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The USC Song Girl and The Sea

Once Claudene Christian joined the crew of the Bounty, she got back the joy that she’d found—and lost—in L.A. Then hurricane Sandy struck

Coast Guard flight mechanic Neil Moulder leaned out of a swaying Jayhawk helicopter and into the full force of Hurricane Sandy, pulling with all his weight on a thick steel cable. Forty feet below, a rescue cage and the shivering survivor inside—nearly 300 pounds total—were being tossed like a paper kite in the 60-knot winds. The tall ship Bounty, attempting to outrun the massive storm, was sinking in the Atlantic in the predawn hours of October 29. Now Moulder fought to keep the cable steady or risk stranding the survivors, who were floating in flimsy lifeboats in 30-foot seas. “As soon as we’d pick up the basket, the winds would throw it under the helicopter and I’d have to muscle it back over,” he says.

As each survivor spilled out of the wire enclosure, Moulder would roll the body, helpless in an oversize orange survival suit, toward any open space on the Jayhawk’s floor. With every new arrival, the group cheered. Moulder’s Jayhawk saved nine, a second helicopter working nearby, five, before dwindling fuel supplies sent them home. A third helicopter arrived to continue the rescue, searching for the suits’ telltale lights. By the time the aircraft landed on fumes at their Elizabeth City, North Carolina, base just past 10 a.m., someone had posted a celebratory message on the Bounty’s Facebook page: “THE CREW IS SAFE...” But like so much of the news coursing through the Web, the announcement was premature.

The captain had gone down with the ship. So had the USC Song Girl.

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Claudene Christian had a waterfall of blond hair, was voluptuous without being vampish, and walked the University of Southern California campus on perfect legs. She also wore with confidence the halo of being among the school’s most iconic group of women. If you’ve seen the first ten seconds of any televised USC football game, you’ve watched the Song Girls. The commercials end. The network logo tumbles onscreen over a wide shot of a stadium, usually viewed from a blimp. Theme music erupts as a voice with game show-host urgency announces, “You’re looking liiive at Los Angeles, California…”

Photograph courtesy Petty Officer 2nd Class Tim Kuklewski/AP

And then, before you’ve glimpsed so much as a red helmet, a pretty girl fills the screen, her grin wide and her white turtleneck sweater both timelessly modest and alluringly tight, the USC letters emblazoned across her chest. She won’t shout or clap or point or give any hint that she knows she’s on TV. She will most certainly not look at the camera. There is nothing happenstance about this moment, nothing unplanned when she stands at military attention on a sideline or twirls in perfect sync with her teammates. Her facial expression, her posture, her entire demeanor are carefully calibrated to match every Song Girl who’s gone before her in the squad’s 44-year history. The process begins with a tough selection that whittles down a hundred or more hopefuls to a number that is about a dozen today but was closer to six when Claudene tried out as a freshman in 1988.

A five-foot-one former gymnast from Anchorage, Alaska, Claudene had been a long shot to make the squad. “In those days Song Girls had a reputation for being tall girls,” says Diana DeBruhl Moody, the captain of the 1989 squad. “Like five-foot-seven or even taller. Claudene was so tiny.” She was also going up for the first time against girls who’d been involved in the world of competitive cheerleading. “Claudene called me in tears,” says childhood friend Wendy Sellens, who was then at Kansas State University. “When she went back for the second round, she almost walked out. She said, ‘Wendy, every girl there had a personal coach.’ It was just her.” Still, as the tryouts continued, squad director Lori Nelson found herself sold on Claudene’s dynamic spirit. “Claudene had that personality that leaped out at you,” Nelson says. “She had so much energy.” That year Nelson would pick an additional barely five-foot contender, Randi Shea. In official photographs Randi and Claudene inevitably stand at the ends, flanking willowy teammates each a head taller. Watching the women practice, USC’s longtime band director Arthur Bartner dubbed Randi and Claudene “the Bookends.” The name stuck.

For the next two years Claudene sat at the top of USC’s food chain: popular with men, envied by women, fawned over by alumni. She had football player boyfriends and a red convertible BMW covered in USC stickers. But looking like a rich kid is not the same as being one. There was no compensation for Song Girl duties. The BMW was possible only because of an unusual entitlement. Like all Alaska residents, Claudene received a dividend check every year from the state’s oil revenues. The money was funneled into a college fund, which paid for the well-used car. “What a lemon it was,” says her mother, Dina, laughing. More pressing was the price tag for a USC education. In the late 1980s, tuition was close to $20,000 per year. “It was hard,” says Dina. “We sold a few pieces of land, but we made it work.”

