In 2012 the tall ship Bounty was sunk by Superstorm Sandy off the coast of North Carolina. The sinking of the iconic—and period correct—prop ship from the 1962 Marlon Brando film Mutiny on the Bounty killed the captain and one crewmember. The other 14 crewmembers more were only saved by the heroic actions of the U.S. Coast Guard in almost indescribably dangerous conditions. And it didn’t have to happen. Read this article from our August issue to discover lessons learned from her sinking.
Capt. Robin Walbridge assembled his crew of 15 sailors on the deck of the Bounty—a 180-foot tall ship built for the 1962 movie Mutiny on the Bounty starring Marlon Brando. It was Thursday, October 25, 2012, and Walbridge knew the crew was hearing reports of an approaching hurricane named Sandy. He called the crew together for two reasons: First, to tell them he still planned to set sail from New London, Connecticut, to St. Petersburg, Florida, and second, to clarify that they were under no obligation to join him.
He explained to his crew that “a ship is always safer at sea than at port,” and that he intended to sail “around the hurricane.” Not a single sailor took the captain up on his offer to leave the ship.
Four days into the voyage, Superstorm Sandy collided with the Bounty. The vessel’s failing pumps could not keep up with the incoming water. The power on the ship flickered on and off as it was beaten and rocked by hurricane-force winds that spanned an area of more than 800 miles. A few hours later, in the dark of night, the ship suddenly overturned 90 miles off the North Carolina coast, sending the crew tumbling into an ocean awash with crushing, 30-foot waves.
The sailors were both lucky and resourceful. They were lucky because the Coast Guard, upon first learning that the Bounty was taking on water several hours before it capsized, launched a C-130 search plane into the storm. When the C-130 arrived on scene, the Bounty crew could only communicate by short-range radio. After circling the ship, the aircraft pilot suddenly heard these words over the radio: “We are abandoning ship! We are abandoning ship!”
The C-130 dropped life rafts before relaying the unfolding disaster to Coast Guard officials, who then launched a Jayhawk helicopter—a high-risk operation considering the power of Superstorm Sandy. When the first helicopter arrived on scene the skies were still dark. They were directed by the C-130 to fly at least one mile from the capsized ship to a point where a single strobe light was flashing on what appeared to be an immersion suit. If there was a person inside the suit, they needed rescuing immediately before they drifted any farther from the accident scene.
The First Rescue
Winds made hovering in place nearly impossible, but helo commander Steve Cerveny did his best to hold the bird in position over the single strobe light. The crew could see the outline of the immersion suit, but there was no sign of life. Cerveny let the wind blow the helo back a bit. Then he angled the nose down, descending to 60 feet. Co-pilot Jane Pena watched the radar altimeter, which shows the exact distance between the aircraft and the ocean. It fluctuated between 25 and 60 feet. When a large wave passed beneath the helicopter, the distance closed to only 25 feet. Pena wanted to make sure they never got any closer than 25 feet, so she focused on scanning the seas to make sure no extreme or “rogue” waves were coming their way. Even if the wave itself didn’t hit the helicopter, its spray could be ingested by the engine and cause flameout. If that happened, the Jayhawk would stall and drop like a stone.
Hoist operator Michael Lufkin removed his goggles in preparation for a possible hoist. Suddenly, over his headset, he heard Cerveny say, “I just saw the arm of the survival suit lift out of the water! We’ve got a person down there.” A shot of adrenaline coursed through Lufkin. He looked at rescue swimmer Randy Haba—they were officially out of search mode and into a rescue.
Haba took off his helmet with the radio set and exchanged it for a neon-green rescue helmet. Now he was donning his harness, flippers, mask and snorkel and had a determined look on his face. He slid toward the open doorway. With the illumination from the helicopter’s searchlight, he could see the person’s head and arm sticking out of the ocean.
Wanting to accomplish the hoist as quickly as possible, Randy told Lufkin he thought a direct deployment—in which the swimmer stays on the hook and brings the survivor up with him in a sling—would be the way to go.
Crouched by the open cabin doorway of the Jayhawk, Haba squinted through the windblown rain and looked down to where the helicopter’s spotlight illuminated the survivor being shoved around by the waves. The rescue swimmer attempted to get a feel for the way the waves were washing under the survivor, but these were some of the most confused seas he’d ever seen. He suspected there was a strong current from the Gulf Stream, and he mentally prepared himself to fight both the currents and the towering seas.
Haba clipped the cable and the sling, or “strop,” to his harness. If the rescue went as planned, he would be lowered to the survivor, get the person in the strop and come back up to the chopper with him. Haba would wrap his legs around the survivor to ensure he or she didn’t slip out of the sling.
Lufkin, kneeling by the cabin door, wore a gunner’s belt around his waist that extended to a secure point on the opposite cabin wall to keep him from falling out the door. One leather-gloved hand gripped the cable, while the other hand held a pendant attached to a long wire cord that controlled the hoist. The cable, which suspended from a steel arm extending from the airframe above the door, was composed of woven steel strands and was only about three-eighths of an inch in diameter, yet was strong enough to hoist 11,000 pounds. The dozens of individual strands gave the cable its durability and strength, but they also presented a weakness. Individual strands had been known to break by rubbing against the aircraft or another object, and although this did not usually mean the cable would break, it could lead to fouling, or “bird-caging,” in the spool. Should the cable become stuck while the rescue swimmer was in the water, the stranded swimmer would be in as much danger as the survivors—perhaps even more if he were unable to reach the liferaft. “Swimmer is ready and at the door,” Lufkin said through the radio in his headset.
