Local/State

Search for missing tall ship captain enters 4th day

Thursday, November 01, 2012

The search for the captain of a tall ship that sank off the North Carolina coast during Hurricane Sandy is in its fourth day.

Coast Guard Petty Officer 3rd Class David Weydert said Thursday morning a cutter and a C-130 aircraft are still looking for 63-year-old Robin Walbridge.

The tall ship HMS Bounty went down Monday morning after it began taking on water off Cape Hatteras. The crew abandoned ship in two lifeboats and the Coast Guard rescued 14 crew members. Forty-two-year-old Claudene Christian was found unresponsive when she was pulled from the water Monday evening and was later pronounced dead at a hospital..

Weydert said the decision to continue the search is based on the survival and functional capability of the missing person and the possibility of dehydration.

By the time the first rescue helicopter arrived, all that was visible of the replica 18th-century sailing vessel was a strobe light atop the mighty ship's submerged masts. The roiling Atlantic Ocean had claimed the rest.

An investigation into what went wrong is underway.

The ship was originally built for the 1962 film "Mutiny on the Bounty" starring Marlon Brando, and it was featured in several other films over the years, including one of the "Pirates of the Caribbean" movies.

The vessel left Connecticut on Thursday with a crew of 11 men and five women, ranging in age from 20 to 66. Everyone aboard knew the journey could be treacherous.

"This will be a tough voyage for Bounty," read a posting on the ship's Facebook page that showed a map of its coordinates and satellite images of the storm.

The Bounty's Facebook page reads like a ship's log of her activities, with many photos of the majestic vessel plying deep blue waters and the crew working in the rigging or keeping watch on the wood-planked deck.

As Sandy's massive size became more apparent, a post on Saturday tried to soothe any worried supporters: "Rest assured that the Bounty is safe and in very capable hands. Bounty's current voyage is a calculated decision ... NOT AT ALL ... irresponsible or with a lack of foresight as some have suggested. The fact of the matter is ... A SHIP IS SAFER AT SEA THAN IN PORT!"

But as the storm gathered strength, the Facebook posts grew grimmer. By mid-morning Monday, the last update was short and ominous: "Please bear with us ... There are so many conflicting stories going on now. We are waiting for some confirmation."

Tracie Simonin, director of the HMS Bounty Organization, said the ship tried to stay clear of Sandy's power.

"It was something that we and the captain of the ship were aware of," Simonin said.

Coast Guard video of the rescue showed crew members being loaded one by one into a basket before the basket was hoisted into the helicopter.

When they returned to the mainland, some were wrapped in blankets, still wearing the blazing red survival suits they put on to stay warm in the chilly waters.

"It's one of the biggest seas I've ever been in. It was huge out there," said Coast Guard rescue swimmer Randy Haba, who helped pluck four crew members off one of the canopied life rafts and a fifth who was bobbing alone in the waves.

A helicopter pilot said the waves appeared to be 30 feet high during the rescue. The Coast Guard said in a news release that waves in many places topped out around 18 feet.

The survivors received medical attention and were to be interviewed for a Coast Guard investigation. The Coast Guard did not make them available to reporters.

The mother of another crew member, 20-year-old Anna Sprague, said her daughter had been aboard the HMS Bounty since May.

Mary Ellen Sprague, of Savannah, Ga., said she had spoken with her daughter twice but didn't know many details because her daughter, normally talkative and outgoing, was being uncharacteristically quiet.

"She's very upset," Sprague said by telephone.

Sprague said her daughter told her the ship's diesel engines failed, and then it started taking on water.

The crew was eager to return to St. Petersburg - and to calmer waters.

"I know they were very much looking forward to being here," said Carol Everson, general manager of the pier where the vessel docks. "They were very excited about coming down."

Walbridge was from St. Petersburg, she said.

He learned to sail at age 10, according to his biography on the Bounty's website. Prior to the Bounty, he served as first mate on the H.M.S. Rose - the Bounty's sister ship.

A man who answered the door at a home listed as being owned by the captain and his wife said: "Not a good time," and closed the door.

Bill Foster, mayor of St. Petersburg, Fla, said the city on Florida's Gulf Coast always considered itself the ship's home.

"We're feeling a real sense of loss as a community," he said. "We grew up with the Bounty."

Foster, who was raised in St. Petersburg, remembered the ship as a family tourist attraction along the waterfront in the 1960s and 1970s. He recalled replicas of caves, a history display and pirate-themed exhibits near the Bounty. As a teenager, he attended dances on the ship.

About 10 years ago, the ship underwent a multimillion-dollar restoration.

The ship generally travels in the spring and summer. In August, large crowds greeted it when sailing into St. Augustine, Fla., Savannah, Ga., and Charleston, S.C.

Associated Press writers Emery P. Dalesio, Bruce Smith in Charleston, S.C.; Tamara Lush in St. Petersburg, Fla., and Greg Schreier in Atlanta contributed to this report.

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(Copyright ©2014 ABC11-WTVD-TV/DT. All Rights Reserved - The Associated Press contributed to this report.)

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