Southern California was everything Claudene wanted: a land of endless sunshine. As a baby, she had been terrified of the dark. “She’d sit there in the crib and curl her hair real fast,” says Dina. “We always thought she would do it to keep herself awake.” Alaska is a hard place to grow up if your nemesis is night. In winter a timid sun rises at 10 a.m. and sinks below the horizon by 4. If those few precious hours of dusky light are spent inside the cinder-block walls of West Anchorage High School, you might start to believe that you’re sleeping your life away. But even in grade school an inner force drove Claudene. “We kept her in every activity she wanted to try—dance and singing and just about every sport there was,” says Dina. She won gymnastics championships, was voted Miss Alaska National Teen Ager, opened for the Osmond family, and was elected class president. She made strong impressions on people, including a chemistry teacher who told Dina that Claudene had “an aura. We looked at him like he was nuts, but he said, ‘I know if Claudene is in the room before I walk in.’ Everybody was in such a better mood when Claudene was there.”


This feature was originally published in the February 2013 issue of Los Angeles magazine. 

Her father, Harry, who goes by Rex, was a firefighter and rebuilt old Corvettes on the side. As often as he could swing it, he would fix his work schedule in order to take a full month off. The trio would pile into the family Suburban and travel to car shows in California. They’d sleep on the side of the road or sometimes not sleep at all and drive nonstop, 3,400 miles from Anchorage to California in as few as three days. On one trip they visited USC. The campus was still vibrating with the excitement of the 1984 Olympics. Claudene told her parents she’d found her college and bought a videotape of the Trojan band so she could memorize every dance of the famed cheerleaders. She was ecstatic upon being accepted to the school.

Before leaving for L.A., she met a USC alum in Anchorage. He expressed delight that she was heading to his alma mater, but when Claudene told him her plan to become a Song Girl, he looked almost offended. “You don’t just show up and be a Song Girl,” the man said.

Camping in the Alaskan wilderness at 16.

Well, I’m gonna try, she told him.

In addition to performing at games, the Song Girls were routinely hired for gigs off campus, sometimes up to eight a week. “A lot of girls get like, ‘Ugh, I don’t want to do that,’ but Claudene always volunteered,” says Moody. “Anything from weddings to alumni events.” She also took on the thankless task of delivering rolls of fabric to an Orange County seamstress for the team’s custom sweaters, saving scraps of unused material so they wouldn’t go to waste. Perhaps that stash of costly textiles was on her mind when a columnist for the student newspaper, The Daily Trojan, wrote that all he wanted for Christmas was a Song Girl in his stocking. A lightbulb went off. “Literally we are sitting on the team bus and Claudene says, ‘I’m gonna open a doll company,’ ” says Moody. “We were all, ‘Whatever, Claudene.’ ”

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In 2001, Claudene called Hollywood Park and asked for her old job back. Nine years before, Rick Baedeker, then head of marketing at the Inglewood racetrack, had been sitting at his desk when his boss brought in a freshly minted college grad whom he’d met at a USC event. “I saw this cute little SC cheerleader, very young and inexperienced,” says Baedeker. “And before long it was suggested that I hire her.” He was not thrilled, telling Claudene, “We have a small staff, and there’s no room for pride or attitude.” But once she showed up, “Claudene never missed a beat,” he says. “She would jump in on anything that needed doing, and she always had a joy about her that energized the rest of us.” She made friends among the grounds crew, the jockeys, and the grooms in the stables. She constantly pitched Baedeker with ideas—some good, others silly—to bring new fans to the aging horse-racing industry. She ran a Friday night concert series, which lured a younger, free-spending crowd to the track. Within a year Baedeker had made Claudene director of promotions.

Claudene was able to quit that job in 1997, after the Cheerleader Doll Company that she’d nurtured with characteristic drive had grown into a large enterprise. The Barbie-size dolls, dressed in the uniforms of the respective schools, were selling into more than 100 college stores. Soon after announcing her doll idea on that game-day bus ride, Claudene had taken the scraps of white sweater material to a local dry cleaner, which had fashioned a miniature uniform for $30. Two years later Claudene held a licensing agreement from USC and had found a Hong Kong manufacturer for the doll bodies. She faxed her orders from the home office of an ex-boyfriend. She stored the inventory under her coach’s stairs and initially hired Nelson’s children to dress and box the dolls at $1 each. As demand grew, she faced a labor crisis. She enlisted a friend’s fraternity at UCLA to package the dolls. At the close of her senior year she had orders from five college bookstores and was struggling to keep up. “We were working night and day,” Claudene told a newspaper. “All my friends were assembling dolls.”

