Should Crew Take Some Blame for Bounty Tragedy?

Posted by at 04:17PM - Comments: (9)

U.S. Coast Guard
U.S. Coast Guard

The tall ship Bounty founders in heavy seas brought by Hurricane Sandy (U.S. Coast Guard photo).

Author Kathryn Miles has written a gripping article on the tragic end of the Bounty, the replica of the original Bounty used in Hollywood movies that went down in Hurricane Sandy, claiming two lives, including the captain's. The article, which appeared in the March issue of Outside Magazine and is available online, offers a detailed and even-handed account of the ship’s sinking. Miles suggests many causes for the ship’s foundering, but it seems obvious that the ship never should have sailed. So the question remains: Why did it?

The story attracted wide national attention on Oct. 29 last year when the U.S. Coast Guard released a heart-stopping video of the helicopter rescue, in which a Coast Guard rescue swimmer repeatedly went into the water to help several of the 14 survivors into a rescue basket. Miles’ article raises a number of crucial questions, but sadly the one question that will never be fully answered was lost with the ship’s captain, Robin Walbridge, whose body was never found: Why in the hell did he set sail into the path of a hurricane?

While this tragic story raises many points of discussion, one in particular passage grabbed my attention:

“One question will be whether Walbridge was capable of making sound judgments, both before leaving the dock and after he was injured. In extreme cases, subordinate officers can be held accountable if the master is deemed unfit.”

Miles seems to suggest that someone in the crew should have relieved the captain of his command when he became injured, or at least talked some sense into him when he did not follow his original plan to sail east. I would go back even further. According to Miles, Walbridge gave crewmembers an opportunity to leave the ship before leaving port, but no one took it, nor did anyone offer a strong argument against going. She quotes crewman Doug Faunt as saying the crew respected Walbridge’s knowledge, they had a plan and were “ready.” In the end, it is clear that the plan was foolhardy, and the captain, the ship, and the crew were not at all ready.

So what do you think? Should have one of the other officers stepped forward and contradicted his cockamamie scheme? Surely some of them knew this was a fool's errand. As Walbridge's friend, Captain Jan Cameron, captain of the tall ship Pride of Baltimore II, put it: The decision to set sail was “so amateurish as to be off the scale.” And should those officers who remained silent be held partially responsible for the ship’s sinking?

Would YOU have spoken out?

This leads me to the bigger question: Is the maritime realm suffering under the same power-structure paralysis that has been linked to airplane clashes, as author Malcom Gladwell describes in his book Outliers?

One those crashes, Korean Air Lines Flight 801, occured just a few miles from where my wife Theresa and I were living aboard in Guam while working at the local newspaper. We were close enough to hear the explosive concussion as the plane was flown into the nearby hills. We both were called in early to start working on the reams of depressing copy coming in from reporters on site. Months later, the first post-accident reports were released, reshaping the way I think about power structures aboard ships, on sports teams, in business, or in any successful organization.

According to more than one post-crash investigation, culture did play a role in the accident. The captain and his flight crew were Korean. One of the junior officers knew very well that something was wrong with the plane's approach, but he did not speak up. The studies suggested that this was because of the extremely rigid hierarchical structure of Korean society. Contradicting an elder, much less one who is a superior, is strongly discouraged in Korean culture, and Gladwell--who also discusses the crash of Avianca Flight 52 in his book—suggests that a pilot's cultural origin plays a bigger role than just about anything else when it comes to plane crashes.

On Geert Hofstede’s Power Distance Index, which gauges the extent to which those in positions of power are respected, the U.S. enjoys one of the lowest numbers in the world. In the U.S., inferiors routinely question the decisions of superiors (as any father of a teenager today can tell you), and are even encouraged to do so. This distance, however, widens significantly on board a ship where, as they say, “there can be only one captain”— and there is very good reason for this.

Decisions on a ship often need to be made in a pinch, and in some cases, hesitation can be fatal. But many of the recent tragedies among recreational sailors seem to trace back to the “go” or “no-go" type of decision that Walbridge faced. Should we sail with this group of rally boats? Do we enter this port at night, or stay hove to off the coast? Do we reduce the watch from three to one?

These aren’t snap decisions. There is plenty of time for the crew and captain to deliberate. But is this open deliberation taking place? Sadly, it seems that boats with hired-gun professional skippers seem as prone to disaster, if not more-so, than those boats more casually sailed by owners and their friends. Witness the two incidents in California races—one in the south and one in the north—last year. Could a natural deference to the captain's authority haved paved the way toward trouble in either of these accidents?

To look at it more broadly: Is good judgment aboard cruising boats—many of them crewed by male captains sailing with their wives—being compromised by a too-rigid power structure that discourages crew from speaking out or raising questions? Is the average American cruising boat as vulnerable as a KAL Flight 801 bound for the hills of Guam ... or the Bounty setting sail toward a hurricane?

I doubt it, yet I think these questions still merit serious thought. When several experienced seamen are inspired to sail into the path of a hurricane with a man like Captain Waldridge, one can't help but suspect that the culture of captaincy clouded good judgment—that of the captain and of his crew.

Comments (9)

As a professional captain, my first and foremost concern is for the safety of my crew. The decision to leave in the face of an approaching hurricane was ludicrous. Clearly leaving port was risky. Once that is an admitted fact, is there anyone to deny that risk? That captain admitted it when he advised the crew that they could go ashore and not continue with the voyage. Therefore the well being of the crew was put at risk by the actions of the captain and he should be found totally liable for the death of his crew and loss of the ship in his care. It is a very clear cut case of the worst judgement a captain could make.

Posted by: Joe C | February 14, 2013 1:51 PM    Report this comment

It's way too soon to speculate, much less attach blame. Please, people, wait until the Coast Guard completes its investigation and issues its report. Hearings are underway in Portsmouth, VA right now.

