Hurricanes

Captain of doomed tall ship an experienced sailor

Posted October 30, 2012

— Robin Walbridge had been in a lot of dicey situations as the captain of the HMS Bounty, an 18th-century replica tall ship that was the set of countless movie dramas.

But none of his journeys was as treacherous, perhaps, as navigating through a hurricane churning up the East Coast, becoming part of an epic storm — and a daring rescue — that seemed ripped from the Hollywood films that made the ship famous.

Walbridge's wife describes him as a passionate, experienced captain, one with a cool head and a kind heart. Photos of him on the ship's wooden deck just days before the ill-fated trip show a white-haired man with a steady gaze in a blue windbreaker, a man who was at ease with the sea.

"He's been in many storms," his wife, Claudia McCann, said Tuesday from the couple's St. Petersburg home. "He's been doing this a good portion of his life. He's been in lots of hairy situations and he's very familiar with the boat."

McCann said she talked to him on the phone on his birthday — Oct. 25 — and last heard from him in an email Saturday. He said he and his 15-member crew were prepared to sail around the storm.

But by Monday, the ship began to take on water, its engines failed and the crew abandoned the boat off the North Carolina coast. They were rescued by the Coast Guard, though one member had died. The captain was swept into the sea and still missing.

While the seas were still about 15-feet Tuesday, water temperatures were a tolerable 77 degrees.

Robin Walbridge Search continues for missing ship captain

"There's a lot of factors that go into survivability. Right now we're going to continue to search. Right now we're hopeful," Coast Guard Capt. Joe Kelly said.

A decision on how much longer to look will come later Tuesday.

Walbridge's wife waited in their in St. Petersburg home to hear any word, surrounded by friends.

The couple met 17 years ago in Fall River, Mass., during an after-hours reception aboard the ship. It was about the time Walbridge took the ship's helm.

"He was a gentle soul and he was like no one I had ever met before," she said.

About seven years ago, the couple moved to St. Petersburg, which was also where the Bounty has called home off and on since the late 1960s.

Life as a sailor's wife wasn't always easy; they would go months without seeing each other. Sometimes, she took voyages with him, staying in his cramped and rustic sleeping quarters.

"He was a fantastic captain and he was the best in the industry," she said. "He had a reputation that followed him."

Walbridge was a teacher, not only for the visitors to the Bounty, but for his crew, too. They were 11 men and five women, ranging in age from 20 to 66, and many of them weren't experienced on the sea. In a 2010 interview, the captain told a radio station that was how he liked it.

"We take people and we actually put them to work, just like a regular crew member. They will do everything the normal crew does, whether it is steering the boat, setting sails, hauling lines," he told radio station KFAI in Duluth, Minn.

Claudene Christian, 42, the crew member who died, was a rookie sailor, but she had a marketing background — and a name and a lineage familiar to anyone who knew the story of the original HMS Bounty, whose crew famously took over the ship from its commander, Lt. William Bligh, in April 1789. The uprising was led by Fletcher Christian, and the story was told in the 1962 Marlon Brando film "Mutiny on the Bounty." It was also featured in one of the "Pirates of the Caribbean" movies.

Claudene Christian said in August she was Fletcher Christian's great-great-great-great-great granddaughter.

"I was at the helm the first week and said, 'Captain, are you sure you're comfortable having a Christian at the helm? I wasn't sure if he got my joke," Christian told The Chronicle Herald of Halifax, Nova Scotia, when the Bounty visited for a tall ships festival.

The crew was tight-knit. One of the more experienced sailors, 66-year-old Doug Faunt, wrote on his blog in May that they seemed to be learning fast and getting along well.

"We had a new crew, most with no experience on BOUNTY, and we're a bit short-handed," Faunt wrote. "The crew has shaken down well."

The Coast Guard did not make the 14 survivors available to reporters, and the group collectively decided not to talk out of respect and sympathy for Christian and Walbridge, said Kimberly Hewitt of Baltimore, whose sister Jessica Hewitt was on board.

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  • Lightfoot3 Oct 31, 9:19 a.m.

    As the former navigator of a sailing vessel, I see two glaring errors in the captain’s decisions. The first was making the “go” decision too late. And that was compounded by lack of a more easterly course. It looks like he was trying to hug the coast and get below the storm. That might be the case, given it would take less fuel and time, but it would be a gamble. It seems he was too conservative on his estimate to skirt the storm, and the engine problems doomed him. I wonder if he made all the decisions himself? I had a captain disregard and overrule my suggested course once and got us mired up in fishing crab pots.

    You aren’t allowed many mistakes at sea and more than one will usually compound the previous ones. Sad for the loss of life and ship.

  • pinball wizard Oct 30, 7:33 p.m.

    A lot of commercial ship sought safe anchorage in Chesapeake Bay. They were not tied to a dock, but anchored in sheltered waters.

    The Captain was rather foolish to attempt this voyage while aware of the terrible conditions.

    Ultimately, the Captain is responsible for his ship and crew.

  • hardycitrus Oct 30, 7:06 p.m.

    The ship's privately owned and headed for a scheduled event in FL. I'm guessing the owner ordered the captain to keep on schedule.

  • OpenM1nd Oct 30, 6:54 p.m.

    To everyone asking why, I read something yesterday that said that the captain decided that the ship would have been safer afloat than running the risk of being smashed at port during the swells, theoretically faring better against wind and water than against rocks, land, and man-made objects. In other words, in terms of decision, they were between a rock and a hard place. But they would have done better if there were no sails and the ship were sealed tight like a submarine. They probably had no idea that the storm would be as large either. I hope they find him, and also that the ship can be raised and restored.

  • iwall2 Oct 30, 6:43 p.m.

    Sailing a replica of a 17th century ship down the east coast during a massive hurricane is complete madness.Many thanks go out to the Coast Guard for the rescue of 14 crew members.

  • drcyndimd Oct 30, 6:42 p.m.

    Many large ships fair much better at sea during a storm than tied to a dock or in a berth where they get smashed to pieces or end up on the street two blocks from the water. If the engines had not died there is a great chance that this tragedy would have had a very different result.

  • airbornemonty Oct 30, 6:23 p.m.

    If the captain was so experienced, why did he loose the ship and why did he take a wooden vessel out to sea when he knew that a hurricane imminent.

  • quikdraw2 Oct 30, 5:56 p.m.

    I don't understand. Why would a sailing ship be taken out when there was even a threat of a tropical depression/storm/hurricane.

    Sandy was not a surprise...hurricanes take a week to 10 days to form and make a suggestive path. I am sorry for the loss of the captain....but the loss was unnecessary in my opinion. It is just not rocket science. How many more times must I say it? Just think....

  • whyalltheproblems Oct 30, 5:40 p.m.

    this is so sad...

  • kevinball Oct 30, 5:16 p.m.

    There are no old, bold pilots.