As a teenage Miss Alaska.

Now financially set, Claudene could pursue another passion: singing. She began performing with a rock group called Joe’s Band, a staple of the South Bay bar scene. She also toured with a band called Mad Tea Party that traveled as far as ski resorts in the Rockies and beach hotels in the Florida Keys. “When she started singing, she was drinking a lot more,” Dina recalls. “She said that living down there was like being in a rock video all the time, people always wanting to do this and that and go out and party.” Claudene was living in a house on the Hermosa Beach Strand, and roommate Mike Barry watched the world follow her through the door. “Everyone was attracted to Claudene in every way possible,” says Barry. The house was packed every night with college kids, music people, even pro athletes. “We had some amazing parties—the balcony would almost be collapsing,” he says. Claudene wasn’t handling the rising alcohol consumption well, and Barry would carry her into her bedroom after she’d pass out.

By the time she reappeared at Baedeker’s door, Claudene was a different person, altered by more than a decade of hard living. She’d endured seven years of legal battles that only exacerbated her drinking. The dolls’ success had come to the attention of Mattel, which produced its own cheerleader version of Barbie. In 1997, Mattel sued Claudene, her father, and their company, stopping two shipments of dolls at U.S. Customs. “Somebody we knew in business told us, ‘That’s what they do; they’ll watch you,’ ” says Dina. “They’ll watch how you do, and if you start to make money, they’ll come after you.” Claudene lost her battle with Mattel but discovered gross misconduct on the part of her lawyer and filed a lawsuit against him. They settled out of court for what Dina says was more than a million dollars. 


This feature was originally published in the February 2013 issue of Los Angeles magazine. 

The grueling days in the legal system and the long, alcohol-soaked nights should have exhausted Claudene, but her normal high energy went into warp drive instead. The fight had taken a different toll on her father, who sought out a therapist and ended up describing Claudene—her emotional swings, her rapid speech as thoughts poured out of her head. “We always thought she was just hyperactive,” says Dina, but the psychiatrist wondered if she might have a manic disorder. Her parents persuaded her to visit him, and he diagnosed Claudene as bipolar. She was prescribed the appropriate medications but was erratic in sticking to them. She partied harder and spent more money. She bought an expensive bed and liked it so much that she got her dad one, too. It showed up at the house in Anchorage without warning. She purchased a $600 six-foot statue of a policeman for her front porch. After leaving her lawyer’s office one afternoon, she stopped into a BMW dealership and paid cash for a new baby blue convertible. She sank $100,000 into a bar in Hermosa Beach, receiving a few dividend checks before letters began arriving saying the profits were being “reinvested” in the bar.

Trying out the Hollywood Park jockey scales.

She was also becoming involved with a man her family says was intent on exploiting her for money. She sold a Hermosa Beach home she’d purchased with the legal settlement, only to have that sum disappear in fixing up a property the boyfriend wanted to flip in Playa del Rey. The structure needed extensive work—it barely had running water. Michelle Wilton, a close friend since USC, saw her drinking increase and her smile fade. Wilton was shocked when Claudene didn’t make it to her wedding in 2006. She and others were worried that Claudene was heading for a breakdown and told her parents so.

All Baedeker knew was that he could no longer depend on Claudene. “There were issues with reliability, calling in sick or not showing up,” he says. “The old Claudene was never sick. Eventually we had to let her go, and she understood why.”

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By 2007, Claudene’s parents had heard enough about her decline to come down to L.A. and escort her to the doctor who had pinpointed her disorder. He checked her in for a brief hospitalization. Out of financial options in L.A., Claudene returned to Anchorage with her parents. It was a shock after years in the sun to be back in the land of eternal winter. The family decided to move to Vian, Oklahoma, near Dina’s hometown. But whatever solace Claudene might have found in the sleepy Midwestern burg quickly turned to boredom. At one point she applied to cover high school sports for the local newspaper, a job intended for a teenager. The sports editor didn’t hire her but was intrigued that she had been a USC Song Girl. He wrote a feature on her. “It was terrible,” Claudene told the writer. “I went back to Alaska after 19 years and felt like I had failed. It was like I went to California, had that wonderful success and just lost it all.” The picture that accompanied the piece shows Claudene surrounded by her dolls, her skin white and puffy, her eyes hollow. It hardly looks like her.