Posted by: EDMUND G | February 14, 2013 8:18 AM    Report this comment

My neighbor and friend, and I sailed his PDQ 32 from Newport to Norfolk leaving the Rhode Island port on October 21, 2012. We were bringing his boat south. When we looked at the forecasts, it was clear that the passage was going to be rough if we left on Sunday. There was no good option, but the rest of those options were probably going to be much worse. We talked and listened and talked some more. Hurricane Sandy was churning north. While some predictions had Sandy going out to sea, it was becoming clearer with each new prediction that the storm was going to come ashore where we would be sailing if we followed the coast and went more slowly. Staying where we were did not appeal, and putting ourselves off the Jersey coast at about the time Sandy was approaching seemed like a spectacularly bad idea. We agreed, the weather window was right then, that Sunday. Time was not on our side.

The Bounty put into New London two days later, and left two days after that. By then, the situation was far more dire. It was clear where Sandy was going to go, and clear that this was going to be one hell of a storm. I remember being disturbed about the decisions of the Bounty's captain had made facing very similar facts to those we had confronted days before as I watched the footage of the Coast Guard's heroic rescue. There are a lot of decisions that went into the Bounty's actions - some of them can be better understood by the investigation and one hopes that we will all learn something. The inexplicable part of the Bounty's story is the decision to sail to the Hatteras Canyon in the middle of a hurricane. It is not clear when that decision was made and how it was communicated to the crew. I am sure that will be a major part of the focus of the inquiry.

I think that it is premature to speculate about what the crew, particularly the captains that were part of the crew, did or did not do that would make them responsible for the Bounty's sinking and the deaths that resulted. Outside Magazine has published an interesting article, which certainly gave its readers their money's worth. Its not an inquiry, but there is one ongoing. Time is on our side with this one.

Posted by: ERIC R | February 13, 2013 8:49 PM    Report this comment

Hind sight is always 20 20. I once went through the Prince William Sound on a small boat and always wondered why, in that wide channel, even a big ship would run aground. Then several years later I asked that of a professional mariner who had told me as a young man he had briefly served on the Exxon Valdez. He speculated that someone on the bridge or the bow probably knew the ship was off course but was afraid to speak up and perhaps risk arguing with a senior officer. JDM

Posted by: Jim M | February 13, 2013 1:53 PM    Report this comment

Might be best to wait until the full Coast Guard inquiry (going on this week, as I understand it) is completed. When as much information as we are going to get is in, then we can read it and try to learn from it. Any theories we propose prior to that are going to be speculative. With regard to whether they should have left, like so many things in life, there are likely neither right answers nor wrong answers. There are only decisions and consequences.

Posted by: RICHARD F | February 13, 2013 1:49 PM    Report this comment

I watched a documentary about the Bounty and a conference that was held in 2005. In it, Captain Waldridge made a very foolish statement regarding the Bounty. Someone asked how similar this Bounty was to the original. His answer? "Nothing like the (original) Bounty".

One does not have to step foot on a boat to know its dimensions and compare it to the original: one just has to hear/read the dimensions. This "captain" declared quite the opposite to the facts and others who compared the two. The movie-version Bounty was only made a little wider and longer, but everything else was the same. (The dimensions were increased for movie cameras which were large and unwieldy.)

I am not a sailor, but when I heard this major discrepancy - before the sinking of the Bounty - I said to myself, "This captain is not all there. He is lying to the conference-goers and viewers of the video. If he's wrong about something so elementary, what else is he wrong about? I wouldn't want to be on a ship with him captaining it!"

My God, I was right again.

When I heard that the Bounty went down in the hurricane, I told my Dad that this guy was an idiot to not seek safety AWAY from any storm!! You don't try to "skirt around" a storm if you don't have to!!

Clearly, this man was not balanced in his mind. He was deceiving others and himself and it appears that no one called him - JUDGED HIM - on it. Jesus told us to Judge not according to the appearance (oh, he appears to be a knowledgeable captain, etc.) but Judge Righteous Judgment!! This captain steered his boat into certain death. That is SUICIDAL. (No, I don't suggest that people submit themselves to psychiatrists either, to suss out such fools. I do suggest that you ask God for wisdom before choosing such a captain and/or to serve under such a man.)

Thank you for posting this article. VERY insightful, as well as serving as a warning to others, hopefully.

Posted by: Darryl M | February 13, 2013 1:48 PM    Report this comment

As a husband and wife soon-to-be cruising couple, I have to say, I value her input into any situation. A question is an opportunity to learn. If I'm the helmsman and we're anchoring, she's telling us where to go.

Posted by: STEPHEN V | February 13, 2013 12:55 PM    Report this comment

A lot of Monday-morning quarterbacking here.

Posted by: Ware F | February 13, 2013 12:05 PM    Report this comment

Go or no go decisions are often not easily made decisions. Theoretically, perhaps they should be, but, they are not. I learned the hard way not to get caught in group think and go just because all the other boats are going. Even on cruisers with retirees on board, there may be guest crew who are still in the work force and are on a schedule, always a bad thing. When we have guest crew coming, we tell them, that if the weather is NOT TO MY LIKING, the boat will stay in port. It is made clear that one's vacation could be spent at dock.
Why would a tall ship leave in a hurricane? I don't know. Crew did have the option to not go on the trip. Would they have lost face? Should that even be a concern? It is for some folks. Would they be welcomed back on board after the passage? Who knows.
Unless the captain demonstrates feebleness of mind while at sea, I believe him to be the captain. I generally choose not to sail off shore with another captain unless I have sailed with him before and I have confidence in his decision making.

Posted by: David H | February 13, 2013 11:15 AM    Report this comment

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