It was still a mild fall day in New London, Connecticut, when Captain Robin Walbridge stepped on deck to prepare his crew for the possibility of dying. It was 5 p.m. on Thursday, Oct. 25.
About 1,200 nautical miles to the south, Hurricane Sandy, billed as the storm of the century, was making its way northward from Cuba. With wind speeds of more than 100 miles per hour (165 kilometers per hour), the storm was rushing across the ocean, headed for the east coast of the United States. At least 70 people had already died in the Caribbean, after being drowned, buried alive or struck with debris.
Captain Walbridge had a decision to make. He could leave the ship, the Bounty, in the harbor at New London, where it would be tossed back and forth by the storm and would presumably sustain serious damage. Or he could try to save the ship by taking it out into the Atlantic, thereby putting his life and the lives of his 15 crewmembers on the line.
Walbridge wanted to save his ship. A ship versus 16 human lives. How can such a decision be explained?
It wasn't just any ship that he had under his command. Walbridge was the captain of the Bounty, a replica of the most famous sailing vessel in seafaring history, and a treasure of the Hollywood world. Legendary films like "Mutiny on the Bounty," starring Marlon Brando, and "Pirates of the Caribbean," with Johnny Depp, had been made on board the Bounty. A legend like that can't just be left at the mercy of the weather.
While Captain Walbridge stood on deck, the US weather services were monitoring the hurricane as it became larger and more powerful on its way north. The media had dubbed it "Superstorm Sandy" and were calling it a "Frankenstorm," one that would be even more devastating than the so-called "perfect storm" of 1991. Coast Guard pilots flew over the shipping routes along the coast, sending radio messages to all ships to move to safety.
Levelheaded and Patient
At the Coast Guard base in Elizabeth City, North Carolina, pilot Mike Myers, 36, prepared for a catastrophe. He filled the tanks of his aircraft, checked equipment, and studied weather maps and forecasts. He also put together a plan: Once wind speeds along the coast reached 25 knots (46 kilometers per hour), he and his crew would board their plane, a Lockheed C-130 Hercules, and fly it inland to Raleigh, so that they would be able to take off in the event of an emergency.
Captain Walbridge was 63, a quiet, contemplative man with thinning gray hair and glasses. He had stood at the helm of the Bounty for 17 years, and it was hard to say whether he was more in love with the ship or his wife, although he did spend most of his time on the ship. The crew changed, and so did its owners, but Walbridge remained.
People who have sailed across the world's oceans with Walbridge praise him for his modesty, levelheadedness and patience. He taught young people how to sail, and he took disabled children out to sea.
But there must have been another Captain Walbridge, one who overestimated himself and his ship, and who felt invincible after all those years at sea. In one interview, he talked about "chasing" hurricanes. It was important not to sail in front of a hurricane, but to stay behind it, in the southeastern quadrant, in which case it would make for a smooth ride, he said. He had sailed through 20-meter (66-foot) waves that way, Walbridge said -- not exactly the words of a cautious captain.
When he stood on deck that afternoon, he wasn't just speaking as a captain, but perhaps also as an underling. He knew that the owner of the Bounty, a New York businessman, wanted to sell the ship for $4.6 million (€3.55 million). There was no official buyer yet, but when a ship is worth that much money, you don't just leave it at the mercy of the elements.
Walbridge began his address to the crew with the words: "If anybody wants to get off the boat now, I won't hold it against you."
Not Much Time to Think
Then he explained his plan. He didn't want to spend the night in the harbor, as planned, but instead intended to set sail immediately, and to get the ship as far offshore as possible, in an easterly direction, before the hurricane could catch up with them. They would monitor the weather en route and adjust their course accordingly. The destination was St. Petersburg, Florida, the last stage in the current tour before the ship was to be taken to its winter moorage site in Galveston, Texas.
This account is from those who accompanied the captain on the journey. Their memories were used to reconstruct the ship's duel with the forces of the sea, a duel that began as a daring exploit and ended in catastrophe.
"I know that some of you all have been getting e-mails and phone calls regarding the hurricane," Walbridge told his crew as he stood on the deck. Then he said that the ship would be safer out at sea than in port.
The youngest member of Walbridge's 15-member crew was 20, the oldest was 66. Some were experienced sailors, while others were on board a sailing ship for the first time.