As a seven-yearold dance troupe performer.

Dina saw Claudene’s frustration build. “She was so landlocked,” Dina says. “She loved the ocean and the water, and she needed to get out of here.” Her father had long claimed that they were related to the mutinous sailor Fletcher Christian, a family mythology that no one was able to confirm. Claudene had always been interested in the sea and in research on the Internet looked for a chance to join the crew of one of the magnificent tall ships. Hundreds sail around the United States in a loose circuit of local festivals, regattas, and private appearances. Some are run by nonprofits or as floating schools; others, like the Bounty, are floating businesses, collecting appearance fees and chasing the modern great white whale—the film industry. Their crews are generally a mix of a few committed professionals and a host of novices who come aboard as unpaid volunteers. In 2011, Claudene discovered that the Niña, a replica of Columbus’s ship, was scheduled to dock at Fort Smith, Arkansas, 30 minutes away, and sent the owner her résumé. She was assigned the job of cook and sailed on the Niña for three months. Claudene returned to Vian with a goal. “She was determined that she wanted the Bounty,” says Dina. On the Bounty she wouldn’t just be a galley wench in a small operation. Claudene would be part of the most glorious of the modern tall ships.

On a beautiful May morning last year Claudene and fellow novice Melissa Norris joined the Bounty crew in Wilmington, North Carolina, and the two bonded as they learned the ship’s ropes. “It’s a whole different life, having minimal materialistic things,” Norris says. “You want more of it.” Claudene was certainly thriving. In California e-mails were showing up in the inboxes of friends who had not heard from her in years. They signaled that the old Claudene was back. In pictures her skin is tan and sometimes pink from the sun, and she is always smiling. Claudene sent Wilton a text message that she’d never been happier—not at USC, not at Hollywood Park, not at the height of the doll company. It read: “My head, body and soul are finally in alignment and I’m finally at Peace.”


This feature was originally published in the February 2013 issue of Los Angeles magazine. 

In August Jessica Hewitt, a 25-year-old graduate of Maine Maritime Academy, came aboard as one of the boat’s professionals. Her boyfriend, already on the crew, gave her the lowdown on the season’s volunteers, including a tiny blond so incessantly positive that some of the seasoned sailors—for whom “salty” is a word of respect—found her nothing short of annoying. She was a former cheerleader, of all things. But she’d also established a reputation as a hard worker and a selfless soul, embracing the sailing creed of “ship, shipmate, self,” and she was inevitably the first to look out for another or take on the dirtiest of tasks. Still, as Hewitt arrived at the ship, she was unprepared for the petite figure who walked up to say hello.

“She was covered in tar,” Hewitt says. Head to toe, her blond hair caked with it. Later Claudene shared her past—the doll company, her years as a singer, the bad boyfriends and good ones. But the combination of a rigorous schedule and lack of alcohol on the ship had worked their magic. Hewitt and her other shipmates never witnessed the demons that had driven Claudene from L.A. When Hewitt finally saw a picture of her new friend as a Song Girl, she was dumbstruck. “I was like, ‘Holy crap, Claudene! You were a fox!’ ”

Partying in a South Bay bar in 2001.

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Built for the 1962 Marlon Brando film Mutiny on the Bounty, the 180-foot ship was set to be burned in the movie’s finale—mutineer Fletcher Christian was obsessed with returning to England to argue at his trial, but the crew wanted no part of his plan—until Brando insisted it be spared. MGM commissioned a 40-foot model to be destroyed instead. Sold as part of the studio’s film archives, the Bounty passed through a string of owners.

The ship was languishing in a Massachusetts dry dock when Robin Walbridge took it over in 1995, completing a restoration and putting the ship to sea as a sort of living museum. The Bounty kept a busy schedule of calls at port festivals and established a niche in Hollywood as a go-to pirate ship, appearing in the Pirates of the Caribbean movies, among others. A lifelong sailor, Walbridge had grown up teaching and working on commercial and private boats around St. Petersburg, Florida, before joining a series of tall ship crews. He saw the Bounty as the apex of sailing’s past, calling the tall ships the space shuttles of the 18th century. Walbridge was unafraid of taking the Bounty into bad weather, telling a TV interviewer last summer that the ship would “get a good ride out of a hurricane.” Crew members said his focus on his duties bordered on the extreme. When Claudene jokingly asked Walbridge if he trusted a member of the Christian family at the Bounty’s wheel, he was unamused.

