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
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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.