Testimony Highlights Complexity in Case – Bounty Hearings – Day 3

Mario Vittone
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February 15, 2013

Bounty in the water at Boothbay after her 2007 yard period.

When solving a mystery, an investigator looks for evidence. On the third day of testimony at the joint Coast Guard/NTSB hearings in Portsmouth, Virginia, I was reminded just how hard it was to come by in this case.

Commercial mariners know where that evidence might be found concerning their vessels. Though often complained about, most large ships at sea are burdened by myriad requirements for inspections and records of inspections, classification documents, SOLAS certificates, and training and maintenance logs. There are safety management systems and security certificates and a dozen other documents they have to carry at all times, and getting those documents is no small (or cheap) feat. When repairs on a ship are made,  governmental oversight in the form of Coast Guard or class society inspectors will then make their own records that note every action taken by crew and shipyard.  On a commercial vessel as old as Bounty, as large as Bounty, and with the crew she carried, there would be literally stacks of papers of evidence into what may or may not have happened – but Bounty was not a commercial vessel.

When tied to the pier and selling tours, she was operating as a “moored attraction vessel.”  That’s a phrase you won’t find in federal regulations.  It exists only in Coast Guard policy.  When the Coast Guard issues a vessel a Certificate of Inspection (COI) to operate as an attraction vessel, all they are assuring the public is that they should be able to walk on and off of said vessel without getting hurt.  Defined in the Coast guard’s Marine Safety Manual, attraction vessel inspections are relatively easy to pass. The entire policy covering attraction vessels is just 10 pages (beginning on B4-82) and that includes the guidance to the inspectors.

Commander Kevin Carroll (USCG) and Captain Rob Jones (NTSB) prepare for the day's investigations.
Commander Kevin Carroll (USCG) and Captain Rob Jones (NTSB) prepare for the day’s investigations.

When she wasn’t at the pier – because she didn’t carry passengers for hire – Bounty was in a sort of regulatory no-man’s-land. She was a recreational vessel, a well-crewed yacht,  and it was none of big brother’s business how she was maintained. Two things were making that true: 1. She wasn’t nearly configured to pass inspection as a Coast Guard certificated passenger vessel, and 2: She was measured at under 300 regulatory tons – and that meant she didn’t need an international load line certificate.

In what seemed an attempt to clear up confusion surrounding the tonnage certificate discussed yesterday with Tracey Simonin, Commander Kevin Carroll called Mr. Peter Eareckson.  I’m not sure it worked.  Eareckson, the Coast Guard’s program manager for the U.S. Measurement Program, took four minutes to explain the difference between International Tonnage and Regulatory Tonnage. I knew what he was talking about and I didn’t understand him, not because he didn’t fully understand tonnage (he clearly knew more about ship measurement than any five people I’ve ever met), but because it truly is a complex set of rules that determine just how large a ship is.  But in its simplest terms, Gross Tonnage (GT) is how much volume there is inside a boat. Regulatory tonnage is that same measurement minus a complex set of loopholes and deductions based on how spaces within the boat are used or designed.

When Bounty made changes to the main deck in 2007, they essentially changed the way the issuers of their tonnage certificate (in her case, ABS) measured the boat. Without really changing her size, they had inadvertently pushed her up from 266 regulatory tonnes, to well over the magic 300, so would be required to have a International Load Line Certificate issued by ABS as well.  That was bad for the  HMS Bounty Organization.  Why? Because passing an ABS Load Line inspection would require that they fix everything ABS found wrong with the boat first – an expensive proposition.

Art vs. Science

Veteran Shipwright - Joe Jakomovicz
Veteran shipwright Joe Jakomovicz speaks with Bounty’s owner after his testimony. (Photo: M. Vittone)

The gallery may have been confused by Eareckson’s testimony but  the lead investigator certainly wasn’t. CDR Kevin Carroll has been a qualified marine inspector for the Coast Guard since 1996 and was certainly asking the questions to get them on the record, not because he was confused about tonnage certificates. After Eareckson, the Coast Guard called Mr. Joe Jakomovicz – the yard manager at the Boothbay Harbor Shipyard facility for over 30 years prior to Todd Kosakowski.  Now retired, Jakomovicz had been involved with Bounty repairs over a 20 year period and knew the vessel well.  But it was his answer about his qualifications that impressed me the most.

Carroll: “Can you give us a few details on professional background; your certifications?”

Jakomovicz: “I don’t have any certifications.”

Carroll:  “Did you attend any schools?”

Jakomovicz:  “No – well I have a degree from forty years ago, but it’s got nothing to do with boats.”

Jakomovicz was clearly an expert on wood hull construction and repair, but he learned it the way most shipwrights did: “the old guys taught the young guys and you just learned that way.”  He knew what he knew because he had been doing it for forty years and he was truly an expert.  He wasn’t a man with short answers, and every explanation came with an example in the form of a sea story and then another answer to something Carroll didn’t ask, but nobody cared. His descriptions of the art and nuance of wood hull repairs and the effects of climate on hulls and why wood rots were insightful and enthralling.  The tall ship sailors in the room were taking notes.

The veteran shipwright said that in his opinion, the things that had caused Kosikowski so much concern didn’t worry him so much.  “I’ve seen worse,” he said. But it seemed like a shoulder shrug kind of guess that the ship would be all right based on the number of worse-off boats he had seen. And then another sea story, and then, “But you have to remember Bounty was a fifty year old boat!”  When discussing the hogging in Bounty’s keel (the droop fore and aft after years in the water), Jakomovicz said, “The key thing here is that it’s a 50 year old boat.  You have to realize that that’s tired.”