The fateful 1789 voyage of the original HMS Bounty (“HMS” was often incorrectly added to the replica’s name—the prefix belongs solely to British ships) was a mission to Tahiti to collect supplies for Caribbean plantations. As the ship left Tahiti, Christian led a bloodless mutiny that seized control from the captain, William Bligh. Historical defenders of Christian (including Brando’s movie) paint Bligh as a cruel leader with no concern for his crew. Defenders of Bligh insist that Christian and his supporters, after six months on the island, wanted to return to the life of unsupervised drink and sex they’d enjoyed there.

On break during a Song Girl rehearsal.

Christian and Bligh would have recognized life on Walbridge’s Bounty, which operated like a 24-hour factory. The 16-person crew broke into three watches that worked four-hour shifts. On a typical watch the crew rotated through five positions in one-hour intervals: at the helm steering the boat; as a lookout on the bow; as the “boat check” for a list of tasks that needed constant attention, from bilge pumps to rigging lines; in a standby position; and as master of the watch. There was also the regular maintenance—hard chores like painting, stitching sails, cleaning rust from chains, chipping blockages from bilges—at which the newer members would attempt to prove their worth. Almost daily the crew would do an emergency drill to practice rescuing a man overboard or abandoning ship. Each person learned to put on a survival suit in 90 seconds.

On October 25, aware that Hurricane Sandy was coming, Walbridge called the crew together and told them he’d decided to put to sea. The ship was in New London, Connecticut, at the time. If the Bounty were caught in the harbor, wind and waves could smash her against the docks. He wanted to spare her that fate. After all, she’d already escaped destruction at the hands of a film crew. Walbridge gave each shipmate the chance to stay behind. No one did.


This feature was originally published in the February 2013 issue of Los Angeles magazine. 

Hurricane Sandy roared to life on October 22, just south of Kingstown, Jamaica. At the point that the Bounty left Connecticut, the storm had plowed over Cuba, the Bahamas, and Bermuda. Sandy’s wind and rain killed 54 in Haiti and stoked a cholera outbreak that killed close to 50 more. Leaving the tropics, she briefly degenerated below hurricane strength but gathered new power near the United States in waters three degrees Celsius above normal. The jet stream might have blown Sandy harmlessly to the east into the open Atlantic, but a trough of pressure near Greenland dammed that route, channeling the storm straight toward the population centers of the Northeast. As Sandy approached North Carolina, she was 1,150 miles wide, the largest storm ever recorded in the Atlantic.

Walbridge had initially taken the Bounty east, believing he could get around the storm. Dina received a text from Claudene saying she thought they were going halfway to Europe. Another told Dina not to worry because the Bounty “loves Hurricanes.” The ship had been through high seas before, including a trans-Atlantic trip in 2009 that ran into North Sea storms almost as punishing. But when the super size of Sandy became apparent, Walbridge turned southwest, toward the Carolinas, arriving off Cape Hatteras on October 28. He was hoping to squeeze down the hurricane’s less-severe western side.

Clowning with Bounty shipmate Melissa Norris.

Conditions steadily worsened throughout the day, but the crew stayed calm. “I remember standing on the deck with Claudene,” says Hewitt. “I remember her saying, ‘This is so awesome. This is the best day of my life.’ ” Then disaster struck. Seawater that had been flooding into the ship’s lower decks knocked out the power. The Bounty could neither make steerage nor run its internal pumps to expel the water. A Coast Guard investigation into the Bounty’s sinking is pending. But Grant Bredeson, a professional tall ship sailor who crewed with the Bounty for three years, says the flooding may have been worse than normal. The Bounty had been in dry dock for weeks before Sandy showed up. In the best of conditions wooden ships constantly take on water, which seeps in as the planks of the hull bend and squeeze together. But after a long period in dry dock, Bredeson says, “the planks that are normally completely submerged and filled with water would have been dry. It takes another six weeks or so for those planks to be inundated with water and swell up.” The ship’s hull would be more prone to twisting and flexing in the strong waves, allowing in even more water.

