PORTSMOUTH - The first mate of the doomed sailing ship Bounty testified that his captain “felt the ship was safer at sea,” despite Hurricane Sandy churning in the Atlantic Ocean.
John Svendsen testified Tuesday at the first day of a federal investigation into the Oct. 29, 2012 sinking about 90 miles off Hatteras, NC.
He said the late Capt. Robin Walbridge did not deliberately seek to be a “hurricane chaser” as has been reported in some media reports.
“I never witnessed Robin seek out a storm,” Svendsen said.
Svendsen testified he repeatedly pled with Captain Walbridge to abandon ship as the Bounty took on more water.
"I made a dramatic gesture by putting the emergency suit around my waist and I went to put my left arm through the suit and he said 'OK, I think we should abandon ship,'" said Svendsen.
The Bounty was sailing from Connecticut to Florida when the crew had to abandon ship. The Coast Guard searched for 90 hours, covering 12,000 overlapping square nautical miles after receiving a distress call.
The Coast Guard rescued 14 people, but, two people died - Captain Walbridge, whose body was never recovered, and crew member Claudene Christian.
Svendsen acknowledged that several crew members had expressed initial reservations about the captain’s voyage plan. Svendsen said he was fine with it after the captain called an all-hands meeting. At that time, the crew was given the option to not go on the voyage, but everyone remained.
Svendsen said despite the hurricane, the captain believed if you encountered a storm, the best strategy was to get on the southeast side of it “to get favorable winds.” Svendsen said the captain believed that “was the safest place to be.”
He called Walbridge “a professional” and stated he “was always available to teach and share his knowledge of sailing.”
As for the material condition of the Bounty, Svendsen said the ship had completed a maintenance period in Boothbay Harbor, Maine a day earlier. He said the shipyard inspector there told him, after the repairs, the ship “was in the best shape he’d ever seen.”
The panel was expected to hear from shipyard employees as well as captains of similar ships that stayed in port during the hurricane.
The owner of the replica, Robert Hansen, refused to testify. His attorney said Hansen was invoking his Fifth Amendment right to be protected from incriminating himself.
The Coast Guard and the National Transportation Safety Board will look at the facts and circumstances relating to the October 29, 2012 sinking and will develop conclusions and recommendations to improve the safety and operations of similar vessels, said lead investigator, Commander Kevin Carroll.
The hearing runs through Feb. 21 at the Renaissance Portsmouth Hotel and Waterfront Conference Center.