While I spent most of my boating career as a cruiser, my initial sail training took place as a member of the all-volunteer crew of the 1877 tall ship Elissa in Galveston, Texas. A season spent memorizing 19 sails, dozens of lines and the actions required after receiving innumerable commands molded our crew into a cohesive corps able to maintain our historic barque and take her out for her annual forays into the Gulf of Mexico.
I crewed for five years, developing a fascination for the traditions of tall ships and their role in our history. I also developed an enormous respect for those sailors who made the jump from part-time volunteers to professional crew aboard vessels traveling to far-flung ports. They keep our maritime history alive in a very real way.
Since 1960, one of those ships had been the HMS Bounty, the wooden vessel built in Nova Scotia for a leading role in the 1962 film “Mutiny on the Bounty.” Through five cinematic retellings, a trilogy of novels and numerous other books, the story of how Lt. William Bligh’s command was overthrown in 1789 has become one of the best-known sea stories of all time.
Mate Fletcher Christian (who has been portrayed in film by Marlon Brando, Errol Flynn, Clark Gable and Mel Gibson) led the mutineers who eventually settled on the remote Pitcairn Island to start a new life with their Tahitian brides. They scuttled the ship in a cove to evade detection. Many of their descendents live there still, but earlier this year one of Christian’s direct descendents had joined the crew of the modern Bounty. Despite having no prior sailing experience, Claudene Christian, 42, was taken aboard and soon learned the ropes. But her sailing career came to a tragic end on Oct. 29, four days after leaving Connecticut en route to St. Petersburg, Fla.
Bounty was attempting to circle around the massive Hurricane Sandy when the ship lost power. Unable to run its bilge pumps, it began to sink. With the decks awash in 18-foot seas some 90 miles off Cape Hatteras (known as the Graveyard of the Atlantic), the crew donned ocean survival suits and boarded two lifeboats. According to crew reports, a wave tore three of them from the ship as they were attempting to board the rafts. One was able to make it to the raft.
Some 10 hours later, after heroically plucking 14 crewmembers from their lifeboats, U.S. Coast rescue swimmers from Air Station Elizabeth City, N.C., found Christian, but she was unresponsive and later pronounced dead.
As we prepared to go to press, Capt. Robin Walbridge remained missing. Walbridge, who celebrated his 63rd birthday the day before departing from Connecticut, had commanded the ship for 17 years, seeing it through two Atlantic crossings, a prior hurricane and a major refit under new ownership at the turn of the century.
The ship (which still bore the helm from Clark Gable’s 1935 Bounty film) benefited from numerous appearances in Hollywood productions, including two of Disney’s “Pirates of the Caribbean” films. It was also a hugely popular attraction at tall ship gatherings and maritime festivals, and was affiliated with Tall Ships America, a non-profit organization dedicated to enriching youth education through character building and leadership programs aboard tall ships.
Following its planned stop in Florida, the ship was to continue on to spend the winter as a showpiece in Galveston, Texas, with Elissa nearby. Sadly, that will never be.
There will doubtless be official inquiries into the cause of the ship’s equipment failure and the decision to go to sea three days before the arrival of what has been dubbed a super storm. Regardless of the findings, the story of HMS Bounty has a new chapter, and it remains a cautionary tale.
With the 2012 hurricane season finally behind us, we can turn our attention to the holiday season. We hope you enjoy this issue’s features on lighted boat flotillas and waterproof gifts, along with our usual departments. Thanks for reading and let us know how we’re doing.