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earlier burfling | later burfling

NTSB on the Bounty

Back in August of 2012, I spent a day playing tourist along the southern New England coast, including a visit to the replica tall ship Bounty. [1] She was originally built for the 1962 version of the movie Mutiny on the Bounty. I have a few pictures of her on Flickr.

Two months later, following a month-long shipyard availability in Boothbay Harbor, ME, Bounty sailed to New London, CT for an "Exchange of Vessel Tours" with the recently-commissioned Virigina-class submarine USS Mississippi (SSN 782); the exchange occurred on October 25. The next item on her itinerary was an event in St. Petersburg, FL scheduled for November 10; Bounty sailed for St. Petersburg that evening.

However, there was a storm brewing - Hurricane Sandy.

Bounty did not make it to St. Petersburg. On October 29, she sank off Cape Hatteras. Of the sixteen persons on board at the time of the sinking, fourteen were safely rescued by US Coast Guard helicopters flying out of Elizabeth City, NC. One person was recovered and pronounced dead at the hospital ashore. The captain's body was never recovered and he is presumed dead.

The National Transportation Safety Board has now released its report on Bounty's sinking, MAB-14-03 - Sinking of Tall Ship Bounty (914KB PDF file). Based on information gathered by the Coast Guard, the NTSB declared the probable cause of Bounty's sinking to be
the captain's reckless decision to sail the vessel into the well-forecasted path of Hurricane Sandy, which subjected the aging vessel and the inexperienced crew to conditions from which the vessel could not recover. Contributing to the sinking was the lack of effective safety oversight by the vessel organization.

The details given in the NTSB report are damning.

The ship was significantly undermanned. Most of those who were aboard had extremely limited experience with wooden ships in general and Bounty in particular. Only four persons had even as much as two years experience in tall ships.

Extensive rot was found in the hull during the ahipyard period. The captain's response was to order the rotted areas painted over, with actual repairs to be postponed for another year due to financial constraints.

Bounty had five separate bilge pumps onboard: two electric pumps, two backup pumps (hydraulically powered by the starboard main engine) and one emergency gasoline-powered pump. However, the two electric pumps "had not performed optimally" during the transit from Boothbay Harbor to New London, while the gasoline-powered pump had never been operated or even tested. Despite that, "the captain gave no orders to test-run the backup hydraulic pumps or the new gasoline pump to ensure that they were operating properly and that the crew knew how to use them" before sailing into the teeth of a major hurricane.

Far and away the worst part of this tragedy, however, was the captain's decision to set sail in the first place. Supposedly, the captain thought that a ship is safer at sea during a hurricane than in port. That may well be true for a vessel in good material condition with a full and experienced crew, especially when there is plenty of sea room to avoid the worst of the storm if conditions deteriorate. The US Navy will typically sortie its ships ahead of expected hurricane landfalls for just those reasons. Bounty, on the other hand, had a short-handed and mostly green crew, an old and leaking hull, and a course that drove her into the Gulf Stream current while pinning her between lee shores and a major hurricane. There was not, in my opinion, any good reason for Bounty not to ride out the storm in New London. The NTSB apparently agrees.

I am profoundly grateful that I had no closer connection to this tragedy than having visited her once in port. I do know somebody who was considering joining Bounty's crew; thankfully, said person had yet to do so when Bounty sank, and thus was not aboard on that fatal final voyage.

[1]They used to have a website at http://www.tallshipbounty.org/. Said website has effectively disappeared into the aether, although the Internet Archive Wayback Machine does have some snapshots.

Originally posted at http://edschweppe.dreamwidth.org/166938.html - comment wherever you please.