Pilot Steve Cerveny acknowledged and gave the okay for deployment. Lufkin tried to stay as calm as possible, knowing he would now be doing two things at once: lowering the swimmer while telling the pilots exactly where he wanted them to move the aircraft during the deployment. His words had to be precise, as the pilots would be scanning their instruments and the seas around them and would be unable to see the rescue swimmer much of the time.
Lufkin tapped Haba on the chest‚ signaling that he was ready, and the swimmer responded with a thumbs-up.
“Deploying the swimmer,” said Lufkin. Haba pushed off, and Lufkin started lowering him, saying, “Swimmer is outside the cabin; swimmer is being lowered.”
Lufkin now knew just how strong the winds were. Haba went sailing aft of the aircraft, and Lufkin had to crane his neck just to keep him in sight.
Down went Haba, making contact with the water about 40 feet behind the survivor. He immediately started swimming, but a wave dropped out from under him, and the cable violently jerked him back 20 feet, almost ripping his mask off. The next wave blindsided him, crashing into his back. So much adrenaline was surging through Haba that he didn’t feel any pain despite later X-rays that revealed a compressed vertebra with a hairline fracture. In the water, Haba felt anger more than any other emotion, and he cursed to himself, realizing they had lost valuable time.
Lufkin also cursed as he worked the cable, lifting Haba out of the water before another wave could slam into him. Over his headset Lufkin said he was repositioning the swimmer, telling them to ease the aircraft “forward, 10 feet.”
Hanging at the end of the cable, Haba knew how hard it must be for Lufkin to time the descent in such conditions. The wind was so strong it felt as if the swimmer were sticking his head out of a speeding car.
“I could not wear my night-vision goggles and do the hoist at the same time, so I had to rely on the fixed spotlight shining directly downward, which only gave me a small viewing area,” recalled Lufkin. “Waves would appear out of the dark from different directions, and I had to make a split-second decision when to lower the swimmer. When I saw what looked like a lull after a wave had passed, I pressed the pendant and Randy was back in the water.”
This time, Haba was within a few feet of the survivor when a breaking wave and a wind gust pushed the helicopter upward, jerking the swimmer beyond reach of the drifting mariner. Haba gave Lufkin a thumbs-down to indicate the need for more slack in the cable to combat the unexpected gusts.
On the third attempt, the rescue swimmer finally reached the survivor. Haba could see that it was a man, still conscious but quite pale and exhausted. Haba removed his snorkel and shouted, “Are you hurt?”
“I’m okay,” croaked the man.
“Is there anyone else in the water nearby?”
“Don’t think so.”
Haba was relieved to see that the man was not only coherent but calm. Far too often swimmers have to subdue panicked survivors who, instead of following the rescuer’s direction, claw or fight them.
“Okay, here’s what we’re going to do!” shouted Haba, holding onto the survivor’s arm. Before he could explain, a breaking wave avalanched over the two men like a pile driver, pushing them downward into a swirling vortex.
Lufkin held his breath, searching for the men in the foam. It was next to impossible to hover in the same place with the varying wind gusts. Over his headset he spoke to the pilots: “Left, 10. Okay, now forward 15.”
The neon rescue helmet appeared directly below Lufkin. It was one of the best sights he’d ever seen.
Below, Haba took a gulp of air and started to put the strop around the survivor, worried that in the dark another wave would separate him from the man. Haba cinched the strop up tight and hollered, “We’re going up together! Keep your arms down on the sling. I don’t want you falling out!”
Haba looked up toward the helo thundering overhead and signaled that they were ready to be retrieved. Lufkin started retracting cable, and soon the two men left the waves and were greeted by the howling wind, forcing them aft of the helo and spinning them. Using his gloved hand, Lufkin, lying on his belly, held the cable as steady as he could. His big fear was that the cable would swing so far aft it would become jammed behind the open door. He kept retracting cable, and soon the men were at the door. Leaning out of the aircraft, Lufkin grabbed the harness on Haba and used all his strength to pull the two men safely inside.
In the back of his mind, Lufkin wondered why the two men felt like the weight of three. Looking at the survivor’s immersion suit, he had his answer. Water had collected in the feet and legs. That thing must have 100 pounds of water in it, Lufkin thought. Then he moved to the door, continued updating the pilots as he had been all along and with a sigh of relief, finally said, “Swimmer and survivor safely in the cabin. Door is now closed.”
The survivor was John Svendsen, first mate of the Bounty.
The rescue of Svendsen was followed by 13 more by two crews on two Coast Guard helicopters in incredibly difficult conditions. Of the 16 sailors, 14 would be saved, but the captain and crewmember Claudene Christian perished in the storm.
There’s one question that has nagged people who followed the Bounty’s sinking: Why did the entire crew decide to go with the captain, especially when he gave them the chance to leave?
Most of the Bounty sailors said they had confidence in the captain, the ship and their own training. But I think there was another, more subtle factor at work—the group itself. Perhaps no one wanted to be the first to walk off the Bounty, appear afraid, or be perceived as letting their fellow crewmates down. Most of the crew was younger than 30 years old, and they felt a loyalty to each other and to the captain without the benefit of decades of sailing. Also, the manner in which Capt. Walbridge made this announcement likely influenced the outcome. The crew was forced to make a quick decision, without having the time to check various forecasts themselves. Nor did they have the luxury to sleep on their decision, discuss it with family, or have a private conversation with the captain. Instead, when no one spoke up, the captain ordered them to prepare the ship for getting underway.
I might have made the same decision when I was in my early 20s, and the story of the Bounty might help others learn to pause and ask for more time when faced with a decision that has a high degree of risk. Sandy took the lives of the captain and one crewmember of the Bounty … and it didn’t have to happen.