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Panel to look at tall ship's sinking during Sandy

Published on NewsOK Modified: February 9, 2013 at 11:05 am •  Published: February 9, 2013
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RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — More than a week before Hurricane Sandy became a superstorm that would zero in on New York and New Jersey, while it was just a tropical depression bouncing around the Caribbean, the captain of the tall ship Picton Castle decided to play it safe and stay home.

It was scheduled to leave Nova Scotia on Oct. 22 but delayed by 12 days, said Susan Corkum-Greek, general manager of the ship's operator, Windward Isles Sailing Ship Co. Ltd.

Capt. Daniel Moreland thought it better to stay put than sail south while the storm could be churning north.

Another captain sailing roughly the same route headed out to sea instead. The HMS Bounty sailed dead into the path of Hurricane Sandy. Amid 30-foot waves, the diesel engines died and the ship took on water. The crew eventually abandoned ship, and the Bounty sank 90 miles southeast of Cape Hatteras on Oct. 29.

One crew member died. The captain was never found despite days of searching.

Next week, a federal safety panel will open a hearing into the fatal sinking of the Bounty — a replica 18th-century tall ship built for the 1962 film "Mutiny on the Bounty" and used in other seafaring dramas.

Investigators with the Coast Guard and the National Transportation Safety Board have scheduled eight days of testimony in Portsmouth, Va., to hear from crew members, people from the shipyard where the Bounty underwent work weeks before sinking, and captains of similar multi-mast sailing ships.

"It's really the first time the public will get a better understanding of what happened," said Ernest DelBuono, a retired Coast Guard commander who once inspected U.S. vessels. "This is a unique case because the person who probably everybody would like to hear from was a casualty. The captain is dead."

Capt. Robin Walbridge, 63, of St. Petersburg, Fla., is presumed dead after a three-day search failed to find him. Claudene Christian, 42, was confirmed dead. The Coast Guard rescued the other 14 crew members from two lifeboats while a strobe light atop the vessel's mast identified the wreck.

The hearings are an opportunity to hear from survivors and people who spoke to the captain before the ship left New London, Conn., for St. Petersburg, said DelBuono, now a crisis management consultant in Washington.

Moreland is expected to testify by phone from the South Pacific, where the Picton Castle is cruising. A likely line of questioning is what led to the decision to postpone while Sandy was still days away, Corkum-Greek said.

"There was no dissent among our team of mariners that postponing was the correct thing to do," Corkum-Greek said. "The safety of the ship and all hands is always the primary concern."

Coast Guard Cmdr. Kevin Carroll, the hearing's lead officer, is scheduled to open the hearings by questioning the Bounty's operators, the HMS Bounty Organization of East Setauket, N.Y. The organization's director, Tracie Simonin, did not respond to messages last week. She said in October that though Walbridge was aware of the hurricane's power, he thought he could steer clear of the worst.

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