Elizabeth City, N.C. — The U.S. Coast Guard on Monday rescued 14 crew members and were looking for two others from the abandoned HMS Bounty, a famous replica tall ship that began sinking off the coast of Cape Hatteras in rough waters churned up by Hurricane Sandy.
All crew members were aboard the 180-foot, three-mast ship when it started taking on water and lost propulsion early Monday as it struggled to skirt around the Category 1 storm.
After enduring several hours, the crew put on survival suits and climbed aboard two 25-foot life boats.
Coast Guard Petty Officer 1st Class Brandyn Hill said the crew members were rescued by two Coast Guard helicopters around 6:30 a.m. and taken to Elizabeth City. He did not have any information on their conditions.
The drama unfolded late Sunday, when the Coast Guard 5th District command center in Portsmouth, Va., reported that it received a call from the owner of the Bounty, saying she had lost communication with the crew.
The Coast Guard later received a radio signal from the vessel, indicating its position and that it was in distress.
Coast Guard Vice Adm. Robert Parker, Operational Commander for the Atlantic Area, told ABC's "Good Morning America" that at the time of the distress call the ship was taking on 2 feet of water an hour.
He said the crew abandoned ship into canopied, rubber life rafts with about 10 feet of water on board.
An air crew from the Coast Guard station in Elizabeth City launched an HC-130 Hercules aircraft to the scene and established communication with Bounty’s crew, the guard said. But rough weather – 30-foot swells and 50 mph winds – hampered
"You can imagine how difficult it would be to conduct a rescue," Coast Guard Lt. Michael Patterson said. "But that's what we're trying to accomplish here."
The guard dispatched two MH-60 Jayhawk helicopters to hoist the crew to safety. The first chopper arrived about 6:30 a.m. and hoisted five people into the aircraft, while the second rescued the other nine.
"They did not panic at all," said Daniel Todd, a rescue swimmer on the second helicopter. "I told them what I needed from them in order for them to be safe and for it to run as quickly and smoothly as possible."
The Hercules stayed at the scene to search for the missing crew, and a third helicopter later joined in.
The Bounty replica was built in 1962 for the movie "Mutiny on the Bounty" and has since been used in numerous films and documentaries, including "Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest."
The director of the HMS Bounty Organization, Tracie Simonin, said the tall ship had left Connecticut last week en route for St. Petersburg, Fla.
"They were staying in constant contact with the National Hurricane Center," she said. "They were trying to make it around the storm."
Sal Mercogliano, a maritime historian at Campbell University, said that the Bounty's captain, Robin Walbridge, had decided that the ship would be safer out at sea than at the port, because of the impending 10-12 feet tidal surge.
Based on what he knew about the situation, Mercogliano said several factors contributed the ship sinking.
"What appears to have happened is that water probably inundated the vessel, flooded out the generators and with the loss of power and only 16 or 17 crew members on board, they were unable to pump out the vessel, unable to manage their sails," Mercogliano said. "Once you started taking water and lost that power, it was only a matter of time until (the ship) broached."