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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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.