L. Jaye Bell recently sailed aboard the HMS Bounty – which foundered in Hurricane Sandy on Monday off the coast of North Carolina – and knows the crew well. As of this writing, two crewmembers, Captain Robin Walbridge and Claudene Christian, are still missing at sea.by L. Jaye Bell
Coastal Journal contributor
ROCKLAND — I am a freelance journalist who was recently blessed with the opportunity to sail aboard the HMS Bounty. I’d interviewed Captain Robin Walbridge on my radio show and was so impressed with his comments about the ship and especially about her crew that I had to ask if there was room for media aboard. There was. I am still pinching myself that I was actually aboard, even for a brief time.
My adventure with the Bounty lasted 10 days as we sailed from Gloucester, Mass. to Eastport, Maine on Labor Day. It was nothing short of incredible for many reasons. I’ve sailed aboard many of the windjammers in the fleet, but this was my first time aboard a fully rigged ship. It was a fantastic opportunity to see what Captain Robin Walbridge had been talking about with regard to the crew, for they were everything Captain Robin said about them and more. They were a cohesive community of people acting in together as one for a common goal, and open to sharing it with all brave enough to come aboard.
By the end of my time aboard Bounty, I felt accepted by the crew, and embraced by the alchemy of shared experience. I had become one of them, despite my lack of sailing knowledge or experience.
Since getting back home, I’ve been digesting the magnitude of the experience and pondering the best way to chronicle it. A mere newspaper article is not going to contain it, for 800 words are inadequate for holding the experience of seven days aboard. It’s got to be bigger than that. I’ve been editing photos and adding notes, getting journal entries down and fleshed out with details there hadn’t been time in the moment to transcribe.
There were three more opportunities to see the crew in action, to feel like one of them again. Before Bounty hauled out in Boothbay Shipyard on September 17, Captain Robin invited me aboard. I stood at the bow, filming the massive chains that pulled the cradle that Bounty was in up out of the water. As work progressed, I kept tabs on Bounty’s Facebook page to stay current on how the work was going and when they would be leaving. I was there only 10 days ago. Once again, the Captain invited me aboard for lunch. Captain Robin and I spoke about my publishing ideas, to put it into a multi media format that allowed a broader audience to experience the story. He liked the ideas very much, and said that he’d talk to the folks in the office to make the photo releases happen. I also asked him about sailing aboard next summer through the Great Lakes. He said that would be also be fine and to get an email to the First Mate to let him know my intent.
A few days later, on October 21, I drove to Boothbay Harbor to bid adieu to the Bounty. Captain Robin and most of the crew were departing in the wee hours, heading to New York and then to St. Petersburg for a homecoming on November 10. In New York, there was a private event that included a sail with the US Navy and Captain Robin’s birthday party.
All week, the words have been gushing forth from my fingers into the keyboard. I’ve watched Bounty’s postings on Facebook and monitored her position since she left Maine. After departing New York, I’ve been praying for the seas to be calmed around Bounty, like a baby in a cradle, the same prayer-song that came as I stood on the bow as we sailed by the whirlpool into Eastport in a snit of rain and fog. I’ve watched the Facebook postings that said she was getting some good sailing in before the storm, moving further east out to sea. The plan was to get around Sandy, the hurricane that many are calling a “Frankenstorm.”
As of this morning, Monday, October 29, Bounty has lost communication with the home office. The news of her distress signal off the coast of North Carolina is the prevailing media story. The signal was sent to the Coast Guard off of the coast of Cape Hatteras, a place well known to be a graveyard of the Atlantic. A Coast Guard C-130 plane was dispatched to establish communication with the ship and access the situation. A decision was made to air lift the crew from two canopied life rafts. At this writing, 15 out of 17 of the Bounty’s crew are accounted for. Two are missing.
The storm is whirling on the HMS Bounty’s Facebook page this morning. Most are sending condolences and prayers, many to the Bounty page, others to the parents, friends and loved ones of crew. A significant number of responses are coming from armchair mariners now questioning the Captain’s wisdom to skirt out the east side of the storm and ride her out. Most don’t realize that a ship is safer at sea in a storm like this, but riding her out can be really tricky. The US Navy sent all their ships to sea as well to ride out the storm. Bounty has sailed in such storms. She did come through Andrew, after all.