The crew worked to keep the vessel afloat, but a vicious spiral had begun. High waves poured water over the ship’s side, pushing the boat ever lower, where it was more vulnerable to smaller waves. Still, the crew refused to panic. “Everyone pictures us running around like crazy,” Hewitt says. “But everyone was very professional. People weren’t huddling in the corner and embracing. I remember at one point thinking, All this is going to be a lot of work to fix.”

Walbridge ordered the crew to don survival suits. But Dina believes that a fatal mistake had already been made. “I’m completely upset they didn’t abandon ship earlier,” she says. “I told my husband, ‘They better not try to save the ship at the expense of the crew.’ ” They could have abandoned ship long before it rolled over, Dina believes, with everyone safely on rafts. As it was, by the time the crew began preparing the lifeboats early the next morning, the ship was minutes away from collapsing.

At far right in a 1990 team photo.

Dina thinks about her daughter in those final minutes, alone in the dark. Even as a 40-year-old woman, when a prairie thunderstorm would buffet their home in Oklahoma, Claudene would flee into her parents’ bedroom. “I think about how scared she was at night,” Dina says. “We hope she was knocked out by something.” Members of the crew, however, remember how bravely Claudene faced the storm. Engineer Chris Barksdale says she spent much of the final night tending to fellow crew member Adam Prokosh, who’d suffered a spinal injury when he was tossed across the ship. “She was all over Adam, checking on him and making sure he was comfortable,” Barksdale says. “When the ship began to list, I saw her drag him from the starboard side to the port side, so he would be dry.” That makes sense to Dina. “That would have killed her—someone she cared about being hurt. When it came to her, she was scared; but when it came to other people, she didn’t think.”


This feature was originally published in the February 2013 issue of Los Angeles magazine. 

After they’d been swept into the sea, most of the survivors pulled together in two groups in the water, while first mate John Svendsen clung to a barrel by himself. After struggling for an hour to get into the rafts, they became aware that two Coast Guard helicopters had arrived. The crews were looking for strobe lights in the darkness. Each survival suit was equipped with one, activated by saltwater. They spotted Svendsen and quickly hoisted him aboard. Next they headed to a lifeboat. Rescue swimmer Dan Todd was lowered to the surface and swam to an opening in the raft covering. Poking his head inside, Todd said, “Hi, I’m Dan. I heard you guys need a ride.”

Once the first two helicopters had left for home, a third and a fourth Jayhawk searched for Claudene and Walbridge, with no luck. A fifth sortie found her at the end of the ship’s debris trail, floating facedown in her survival suit. (The search for Walbridge’s body was called off in early November.) The flight mechanic and rescue swimmer took turns performing CPR throughout the two-hour flight back to the base. As an ambulance transported Claudene to the hospital, they stripped off their flight suits, drenched in sweat.

Hunting Easter eggs at eight.

When Dina and Rex arrived in Elizabeth City the next day, it didn’t hit them that Claudene was gone until they went to see her body. “They took us to the morgue,” Dina says. “I kept expecting to see her in a hospital bed.” Back in Oklahoma, Dina received letters and calls from total strangers. She got word that a woman with Down syndrome who’d sailed on the Bounty never stopped talking about how wonderful Claudene had been to her. Parents of young children wrote with essentially the same story: They’d gone to see the Bounty, but their kids—either too bored or too scared—had balked at going aboard until a short blond woman had taken their hands and personally escorted them around the ship. It’s why Dina, unlike Rex, who can’t even look at pictures of the ship, doesn’t despise the Bounty. “I can’t hate the ship,” says Dina. “I know how much she loved it.”

The Bounty’s hierarchy was such that the novice sailors started as unpaid volunteers and stayed that way until they proved their commitment. Claudene never wavered. She’d become a USC Song Girl. She’d survived Mattel’s lawsuit. She’d found her way from Oklahoma to the deck of a ship that brought her joy. She’d meet this challenge, too. On October 18, Claudene’s 42nd birthday and 23 years to the day that she made the final cut as a Song Girl, Walbridge gave Claudene the news she dreamed of: She was becoming a paid deckhand. 

Two weeks after the Bounty went down, an envelope arrived at the Christians’ home in Vian. It was Claudene’s first paycheck. The sum was $125. Dina held the envelope and wept.  

Matt White was a reporter at a Virginia newspaper when he left journalism to join Air Force Pararescue. He now lives in North Carolina. This is his first article for Los Angeles.


This feature was originally published in the February 2013 issue of Los Angeles magazine.