Thursday, August 28, 2014
Inquirer Daily News

Peril on the sea

Bounty awash in the Atlantic Ocean during Hurricane Sandy approximately 90 miles southeast of Hatteras, N.C., Oct. 29, 2012.
Bounty awash in the Atlantic Ocean during Hurricane Sandy approximately 90 miles southeast of Hatteras, N.C., Oct. 29, 2012. U.S. Coast Guard
Bounty awash in the Atlantic Ocean during Hurricane Sandy approximately 90 miles southeast of Hatteras, N.C., Oct. 29, 2012. Gallery: Peril on the sea

So you're on a blanket on the beach and you look out, past the umbrellas and the other people on blankets and you see, on that dark water just under the horizon, a sailboat riding brightly on the waves.

And you can't help but wonder what it would be like to be on that boat heading into a Jimmy Buffett fantasy of sunlight and gentle seas.

Or maybe you saw one of the Coast Guard vessels slicing through the waters and wondered what those uniformed men and women do all day.

Such distractions won't happen if your beach read this year is Rescue of the Bounty, a terrifying, true disaster story that happened a little less than two years ago, when a hurricane with the innocuous name of Sandy surprised everyone by turning into the deadliest, most damaging storm to hit the eastern Atlantic in half a century.

That was when Robin Walbridge, a tough, quiet and thoroughly seasoned New England sea captain decided that it would be smarter to sail into the approaching storm than leave the ship to face high winds in port at New London, Conn. In 2010, the ship had survived 20 to 25-foot swells on a difficult voyage to its home port in Saint Petersburg, Fla. Why not now?

 Former Inquirer reporter Douglas R. Campbell and Massachusetts journalist Michael J. Tougias begin their story with Walbridge addressing his crew of 15, some of whom were sailing on a tall ship for the first time. The voyage would be unusually demanding: Did anyone want to leave?

Though not everyone agreed with a decision that would ultimately doom the ship and endanger their lives and those of the Coast Guard personnel who came to their rescue, they stayed because they were proud to be on this most famous and visible tall ship.

Built in a Nova Scotia shipyard in 1960, the Bounty was a slightly larger-than-life replica of the original, 1787 HMS Bounty on which the most famous British shipboard rebellion took place. With a splendid, historically detailed exterior, the Bounty's interior contained modern cabins and conveniences, and two powerful diesel engines.

To play its part in the second remake of Mutiny on the Bounty, this new-and-improved Bounty sailed the Panama Canal to Tahiti. The ship was to be burned in a climactic scene, but Marlon Brando, the film's star, insisted that it be saved, and, after a second life as literal promotional vehicle for the movie, it became a tourist attraction at about a dozen seaports in America and in the British Isles, until Ted Turner acquired it as part of his purchase of MGM's film library. Turner donated the ship to the Fall River, Mass., Chamber of Commerce, which established a nonprofit foundation to preserve it.

The crew members chose to remain aboard for differing reasons which the authors explore in profiles so detailed that when Sandy hits, you feel their pain quite literally as they are tossed about, slammed so hard that bones break as waves the size of city buildings batter the ship. The bilge pumps could not handle the water coming in and, about 90 miles off the North Carolina coast, the Bounty took on so much water that it capsized.

Though illustrated with photographs and a chart of the Bounty's progress down the Atlantic Coast, the book could have benefitted from a deck plan, or some kind of diagram of the way the Bounty was put together. This would have made it easier to visualize where the different personalities were during this very complicated narrative, especially when - impossible as it may sound - the ship actually righted itself in the water. The crew had enough time to get into bright, orangey-yellow "Gumby" survival suits, lash some supplies to a raft, and abandon ship.

With the exception of Robinson Crusoe and Shakespeare's The Tempest, I'm not a fan of the small genre of nautical disaster stories.    My aversion comes from personal experience. As a journalist, I joined a crew of commercial fishermen who sailed out of Cape May into a nor'easter on a freezing February evening. When I wasn't bashed and battered into a soggy, seasick mess, I got to know, respect and admire so many decent people who risk their lives to put food on your table. I can't bear to think of them, or anyone, hopelessly alone and dying out in the Atlantic.

I could finish Rescue of the Bounty because I knew from news reports two years ago that most of the crew would make it, fished from the raging storm by valiant Coast Guard personnel.

The investigation that followed blamed Walbridge for his "reckless" plan. In an afterword, the authors, who based much of their story on the reports in the investigation, as well as supplemental interviews, feel that Walbridge was in error, but for different reasons.

Tougias faults him for putting the safety of the ship before that of his crew. Campbell, a small-boat sailor, is more sympathetic. After stating that "the safest way to deal with boats is to stay off them," he describes Walbridge as an "intelligent, driven" man who was "adored by so many, but, in the end, was trapped by his own success, almost universally unquestioned, and, perhaps, as a result, unaccustomed to being challenged."

To me, the idea of sailing around a storm comes from the same place as the courage to dive into that storm to save lives. It can lead to decisions that turn out badly. It can also inspire the panache shown by Coast Guard rescue swimmer Dan Todd, who plunged into the ocean, raced 50 or so yards to the life raft, pulled himself in, and announced to five terrified people, "Hey, I'm Dan. I hear you guys need a ride."

Rescue of the Bounty

Disaster and Survival in Superstorm Sandy

By Michael J. Tougias and Douglas R. Campbell

Scriber. 240 pp. $29.99

Bill Kent is the author of seven novels, all of which are set on dry land. He lives and writes in Virginia.

Bill Kent
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