PORTSMOUTH, Va. — The chief mate of a replica 18th-century sailing ship that sank off North Carolina during Hurricane Sandy told investigators Tuesday that the ship’s captain twice refused his pleas to order the crew to abandon ship.
It wasn’t until he made a third plea that the captain gave the order — moments before the ship rolled and tossed the crew into the water.
One member of the HMS Bounty’s crew died, and the captain was never found after the ship sank 90 miles off Cape Hatteras during the October storm. The three-masted sailing ship was built for the 1962 film “Mutiny on the Bounty” starring Marlon Brando, and was featured in several other films over the years, including one of the “Pirates of the Caribbean” movies.
A federal safety panel began hearing testimony in a Portsmouth hotel about what led to the sinking, with chief mate John Svendsen providing a detailed account of what happened in the days, hours and minutes leading up to the loss of the ship.
Svendsen said the ship was taking on water and had no power when it rolled over and sank. He also told investigators the captain didn’t alert Coast Guard officials of the ship’s deteriorating condition when he first suggested it, with Capt. Robin Walbridge choosing to focus on fixing failing generators instead. Svendsen disagreed with Walbridge on that decision, along with several others.
Before ever leaving New London, Conn., for St. Petersburg, Fla., Svendsen said he had told Walbridge that he and other crew members were concerned about his decision to alter the ship’s planned route to head directly toward the storm as it approached.
“I had mentioned other options as far as staying in and not going out to sea. Robin felt the ship was safer at sea,” Svendsen said.
Svendsen said Walbridge wanted to head out to sea and then judge where the storm’s path would be to allow for safer passage, giving him options to go east or west depending on the route. Svendsen said he didn’t believe Walbridge was chasing a hurricane, but that he did prefer to be on a more navigable southeastern side of a hurricane if he came across one. He said Walbridge believed the winds on the southeast side of a hurricane were more navigable. The original plan for the ship had it taking a more direct route.
Svendsen said Walbridge explained his decision to the ship’s crew before leaving Connecticut and offered to let anyone who wasn’t comfortable with it leave, but nobody chose to do so.
Although the hearing being administered by the Coast Guard isn’t a criminal proceeding, any evidence of wrongdoing could be referred to federal prosecutors.
The owner of the HMS Bounty declined to testify at the hearing by invoking his Fifth Amendment right to be protected from incriminating himself.
Surviving crew members and representatives of the shipyard where the Bounty underwent repairs weeks before sinking were among those subpoenaed to testify.