Tall ship's captain still missing; 14 rescued, one dead

Posted October 29, 2012 5:39 p.m. EDT
Updated October 30, 2012 11:32 a.m. EDT

— The U.S. Coast Guard says the captain of a tall ship that sank Monday off the coast of Cape Hatteras is the only person still missing after divers found the other missing crew member Monday afternoon.

Capt. Robin Walbridge, 63, was one of 16 people on the HMS Bounty, which was traveling from Connecticut to Florida when it got caught in rough waters, started taking on water and lost propulsion early Monday.

The crew abandoned ship, and the Coast Guard was able to rescue 14 members – none of whom suffered from life-threatening injuries – Monday morning.

Claudene Christian, 42, was found unresponsive Monday afternoon and taken to Albemarle Hospital in Elizabeth City, where she died Monday night, a hospital public information officer said.

Crews were continuing the search for Walbridge Tuesday, using an airplane and a ship to search some 1,350 nautical miles southeast of Cape Hatters.

The 180-foot, three-mast ship – a replica of a 1700s British transport vessel – is sunk, but the mast is still visible, the Coast Guard said.

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."

Sal Mercogliano, a maritime historian at Campbell University, said Walbridge decided to move the ship, thinking it would be safer out at sea than at port, which was expecting a 10-12-foot tidal surge.

According to a post on the Bounty's Facebook page, Walbridge sent a message Saturday night saying he thought harsh conditions would linger even after the eye of Hurricane Sandy passed.

"We are just going to keep trying to go fast and squeeze by the storm and land as fast as we can," Walbridge wrote to Tracie Simonin, director of the HMS Bounty Organization.

"They were staying in constant contact with the National Hurricane Center," Simonin said. "They were trying to make it around the storm."

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," he said. "Once you started taking water and lost that power, it was only a matter of time until (the ship) broached."

Crew members – wearing survival suits that can keep an individual warm and afloat for up to 15 hours – reportedly endured several hours of harsh conditions before abandoning ship Monday morning.

Those were rescued in an hour-long operation around 6:30 a.m. and taken to a Coast Guard air station in Elizabeth City.

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.

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."