Chris Barksdale, 56, the ship's engineer, didn't know what the captain was talking about. Barksdale is a quiet man with a broad face, gray temples and metal-rimmed glasses. He had sailed a few times before, but he had never been responsible for the engine room of such a large ship. When its sails were lowered, the Bounty was propelled by two diesel engines. At home in Nellysford, Virginia, Barksdale worked as a handyman. He was divorced, and he no longer had parents who could worry about him. He had also had few conversations with the other crewmembers, which is why he hadn't even heard that a storm was approaching.
There wasn't much time left to think about it and Barksdale hesitated for but a moment. If he wanted to go on land, he would have had to go into the cabin immediately to pack his things. The thought of it felt like betraying the crew, which had become like a family to him.
Halfway to Europe
Barksdale didn't gather any information about the storm, and he didn't call anyone. He simply remained on board, like the others, and got to work.
The Bounty put out to sea an hour later, traveling in a south-southeasterly direction, in the hope that the storm would soon turn to the west. The waves started getting bigger and the wind picked up, but it was a warm wind. It was still the kind of storm weather most of the crew had experienced before.
As they got under way, Claudene Christian had sent the following text message to her mother: "Don't worry. We'll be fine. ... our ship is strong. They say Bounty loves hurricanes." She also wrote: "I'll probably be halfway to Europe before we get around it."
Christian, who had joined the crew in May, was one of the unpaid volunteers. She had tried a lot of things before, including owning a company that made cheerleader dolls and working as a PR consultant. She had also been a singer and a diver, and she was once crowned "Miss Teen Alaska." She had lived in Alaska, California and, most recently, after declaring bankruptcy and sliding into depression, with her parents in Oklahoma. On the Bounty, she felt, for the first time in her life, that she was in the right place. She loved the ship, and she had a special connection to it.
Claudene Christian, a petite, 5'1" (1.55 meter) woman with long, blonde curls, was a descendant of the family of Fletcher Christian, the key figure in the legendary mutiny on the original Bounty.
In 1787, Christian signed on as a master's mate on the Bounty, a heavy, 39-meter bark with the British Admiralty. The Bounty had a mission that took it halfway around the world, through storms, snow and ice into the South Seas. Under the command of the ambitious Lieutenant William Bligh, the Bounty sailed to Tahiti with 46 men on board to pick up a shipment of breadfruit plants and take them to the Antilles. The admirals believed that breadfruit would be a cheap way to feed the slaves working on the plantations there.
Bligh was a repulsive man who abused his crew. Fletcher Christian, in contrast, was a young man from a good family, who could no longer look on as his crewmates were made to suffer. He led a mutiny in which Bligh was overpowered and, together with a few of his loyal crewmembers, abandoned at sea in a small boat. That, at least, was the way the story was often told later on.
The first color film about the mutiny on the Bounty was released 50 years ago, with Marlon Brandon in the role of Fletcher Christian -- shot in part on a detailed replica of the Bounty that was specially built for the film.
Claudene Christian carried her family history with her like a trophy, writing on her Facebook page: "As a descendent of Fletcher Christian, played in four movies by Errol Flynn, Clark Gable, Marlon Brando & Mel Gibson, I'm sure my ancestor would be proud."
Scared to Death
On late Thursday evening, it looked as though Captain Walbridge's plan was going to work. The hurricane was passing over the Bahamas, where it claimed one life. During the night, it shifted slightly to the northwest, as forecast, and became weaker.
But Sandy had only taken a little turn, gathering steam for the furious finale. On Friday evening, off the coast of Florida, it shifted back to the northeast, and it also began to gather strength again. The storm was now moving in the direction of the ship, with sustained winds of 120 kilometers per hour.
On Saturday, the third day, engineer Barksdale realized how serious the situation was. The waves were now up to 10 meters high, and if you didn't hold on, you could be hurled all the way across the ship. The Bounty was several hundred kilometers east of Chesapeake Bay, off the coast of Virginia, traveling at 6.8 knots, or 12.6 kilometers per hour. The crew recognized that the ship was moving too slowly, and that they would be caught in the middle of the storm.
Walbridge wasn't saying much anymore. Once, when Barksdale went on deck to get some fresh air, he discovered that the captain had changed course, and that they were now traveling to the southwest. His goal was to reach the other side of the hurricane as quickly as possible. Walbridge hoped that the winds wouldn't be as strong there.
No one could sleep anymore. The last time Barksdale had tried to sleep, on Friday night, he was tossed back and forth in his bunk, even though he had stuffed blankets, pillows and clothes into the gap between the bunk and the wall.
