HMS Bounty Falls Victim to Hurricane Sandy

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This story is based on a radio interview. Listen to the full interview.

Audio Transcript:

Lisa Mullins: The US Coastguard is searching for two missing crew members from the tall ship HMS Bounty . The ship ran into trouble as the crew tried to escape Hurricane Sandy's fury off North Carolina's Cape Hatters. Fourteen crew members were rescued early this morning. The ship itself is reported to have sunk. The HMS Bounty was built for MGM studios in 1960 for the classic Film "Mutiny on the Bounty"  starring Marlin Brando. The Bounty also appeared in one version of Treasure Island and in Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest. For the last 20 years or so, it has served as an educational vessel. Kelsey Freeman is an experienced sailor. She spent about a third of her life crewing tall ships. Kelsey, we don't know why in particular headed out to sea as Hurricane Sandy approached, but why generally is this a common practice, that when a storm comes near, ships head out into the ocean?

Kelsey Freeman: Well, Lisa, ships are meant to sail, and they are generally going to float a lot better if they're out to sea than if they're tied to a dock. Especially in a storm like this, where you have a very, very high storm surge, because it's going to rise-the water's going to rise. You have to have extra slack in the lines. In order to have that much slack, the ship will move around a lot. It will probably dash itself to bits against the docks that it is tied to.

Mullins: It seems counter-intuitive that a ship would go out right in the path of a hurricane. You're saying that, even that, is safer than being tied up?

Freeman: Ideally, you don't want to head directly to the hurricane. It's my understanding, since I was looking at maps of where the Bounty had gone, they had pins showing it's path; it looked like they were heading out to sea and generally attempting to stay out of the path of the hurricane. And it looks like the storm is so big that there wasn't really anywhere that they could go that would be safe. They couldn't skirt it enough.

Mullins: You yourself were what's called a topmen when you served on tall ships.

Freeman: Yes.

Mullins: You were one of the high climbers who worked on the highest of the sails.

Freeman: Yes.

Mullins: We've all seen what kind of images of this. I don't know what it's like-what the view is like up there. Maybe you can tell us and also what the experience is like when you're furling sails in gale-force winds.

Freeman: Ya, it can be quite scary because ships are basically reverse pendulums. So if you're all the way at the top, the ship I sail on was quite large, the royal yards where I worked were a hundred feet up. So you're swaying quite a bit. Though the ideal situation is — let's say you're on a ship like the Bounty that has an engine which you do not want to use your sails during a storm because they do a wonderful job of catching the wind, and can take you in directions you don't want to go or they can flat-out rip off. So ideally, you want to send people into the rigging before a storm to actually furl up the sails and switch to using an engine. And I understand that, that was part of the problem with the Bounty is that they were using their engines and they lost electrical; And when you lose your propulsion, you can't steer.

Mullins: The on-shore staff reported on Facebook is received a distress call from the Bounty at about 6:30 last night saying that the ship had lost power and the pumps were not able to keep up with the dewatering.

Freeman: Yes.

Mullins: So basically they were trying to bail out but didn't have the electrical pumps at their service.

Freeman: And that's the thing that historically, ships had hand-pumps, which I think in this situation, even then they would have had difficulty, but if your only pumps are electrically based, and your electricity becomes an issue of when you will sink not if you will sink. I was reading on there — on the Bounty's Facebook page — they said that when they sent on the distress call, they were taking on two feet of water and hour, and they decided to abandon ship when they had reached 10 feet. I've seen the Bounty in person. Taking on ten feet of water means the ship was almost awash which means it was almost sunken when they were leaving the ship.

Mullins: Have you had that kind of experience where the ship is tilted enough that you're almost at a 90 degree angle if you are way, way up there?

Freeman: Yes. I was sailing on Lake Heron, and we actually — we were up by the dock, and we actually left to dock to head out into a squall that was coming in. For the same reasons, you don't want to be close to anything the ship can be dashed against. So we sailed out into it, and we were actually moving very, very quickly, because we had to sails up. So I had to go up and help furl up the sails, and I remember and I even have a photo of this -that the ship was beyond a 45 degree angle on its side heeled over because there was so much wind on the sail. And I was on the leeward side, and I remember that it wasn't that I could literally reach out and touch the water, but at one point it was heeled over so much that I felt like I was going to fall off into the water because it was that close and it was heeled over that much.

Mullins: How come you didn't fall in?

Freeman: Because I was tied to the yard. You wear protective harnesses that little clips so when you're climbing up there — when you're climbing, you're not attached to anything, but once you get into place, you're hooked in to a protective line so that even if you do fall off, you'll be just kind of hanging there.

Mullins: All right, thank you so much. Kelsey Freeman, teacher, freelance photographer, based in Alexandria, Virginia served seven years working on tall ships. Very nice to have you on the program.

Freeman: Thank you.