For the last four days, I’ve been plugged in to the dramatic Coast Guard hearings in Portsmouth, Virginia, that are examining the causes of the sinking of the tall ship Bounty during Hurricane Sandy. I wrote about Bounty and crew member Claudene Christian, a former USC Song Girl who was killed in the sinking, for the magazine in this month’s issue. The testimony peaked today when Daniel Cleveland, the ship’s 3rd Mate, and boatswain Laura Groves each described the last time they saw Christian in the ship’s chaotic final minutes.
Christian died sometime during the ship’s sinking on October 29, and her body was found early the next morning by a Coast Guard helicopter.
After methodically and calmly testifying for three hours, Cleveland, 25, choked up with emotion at the end of his morning of testimony when he described taking Christian by the hand and pushing her toward the rear of the ship as the crew prepared to abandon ship. And Groves, who testified into the early evening, fought back tears for most of her recounting of Bounty’s final hours. She said that the last time she saw Christian, who lived in Los Angeles and Hermosa Beach from 1988 to 2009, she was standing towards the rear of the ship with the captain, Robin Walbridge, who was also killed in the sinking.
The two senior sailors described a scene onboard that went from an orderly struggle against “heavy weather” – Cleveland’s hand-held wind-meter read 90 knots before breaking – to the chaos of sinking with frightening speed. As the crew moved to the rear of Bounty to begin boarding lifeboats, the ship rolled onto its side, tossing the crew into the sea. One crew member, Groves said, broke down and began panicking, though she refused to name them in the open hearing, instead passing a note with their name to the panel. Once in the water, the crew was swept down the ship’s length by the ocean current. Worse, the boat’s nose, pushed by the wind, began to turn back toward the group, pinning them against the deck. As the capsized ship rolled in the waves, its masts and rigging grabbed the crew as they desperately tried to swim away, lifting some into the air or pulling them underwater. Cleveland said an impact with the pitching mast broke two of his ribs.
Within minutes, both were among a group of five that found their way to a life raft. Nine others were in another. Christian and Walbridge were not among them. Coast Guard helicopters arrived within a few hours.
The two sailors’ account mirrored similar testimony given Tuesday by first mate John Svendsen. Shipyard workers and other technical experts testified Wednesday and Thursday about the Bounty’s seaworthiness after repairs at a Maine shipyard earlier in the month. One worker at the yard said he was so worried about rot and leaking on the ship that he did not consider the boat safe, while another senior builder said the ship was, considering its age, not in dire shape. But neither thought the ship was ready for “heavy weather” like Hurricane Sandy and were stunned when they heard that Walbridge had taken the ship into the storm.
Throughout the week, a picture began to form of a series of shortcuts and delayed maintenance on Bounty that had left it seaworthy but unready to take on Sandy. Seems were sealed with hardware store compounds rather than with marine-grade material. Rotten wood was left in place and covered with new rather than a thorough rebuild. Still, the crews’ stories suggest Bounty might have made it safely through the storm – as it had two other hurricanes with Cleveland and Svendsen aboard – had the onboard water pumps not failed on the last night. But as the water onboard grew higher, Walbridge held off abandoning ship, twice over-ruling Svendsen’s suggestions to do so, until the sea rose over the boat’s bow. Only then did Walbridge order the crew to the rear. The final roll came moments later.
I’ll continue to follow the hearings next week, when much of the crew is scheduled to testify, on twitter as @PJMatt.
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