For the crewmembers, it was now a matter of keeping up their strength. Jessica Black, the cook, tried to prepare hot food on the stove, but the waves were so strong that she couldn't keep a pot in place. They ate sandwiches, cold hot dogs and sometimes some lukewarm food heated in the microwave. Claudene Christian helped the cook hand out the food. Barksdale remembers eating but doesn't remember what he ate, down in his engine room, where it was hot and dirty.
'All Else Is Well'
When Barksdale saw the engine room for the first time, before the trip began, he wanted to clean it up, but there was no time for that. New fuel tanks had been installed, and he spent his first three weeks connecting the tanks to the engines, laying the pipes and securing the connections.
Early Saturday morning, the wind speed reached 25 knots in Elizabeth City, on the North Carolina coast. It was the wind speed that Mike Myers, the Coast Guard pilot, had chosen as a cutoff point for himself and his crew. At about 9 a.m., Myers said goodbye to his wife and three daughters and drove to the base. It was raining and the runway was slippery. Myers called together the crew and they flew the plane inland from the coast.
A few hours later, Captain Walbridge sent an email to the director of the HMS Bounty Organization. He wrote: "Good evening, Miss Tracie. I think we are going to be into this for several days. The weather looks like even after the eye goes by it will linger for a couple of days. We are just going to keep trying to go fast and squeeze by the storm and land as fast as we can. I am thinking that we will pass each other sometime Sunday night or Monday morning. All else is well."
Early Sunday morning, Barksdale shut off one of the two generators for maintenance work. A few weeks later, the Coast Guard would investigate what the problem might have been. Normally one generator was sufficient to supply the ship with electricity. But at that moment a fatal chain of problems was set in motion.
As the generator cooled down, Barksdale escaped the hot engine room for an hour. During that time, the gauge on the day tank, which contains a one-day supply of fuel for the engines, was smashed. Barksdale saw the damage when he returned, but he didn't notice that the tank was almost empty. According to the gauge, there was still enough fuel in the tank. Barksdale didn't notice the error until the generator failed.
He was exhausted, the result of being thrown back and forth in the engine room. His body was covered with bruises, his leg hurt, he had injured his index finger and he could hardly breathe. Nevertheless, he managed to keep at least one generator running. But the water was rising underneath the floorboards. Barksdale noticed that the power from the generator was fluctuating, and that the bilge pumps, which are supposed to pump water out of the ship, seemed to be clogged. They weren't pumping quickly enough, and the water level kept rising.
Taking on Water
At 8 p.m. on Sunday, the eye of the storm was 450 kilometers southeast of Cape Hatteras, North Carolina. The region is nicknamed the "graveyard of the Atlantic," because warm and cold currents come together there and make the ocean unpredictable, even in milder weather. The wind was still whipping across the water at 120 kilometers per hour.
The Coast Guard in Elizabeth City received an emergency distress call at 9 p.m. The Bounty was located about 170 kilometers southeast of Cape Hatteras. It was taking on water and had begun to list.
As soon as he received the news, pilot Mike Myers switched off the TV in his room at the airport hotel in Raleigh. It was the moment he and his crew had been waiting for. They prepared themselves to fly into the hurricane.
Myers is a calm and powerful man with a crew cut. He had hoped to be able to remain outside the most dangerous part of the storm, but now that was precisely where a sinking ship was located.
He tried to reassure himself with the thought that the C-130 is a heavy cargo plane, and is more stable than the helicopters he used to use for rescue missions. On the other hand, he thought, what good is a C-130 against a superstorm?
Myers has learned to control his fear. He sent his wife a text message saying: "Looks like we're going to fly into the eye of the storm. I love you." She replied immediately: "I love you too. Take care of yourself."
Myers and his crew calculated the altitude at which they stood the best chance of surviving the flight: 7,000 feet, or 2,134 meters, which would place them in a sort of tunnel between rain and ice, in which they would try to fly as close as possible to the Bounty without being carried off course by turbulence or worse.
The flight was more difficult than anything Myers had ever experienced. The winds tugged at the plane, throwing it back and forth like a tiny model. Some of the men in the cargo hold were vomiting before long.
Time to Abandon Ship
The water was now almost two meters high inside the Bounty. Myers couldn't see the ship through the wall of rain, and the plane's spotlights were only picking up the foam on the waves. He was flying at an altitude of just 300 meters when he found the ship. It was listing 45 degrees to starboard.
