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REFILE-Crew recounts moments before Bounty sank in Hurricane Sandy

Source: Thomson Reuters Foundation - Sat, 16 Feb 2013 00:46 GMT
Author: Reuters
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(Removes extraneous word 'of' in paragraph 16)

By Harriet McLeod

Feb 15 (Reuters) - As Hurricane Sandy bore down on the replica HMS Bounty off the coast of North Carolina last fall, the crew battled 12-foot (3.5-metre) seas, 90 mile per hour (145 kph) winds, faltering pumps and failing engines.

The crew lost, and everyone was sucked into the Atlantic Ocean, third mate Daniel Cleveland told federal investigators on Friday. One crew member died, and Captain Robin Walbridge, 63, was lost at sea and presumed dead.

Coast Guard helicopters rescued the other 14 crew members on Oct. 29.

The ship, a replica of the 18th-century HMS Bounty that was headed for Florida, filled with water, and before the crew could deploy life rafts and abandon ship, the three-mast, 180-foot (55-meter) vessel rolled over and threw them into the ocean, Cleveland said.

"The water grabbed onto all of us, no matter where you were," Cleveland said. "You're being thrown around, you're being hit by things. I broke a couple of ribs."

The third mate's testimony came during a hearing being conducted in Portsmouth, Virginia, as part of an investigation by the U.S. Coast Guard and National Transportation Safety Board.

In Tuesday's testimony, the first mate said he had urged the captain three times to abandon ship before he was heeded.

Investigators are considering a variety of factors for the sinking, including the sea-worthiness of the wooden ship, which was built for the 1962 movie "Mutiny on the Bounty."

Cleveland said the ship's frames, which support the hull, had some rot, which has been raised as a concern by others but did not worry him.

A number of repairs were made before the ship departed, including the replacement of some rotted planks.

Walbridge, the captain, had called a meeting before Bounty's departure from New London, Connecticut, and told the crew they could skip the trip if they were worried about the weather.

"Nobody decided to leave," Cleveland said.

The ship was bound for its winter berth in St. Petersburg, Florida. The captain planned to get east of Hurricane Sandy and south of Cape Hatteras off North Carolina's coast as quickly as possible, Cleveland said.

"He believed a ship is safer at sea," Cleveland testified.

The Bounty had sailed behind, but not in front of, hurricanes in the past, and the water pumps had previously been able to keep up, Cleveland said.

The captain reassured the crew about the likelihood of a Coast Guard rescue and talked about plans for abandoning ship, Cleveland said.

"He was very calm, but he wanted to make everyone very aware that the situation was a real situation," Cleveland said.

The Bounty was about 160 miles (260 km) from the eye of the hurricane when it foundered.

First mate John Svendsen testified on Tuesday he asked the captain three times to abandon ship and disagreed with Walbridge's decision to wait.

"I said, 'I think it's time to abandon ship,'" Svendsen said. "He said, 'I think we've got more time.' By the third time, I just made a dramatic gesture to put the left arm of my emergency (suit) on, and he said, 'OK, I trust we should abandon ship.'"

Cleveland said the last time he saw Walbridge was when he heard Svendsen tell the captain the bow was under water. Walbridge had hurt his back after being thrown against a table by the rolling boat, Cleveland said.

Testimony from other crew members was due to continue on Monday. It will be months before the Coast Guard releases its final report, a Coast Guard officer said. (Editing by Colleen Jenkins, Daniel Trotta and Leslie Adler)

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