After my experience aboard, I feel like it is only fair to tell what I know about the Captain and her crew. And I know much. Sailing is pure magic, no matter the weather conditions. When the sky is blue and the seas are relatively calm, it’s absolute pure bliss. One cannot get enough of the sunlight sparkle on the water. In stormy seas, the alchemy expands into another level entirely. Foul weather gear is donned, and the real training kicks in, by now the chores of sailing begin are ingrained into muscle memory. The human machinery of this ship is seamless in action, yet not always perfect. They operate together with flawless execution of maneuvers that happen so quickly it’s easy to miss the details. There is no hesitation when under pressure to act.
At one time during the sail to Eastport, it took seven members of the crew to secure the sails on the bottom yard. The prospect is quite scary enough in the sunshine, much less during the foulness of a hurricane swirling ahead. I also know what it means when the weather “[poops] up.” I’ve sailed in a mild version of it and never felt more alive than when drenched nearly head to foot while on bow watch.
For anyone who thinks the crew is playing at sailing, let me reassure you. This is not playtime, nor is it a movie set on a back lot in Hollywood. This is a working ship, and all hands work together to make things happen. The crew hails from a variety of backgrounds, and yet they all have something profound in common: the desire to be there. While it is true that independent thinkers are necessary on a ship, this is not the life for rugged individualists who can’t fit in. Everyone works together here, everyone pitches in.
Captain Robin cares for the crew as he would his own family. He knows they have parents, friends and loved ones who want them to be safe. He makes decisions about the ship and the crew with their input for the most part. If for some reason the Captain is out of earshot, the officers make the decision unanimously. Everyone aboard knows how to do everything on that boat, because specialization means death. Decisions are made with the four commanding officers: First Mate, Second Mate, Boson and Engineer. Every morning, there is a meeting between the Captain and officers to discuss what happened and the day’s plan. The full crew then meets at the capstan to discuss what has been decided. When plans change, there is another meeting, and a decision is made. Captain Robin would not have made the decision to skirt the east side of a hurricane alone. In fact, the crew would had to have been in agreement with him, or they wouldn’t have tried it.
Secondly, Captain Robin has sailed Bounty for 20 years. He has seen his share of crappy weather. This is where life is truly lived in the moment. Every bit of experience wrung from the defining moment, the ones that will be forgotten and those long remembered; from watches counted, and meals eaten, and days when the living of each day surpasses and eclipses everything else. The days roll into weeks, months, and years aboard, living a lifestyle that few come to know well.
Like my week sailing aboard, the magnitude of what happened during that week is only absorbed best afterwards, because everything is so involved during life aboard that processing the experience is difficult. There is just nowhere to cram it after a while. Memory cards, journals and mementos can’t begin to hold or even come close to containing the richness of the experience.
I am only just beginning to understand the microcosm environment of the ship and how everything revolves around and involves it, wholly, totally, completely. The ship is your home, your danger and your safety net, your port and your adventures beyond, your dining room, living room and bedroom, your transportation, and your stability. The ship is everything, and yet, the crew is her heart and soul. What happens while aboard is the glue that gels the crew into a cohesive unit bonded of shared experience. The stories will stay alive long after she stops sailing the sea. And apparently, for now, she has taken on too much water to continue sailing out of range of the hurricane. She sank off the coast of Cape Hatteras. Two crew still unaccounted for: Captain Robin and Claudene Christian, the crew member that I bonded with the most, as she was closest to my age and delighted to be a part of sailing on the Bounty. She had just turned 42 a few days prior to Bounty’s departure from Maine.
At this writing, I’m going ahead with the publishing plans, with proceeds somehow benefiting the Bounty. This story has suddenly become most important. May I be able to do the experience justice. It is one story that I am even more compelled to tell.
To hear more of this story, visit L. Jaye Bell's blog at http://destinationmaineradioshow.blogspot.com/2012_11_01_archive.html