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

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.