Sins of Omission – Bounty Hearings – Day 5

Mario Vittone
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February 19, 2013

Matthew Sanders, second mate of Bounty, looks at a binder of evidence as he is questioned about the bilge pump system ( Steve Earley / The Virginian-Pilot )

Sometimes bad things happen. We do something that we shouldn’t and that leads to tragedy. Do the right thing at the wrong time or the wrong thing anytime and you can get yourself into real trouble out there. Add masts and yards to the equation and the ways to screw up increase with every square foot of sail you put aloft.  No one can argue that there aren’t plenty of errors to make on a tall ship like Bounty. But after five days of testimony, I’m convinced that the sinking of that beautiful ship and the loss of two of her crew had as much to do with what they didn’t do as what they did.

To be clear, the primary thing they did wrong was to leave the relative safety of New London for the open ocean in the face of Hurricane Sandy.  I don’t care if Bounty was brand new and made of titanium, putting her to sea on a course to cross a hurricane was a bad idea. There is simply no logical argument for taking that risk and testimony thus far hasn’t even attempted to make one.   They weren’t leaving on a rescue mission, they weren’t carrying a load of urgent medical supplies, they weren’t even trying to avert financial burden or deliver a lucrative cargo. They were trying to get to their next port.  But even more perplexing than the act of leaving New London, was what they didn’t do before that.

Bounty had five pumps aboard for dewatering: two electrically driven pumps and one hydraulically driven pump attached to the bilge manifold, and two portable pumps, one hydraulic submersible, and a gasoline-powered trash pump.  Primarily, Bounty’s crew relied on the electrically driven pumps for their routine (once or twice every four hours) pump-outs of the bilge.  The hydraulic pumps were installed as backup, and the gasoline-powered portable was purchased on a trip to England in 2011 at the insistence of visiting inspectors.

Here is what Matt Sanders, Bounty’s second mate, testified to Commander Carroll of the Coast Guard concerning the bilge pumps today.

Carroll: “The hydraulic pumps –  when did you first use them?”

Sanders: “On the 28th” [October 28th – the day prior to sinking]

Carroll: “Was it used any other time before that in the season?”

Sanders: “Not that I know of.”

Sanders’ testimony on the backup bilge system aligns with the other five crew members who have testified so far.  None of them can recall ever seeing the hydraulic bilge pumps work in the 2012 season. Carroll wanted to know – if not physically run – were the backup pumps something  the Bounty crew at least trained on.

Carroll: “Were the crew taught how to use the hydraulic pumps?”

Sanders: “No, I don’t think so.”

Carroll: “Were they trained on the gasoline-powered pump?”

Sanders: “No, they weren’t.”

Douglass Faunt – Electrician/Radio Operator of Bounty (Steve Earley / The Virginian-Pilot )

According to Laura Groves’ testimony, when the portable hydraulic pump was first used on the 28th, there was a delay. “The fittings were corroded and they had to be cleaned before they would work. I saw the captain and Drew Salapatek cleaning the fittings,” she said to Carroll last Friday.

Apparently, the backup bilge pumps installed on Bounty weren’t used, or trained on, or even maintained.

The gasoline-powered pump was an even more mysterious piece of gear to the crew.  Only those who made the trip to England in 2011 had ever seen it. After it was purchased, it was bagged and returned to its container – gasoline and all – where it stayed until the evening prior to the sinking.  Though they fought with it through the night, Dan Cleveland and all else who tried couldn’t get the emergency back-up pump to run for more than a brief 30 seconds.

When asked why the portable gasoline pump was not routinely tested, maintained, and trained on, the answers ranged from absurd to worse. No one aboard seemed to have any idea that if you left gasoline in a can for 18 months, it would be a bad thing.

Faunt: “I’d seen it work once when we bought it and put it away and left it alone on Robin’s orders.”

Carroll: “Why?”

Faunt: “Because it wasn’t particularly good and we didn’t want to wear it out by using it.  And it was gasoline and we were worried about fire!”

NTSB Investigator Captain Rob Jones pressed Faunt to explain why they wouldn’t want to practice with the ship’s portable emergency bilge pump and use it periodically to ensure that it was in working order.  Faunt’s incredulous response, “But the pump was gasoline, why would we risk using it if we didn’t have to?” When he was asked why the hydraulic pumps weren’t ever used, he replied, “There was concern about wear, so they were held in reserve.”

This notion of not using something to make sure it would work when you needed it was common practice on Bounty.  The new engineer, Chris Barksdale, testified that Robin Walbridge told him that he wanted to use the port generator and to leave the starboard offline as much as possible.

The starboard was his backup generator and he didn’t want to “wear it out.”

Christopher Barksdale, engineer of the Bounty, pauses as he describes getting ready to abandon ship ( Steve Earley / The Virginian-Pilot )

Barksdale – like so many of the crew – was new to Bounty in 2012.  He had just arrived in Boothbay the month before at the request of John Svendsen. The ship needed an engineer and Barksdale needed the sea time for his credential. He had never worked on a ship the size of Bounty before and was eager to find the maintenance records to learn the status of the equipment. They couldn’t be found. Prior to getting underway on a ship he knew nothing about, Barksdale changed the Racor filters off the day tanks – nothing else.

On October 25th, Bounty was preparing to sail into the Atlantic and dodge a hurricane.  Three of the five pumps had not been tested or trained in anyone’s memory. The ship’s diesel engines and generators had no maintenance records and their status was unknown.  And on the way to New London from the shipyard, the 66 year-old Faunt, a five-season veteran aboard Bounty,  noticed that even the electric bilge pumps weren’t working as well as they had been. He had been running those pumps for years and knew how they operated.  He brought his concerns to Robin Walbridge.

Faunt: “Robin thought it might have to do with the impellers.”

Carroll: “Did he ever check them?”

Faunt: “Not that I know of.”

Less than four days later, Bounty was sinking. The bilge pumps couldn’t keep up with the water, one generator was gone and the other was about to go. Walbridge and Faunt – the ship’s default electrician and GMDSS Operator – were attempting distress calls on the HF Radio and the INMARSAT C.  They couldn’t get them to work.

Carroll: “Did you test them before you left New London?”

Faunt: “No, we didn’t.”

Next: Day 6 – The Cost of Waiting

Continued Bounty Coverage:


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