Myers circled over the ship, while his team tried to calm down the ship's crew on the radio. They kept trying all night long, talking and vomiting, and every 40 minutes the pilot would climb to several thousand feet, where the air was calmer, to allow the crew to recover.
The ship's crew could only be rescued with helicopters, which are even more vulnerable to the wind than a cargo plane. In one of the radio messages, a member of the Coast Guard team told the crewmembers to put on their survival suits if they hadn't already.
At about 4 a.m., Barksdale realized that he had lost his battle against the water in the engine room. He climbed up to the lower deck, where he saw his fellow crewmembers, but not the captain. The others told him that it was time to abandon ship.
They prepared themselves to get into the water. They collected their belongings and packed whatever they wanted to save into waterproof bags. Barksdale packed his laptop and his mobile phone. Claudene Christian remembered that she had forgotten her journal. Because she was so short and the water was already so deep, her best friend climbed belowdecks and retrieved it for her.
The crew intended to leave the ship in an orderly manner, just as they had practiced in frequent emergency drills in the past. But then came the one wave that can't be prepared for, and the ship tilted onto its side.
He didn't fall far, and Barksdale was only submerged for a moment. But when he reached the surface again, he saw that the masts and yards were being pulled in and out of the water with each passing wave. For the first time, he was scared to death.
'I Understand You Guys Want a Ride'
Barksdale had lost his glasses, which meant that he was almost blind, and the salt water was burning his eyes. He became entangled in the ropes three or four times, but each time he managed to free himself before being lifted up and hurled back down again by the next wave. He doesn't remember how long it took before he reached one of the two orange, covered liferafts that were drifting in the water. It could have been five minutes or two hours.
The rain was so dense that Coast Guard pilot Myers had almost no visibility, and he had also lost radio contact with the ship. He flew the plane lower to drop off more liferafts. They drifted through the air like feathers, tossed around by the hurricane winds. Only two of the rafts were sitting in the water and looked stable. When Myers saw their contours, he thought: There must be people sitting on the rafts, keeping them stable with their weight. This led him to conclude that there had to be survivors.
Barksdale and five others were now drifting on one of the liferafts. A wave would wash over the raft every few minutes. Someone had taken along the emergency manual, which told them that there was supposed to be a shovel-like tool on the raft that was used to skim off the water. They groped around for the shovel, but they couldn't find it.
It got light at about 6 a.m., and the wind had abated slightly. Two rescue helicopters arrived at 6:17 a.m. A few minutes later, the C-130 had used up its reserve fuel, and Myers had to turn back.
"My name is Dan. I understand you guys want a ride," said the swimmer when he poked his head inside Barksdale's liferaft. President Barack Obama would later quote these words when talking about the heroes of the storm of the century. Barksdale was the fourth or fifth crewmember to be pulled up to one of the helicopters. He fell asleep on the flight back.
By 7:30 a.m., 14 crewmembers had been rescued. Two were still missing: Claudene Christian and Captain Robin Walbridge.
A Daughter's Message
Christian was dead -- her body was found drifting in the water on the same day. She had an injury on her face and a black eye, and there were two liters of water in her lungs, indicating that she probably drowned. The search for the captain was called off after three days.
Sandy has gone down in history as the biggest Atlantic hurricane to date. The Coast Guard is investigating whether there is anyone to blame for the sinking of the Bounty.
Gina Christian, Claudene's mother, is sitting in front of a cup of cold black coffee, in a bleak bar between a gas station, a truck stop and a cemetery. "The crew told me she was … not scared at all," says Christian, a short woman with soft features and her blonde hair pinned up. "I didn't believe that."
The Bounty had already sailed from the harbor in New London when Gina heard from her daughter for the last time. She was sitting in her SUV in the drive-through lane at a fast-food restaurant. "Can I take your order?" a voice asked through a loudspeaker. Gina's phone rang at the same time.
"Can I call you back, honey?" Gina asked. "No, no, no," Claudene shouted, sounding distraught. "I might lose my phone service. We're already out in the water. I got to tell you how much I love you and dad." "Why are you saying it like that?" Gina asked. "I just want you to know," Claudene replied. "We know," answered Gina. "Now hang up," Claudene said. "I'm going to call back, but don't answer it. I'm going to leave you a message."
Gina Christian is holding her iPhone in both hands. She still hasn't listened to it yet.