RALEIGH, N.C. — More than a week before Hurricane Sandy became a superstorm that would zero in on New York and New Jersey, while it was just a tropical depression bouncing around the Caribbean, the captain of the tall ship Picton Castle decided to play it safe and stay home.
It was scheduled to leave Nova Scotia on Oct. 22 but delayed by 12 days, said Susan Corkum-Greek, general manager of the ship’s operator, Windward Isles Sailing Ship Co. Ltd.
Capt. Daniel Moreland thought it better to stay put than sail south while the storm could be churning north.
Another captain sailing roughly the same route headed out to sea instead. The HMS Bounty sailed dead into the path of Hurricane Sandy. Amid 30-foot waves, the diesel engines died and the ship took on water. The crew eventually abandoned ship, and the Bounty sank 90 miles southeast of Cape Hatteras on Oct. 29.
One crew member died. The captain was never found despite days of searching.
This week, a federal safety panel will open a hearing into the fatal sinking of the Bounty — a replica 18th-century tall ship built for the 1962 film “Mutiny on the Bounty” and used in other seafaring dramas.
Investigators with the Coast Guard and the National Transportation Safety Board have scheduled eight days of testimony in Portsmouth, Va., to hear from crew members, people from the shipyard where the Bounty underwent work weeks before sinking, and captains of similar multi-mast sailing ships.
“It’s really the first time the public will get a better understanding of what happened,” said Ernest DelBuono, a retired Coast Guard commander who once inspected U.S. vessels. “This is a unique case because the person who probably everybody would like to hear from was a casualty. The captain is dead.”
Capt. Robin Walbridge, 63, of St. Petersburg, Fla., is presumed dead after a three-day search failed to find him. Claudene Christian, 42, was confirmed dead. The Coast Guard rescued the other 14 crew members from two lifeboats while a strobe light atop the vessel’s mast identified the wreck.
The hearings are an opportunity to hear from survivors and people who spoke to the captain before the ship left New London, Conn., for St. Petersburg, said DelBuono, now a crisis management consultant in Washington.
Moreland is expected to testify by phone from the South Pacific, where the Picton Castle is cruising. A likely line of questioning is what led to the decision to postpone while Sandy was still days away, Corkum-Greek said.
“There was no dissent among our team of mariners that postponing was the correct thing to do,” Corkum-Greek said. “The safety of the ship and all hands is always the primary concern.”
Coast Guard Cmdr. Kevin Carroll, the hearing’s lead officer, is scheduled to open the hearings by questioning the Bounty’s operators, the HMS Bounty Organization of East Setauket, N.Y. The organization’s director, Tracie Simonin, did not respond to messages last week. She said in October that though Walbridge was aware of the hurricane’s power, he thought he could steer clear of the worst.
The ship’s Facebook page acknowledged the risk in the days before the sinking. “This will be a tough voyage,” read one posting.
More than a day before the Bounty was lost, another post read: “Rest assured that the Bounty is safe and in very capable hands. Bounty’s current voyage is a calculated decision … The fact of the matter is … A SHIP IS SAFER AT SEA THAN IN PORT!”
But another tall ship captain said he’s mystified by what Walbridge was thinking.
Jan Miles, captain of the clipper ship Pride of Baltimore II, is scheduled to testify and said Walbridge apparently knew he was headed toward an unpredictable hurricane moving faster than his ship. He said he expects to be quizzed about piloting, operating norms, and decision-making on a tall ship.
The public also will hear from officials with Boothbay Harbor Shipyard in Maine, which posted on its blog less than three weeks before the Bounty sank that the ship had been undergoing minor repairs for about a month. The shipyard’s president and other officials did not return calls seeking comment.
Some of the most dramatic testimony could come during the three-plus days designated for Bounty crew members, who did not return messages from The Associated Press. Survivors had agreed not to give interviews until the Coast Guard’s findings are released, said Larry Jones of St. Augustine, Fla., the father of crew member John Jones.
But 12 of the 14 crew members sat down for a group interview with ABC News about a week after the ship sank.
Crew member Dan Cleveland told ABC he had been through two other hurricanes aboard the Bounty with Walbridge and “the ship was in great shape.” But with dead engines and the ship taking on water, the crew waited for a relatively calm spell to clamber onto deck to abandon ship, crew member John Svendsen said.
“That was a very difficult decision,” he said.
Coast Guard spokesman Chief Petty Officer Nyx Cangemi said a final report could still be months or years away.
Though the hearing isn’t a criminal proceeding, any evidence of wrongdoing would be referred to federal prosecutors, Cangemi said. Witnesses will be under oath and have the right to be assisted by attorneys during testimony.
The testimony could lead to additional hearings or investigations, Cangemi said. “Whenever there’s casualties involved, we just need to make sure we are doing our due diligence for the families and the victims.”