m an expert) is almost never the first call to make. The rarely used but vitally important “Pan-Pan” distress communication is meant to communicate to the Coast Guard that there is a problem aboard a vessel and assistance may be needed.
Not calling in as soon as Bounty experienced trouble denied the Coast Guard the advantage of giving the master critical advice. Advice like, “You’re about to be in a situation where helicopter rescue is going to be difficult,” and, “If you wait you will be making our crews fly into hurricane-force winds; even we have limits and dropping you life rafts and pumps will be impossible.” It also denied the Coast Guard valuable planning and preparation time. Sure, they are “Semper Paratus” – always ready – and more than willing to come help at any time, but sooner is always better.
According to Svendsen’s testimony on day one of the hearings, Walbridge told him that he planned to wait until the water reached the vessel’s tween deck to abandon the boat. Perhaps he had that ridiculous old sailor’s maxim stuck in his head, “You never step off until you have to step up.” It’s terrible advice and almost never true.
In the early morning on Sunday the 28th, the third mate reported to his captain that they were “not keeping up with the water.” That’s called progressive flooding, otherwise known as sinking. Notifying the Coast Guard then would have given the crew what they didn’t have by the time Bounty was half full of water and unstable: options. It would have given them time for an orderly abandon ship, one done on purpose – during daylight hours – and not at the mercy of ten miles of flailing line and tons of mast and debris.
The last to testify yesterday (and break my heart) was twenty-five-year-old Jessica Hewitt. Talking through tears she told the panel about her ordeal with the rigging and about the slamming rig dragging her underwater, then about the miraculous escape from the rig and swimming with her friends away from the hulking wreck. She almost drowned, too. They all had the same story: they all came so close to dying, so much closer than they really needed to.
Invariably, what had to be the two hardest questions from the panel came near the end: “When was the last time you saw Robin Walbridge?” and, “When was the last time you saw Claudene Christian?” So far, no one remembers seeing either of them in the water; the cost of waiting, I guess. They all left the boat in such chaos, thrown from her decks as she suddenly rolled to starboard. Listening to Hewitt cry as she relived the ordeal, all I could think was that they all should have been long gone by then.
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