The U.S. Coast Guard has opened an investigation into the sinking of the HMS Bounty. The three-masted tall ship became one of Superstorm Sandy’s first American casualties when its crew was forced to abandon ship early Monday morning.
The Coast Guard said it would “probe every aspect of the accident and will determine as closely as possible” what caused it, whether there is evidence of equipment failure or human error, and if it or any other government agency contributed to the confirmed death of one crew member and presumed death of the Bounty’s captain, who is missing.
The Bounty sent out a distress call Sunday night and began taking on water off the coast of North Carolina Monday morning amid high winds and waves caused by Sandy, whose eye was located 150 miles to the east at the time. Shortly thereafter the crew abandoned ship and boarded life rafts.
Coast Guard helicopters soon responded, rescuing 14 of the 16 crew members from life rafts amid high winds as Sandy closed in on the wreck site, about 90 miles east of Cape Hatteras, N.C. For several hours two crew members remained unaccounted for, until Claudene Christian, 42, was found alone in the Atlantic Ocean. She was unresponsive and later declared dead. The ship’s captain, Robin Walbridge, remains missing. The Coast Guard suspended its search for him Thursday after scouring 12,000 square miles surrounding the wreck for more than 90 hours.
“Our thoughts and prayers are with the Walbridge and Christian families,” said Capt. Doug Cameron, the chief of incident response for the Coast Guard 5th District, in a statement. ”Suspending a search and rescue case is one of the hardest decisions we have to make.”
Cameron and Cmdr. Kevin M. Carrol, who heads the Coast Guard 5th District’s investigations branch, will lead the investigation into the incident, which could take several months. The investigation is not necessarily to determine liability or bring charges, the agency said in its statement.
“Coast Guard investigations of marine casualties and accidents are for the purpose of taking appropriate measures for promoting safety of life and property and are not intended to fix civil or criminal responsibility.”
The ship was a replica of the original HMS Bounty, used by the British in the 1700s. The replica ship was used in several Hollywood films, including one of the popular “Pirates of the Caribbean” films. The 180-foot ship was being used for sailing training and tourism. Walbridge believed he would be able to navigate around Sandy.
“We are just going to keep trying to go fast and squee[z]e by the storm and land as fast as we can,” he wrote in a Facebook post on Sunday. “I am thinking that we will pass each other sometime Sunday night or Monday morning.”
Here’s a brief timeline of the fate of the HMS Bounty, according to the ship’s Facebook page and the Coast Guard.
9 p.m. - Captain Robin Walbridge sends out distress signal.
11 p.m. - HMS Bounty loses radio contact, one of its generators fails. Coast Guard dispatched shortly thereafter.
4:30 a.m. - Walbridge orders crew to abandon ship, which is still upright. Crew boards twin 25-foot life rafts. Two crew members are swept into open water attempting to board rafts.
6:30 a.m. - 8 a.m. - Two Coast Guard helicopters arrive, rescue 14 of 16 crew members. Aircraft begin searching for two missing crew members.