Carroll: “Tired?”

Jakomovicz: “When you have a hog in the keel, that boat’s tired. When the backbone is tired and you take that boat in the seaway, that boat’s gonna work, and when it works, it’s gonna leak.” (“Work” refers to the movement of the timbers under strain.)

Carrol: “And you felt comfortable that Bounty was going to make the trip?”

Jakomovicz: “Oh, I had no idea it was going to go into a hurricane!”

But, Jakomovicz’s expertise was actually another indication of the complexity in the search for evidence.    There aren’t “certifications” for the artwork that wooden hull construction is, and as Bounty is not a commercial vessel, the rare standards for wood-hull construction and repair that the Coast Guard (and ABS) have did not apply.  The design of alterations and repair work to Bounty were unregulated best guesses by men like Jakomovicz, and Kosakowski, and even Captain Walbridge.  Were the repairs to Bounty good or bad? If you are looking for a standard, you weren’t going to find it in any book – not a book that applied to an unregulated recreational vessel like Bounty.

Insurance and Intrigue

The final witness of the day was David Wyman, the man who surveyed Bounty for the owner to satisfy the insurance underwriter.  Wyman was not only a veteran sail captain, but also a naval architect and an accredited marine surveyor with decades of experience. He had even started his career in maritime as a Coast Guard inspector. Surely, he would provide solid answers and insight.

Carroll: “Mr. Wyman, please detail your history and interaction with the vessel Bounty.”

Wyman: “I did a survey on her after Mr. Hansen had just bought her in 2001. During that shipyard period and subsequent yard periods I did design on some of the vessel rebuilds.”

Carroll: “Survey in what capacity; for the insurance?”

Wyman:  “Yes.”

Carroll: “Is that normal, for an architect to design parts of a boat and then also to survey them?”

Wyman: “It is for me.”

Investigators probed Wyman concerning the bilge system he designed (and later surveyed) and the hull repairs and modifications he planned (and later surveyed) and he detailed the eleven years he spent as Bounty’s go-to Naval Architect and primary surveyor for insurance purposes.  When asked again if he felt this may have constituted a conflict of any kind, Wyman answered, “Not to me.”

If there was a conflict for the surveyor/architect, it may have had more to do with his relationship with Captain Walbridge than anything else.  Asked about how he came to first work on Bounty, Wyman spoke of his 25 year friendship with Bounty’s captain. They had sailed together seven years before Walbridge came to Bounty. Wyman claimed he spoke to Walbridge “every two or three weeks.”

When asked to describe a situation that would be a conflict of interest, Wyman told his own sea story about a time when his son-in-law was purchasing a boat and Wyman did the survey, but not without telling those involved that he was related to the purchaser, and that it was a conflict.

Wyman: “A survey for my son-in-law is a conflict.”

Carrol: “What about a survey for a friend, is that a conflict?”

Wyman: “No, not to me.”

If his answers were bothering investigators, they were doing a good job of keeping it to themselves. They would only pause, write notes, and press on.  But when Bounty’s final survey was discussed, the one done days before she sank, that appeared to change.  The only evidence of his one-time visit to Bounty was after she went back in the water at Boothbay just before leaving for New London. He hadn’t checked any of the ship’s systems, he didn’t run engines, he didn’t run or test generators, he didn’t test the bilge system.  When asked if he was told of rotten frames and if he inspected the hull, he said, “From the inside.”

Carroll: “What could you see by looking at the inside?”

Wyman: “I saw what I could see.”

Wyman expressed that this was just an initial walk-through survey and not at all complete.  He would continue the survey at a later time, but he hadn’t worked out when that would be or where that would be, and he didn’t recall if they had discussed continuing the survey with anyone on or associated with Bounty. For the first time, the lead investigator appeared at least a little agitated.

Carroll: “Why didn’t you tell me in Boothbay in December that you didn’t feel you completed the survey?”

Wyman: (pause) “I didn’t really think about it at that time.”

Carrol: “A boat sinks at sea, you were the last one to look at the boat and you didn’t think about the survey?”

Wyman: (pause)

Carroll: “When did you determine that you weren’t finished the survey?”

Wyman: “When I left the ship.”

Carroll: “Wait – did you communicate that to the owner or Captain Walbridge?”

Wyman: “I don’t know that I did.”

If Wyman’s cagey answers and poor memory underlined any untruthfulness on his part, what happened next would be even more confusing.  There were a lot of questions about Wyman’s handwritten notes that he took on the one-day survey visit to Bounty in October of 2012: who had seen them, who did he give copies to, or not, who had seen the document or hadn’t.  Wyman denied that anyone had seen the document – that everything was verbal (or not) and that he had given the document directly to Carroll. But the lead investigator pressed Wyman about some numbers (apparently not in his hand or Wyman’s) written at the bottom of his notes. Jacob Shisha – attorney for the Christian family – clearly smelled something  and asked Carroll if he might pose a question to Wyman.

Shisha: “At any time before coming to this hearing did you speak to the lawyers for the Bounty organization?”

Wyman: (another pause) “Yes. (pause)  A couple of weeks ago…they called me.”

Carroll squared his shoulders and leaned into his microphone.

Carroll: “In a Coast Guard investigation where you were subpoenaed as a witness, you were on a conference call with a party in interest?”

Wyman: (pause) “Yes.”

Carroll: (pause) ” Thank you Mr. Wyman.  You are released.  You are subject to recall. (pause) We will reconvene tomorrow morning at 0900.”

Yes, we will.

Next: Day 4 – The Illusion of Experience

Continued Bounty Coverage:

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