Lessons of the Wreck of the Bounty

Although it is a small tragedy compared with the multifarious disasters occurring in the New York region in the wake of Hurricane Sandy, I can’t get the wreck of the tall ship Bounty out of my mind.

As someone who has written about 18th century pirates quite a bit over the past decade, I have an abiding fascination with sailing ships of that era.

HMS Bounty at Lunenburg, NS, August 2012

Last summer, when I heard the Bounty was docked for a few days at the Maritime Museum wharf in Lunenburg, Nova Scotia, I made sure I was at the head of the line at the gangplank.

The crew welcomed us aboard, and we had the vessel nearly to ourselves to explore at leisure.

The Bounty, a 1962 replica of the original 18th century British ship, was obviously built with great attention to authenticity of detail.  The timbers above and below looked rough-hewn and weathered, the sails dingy and hardworking, the masthead newly painted and resolute.

She was a solid piece of work, and her captain, Robin Walbridge, had steered her well for 17 years.


But last week something went badly awry in his thinking.

Lunenburg photos by Eric Hernandez

He decided to take the Bounty out to sea knowing full well that Hurricane Sandy was making directly for his route from New London, CT to St. Petersburg, Fla.

Bounty masthead on a clear day

It seems that Captain Walbridge decided to try to “skirt” the storm, heading far out to sea in an effort to miss the brunt of it.

Sandy proved far to big to avoid, and by the night of Sunday, Oct. 28, the Bounty was facing 10 to 30-foot seas about 90 miles off the coast of North Carolina.  A first distress call put out to the Coast Guard at about sundown that evening was rescinded, as the crew must have been frantically working the pumps and still hoping to save the ship.

Not until 4 a.m. did the crew receive the order to abandon ship, and by then the deck was awash.

Fourteen of the fifteen crew members made it into the life rafts and were rescued by the Coast Guard  within a few hours.  A fifteenth crew member, Claudene Christian, was found floating nearby, and was pronounced dead at the scene.

Claudene Christian

Captain Walbridge’s body has not been recovered as of this writing.  The last one to abandon ship, he may simply have not made it out in time.

Captain Robin Walbridge

Here is a tragedy that could easily have been avoided if the captain had been more respectful of the forces of nature.  Apparently he thought the ship would be safer out at sea than docked during the hurricane; but in trying to save the ship he endangered the crew, and two lives were lost, one of them his own.

The story reminds me of the tale of Moby Dick, where the recklessness of the captain resulted, ultimately, in his being dragged to his death by the great white whale.

There is a lesson here for all of us.

We cannot underestimate the forces of nature.  We cannot “skirt” the climate change disaster that is staring us in the face.  We cannot outrun the storm, and we cannot hide from her.

As people in the wealthy enclaves of New Jersey and Long Island are finding out now, we are all equal before the awesome might of the natural world.

True, the plight of New Yorkers in dark, cold public housing is far more serious than that of coastal Long Islanders who have had to seek shelter with inland friends and family.

Class still matters.

But on the Bounty, the captain’s quarters were swamped just like those of the sailors.

So it will be with us all, if we fail to heed Sandy’s warning.

The Bounty sinking on Oct 29; Coast Guard photo

This is not a movie, and it’s not child’s play.  It’s real, and we’d better be paying attention, because next time it could be my turn, or yours.

We need to be taking measures now to make sure that the next time the winds start to blow, we will be prepared.

First things first: we need to go to the polls to defeat Mitt Romney and his fossil fuel masters on Tuesday.

And then on Wednesday, it will be time to start making plans to pressure President Obama to do the right thing when it comes to climate change.

Some say he’ll be a lame duck in his second term, but I think he’ll have more leeway to be his own man.  We have to prevail on his intelligence and good sense to use the power of the executive office to stand up to Big Oil on behalf of ordinary folks the world over, who trust their leaders to make the right decisions to keep them out of harm’s way.

And if he can’t or won’t do the right thing, well…there may have to be yet another “mutiny on the Bounty….”

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