On the night of Sunday, October 28, 2012, Coast Guard lieutenant Wes McIntosh and the crew of his C-130 transport plane were holed up in a hotel room at North Carolina’s Raleigh-Durham Airport. They’d been relocated there the day before, after winds from Hurricane Sandy had forced runway closings at their base in Elizabeth City. The seven-man flight crew congregated around the TV, flipping between Sunday Night Football and the Weather Channel.
It was nine o’clock, and the Denver Broncos had just taken the lead over the New Orleans Saints when McIntosh’s phone rang: the Coast Guard’s North Carolina Sector Field Office—the regional command center in Wilmington—had received a distress email from Tracie Simonin, director of the HMS Bounty Organization. The 180-foot, three-masted ship, a replica of the famous 18th-century vessel, had lost power and was taking on water somewhere near Hatteras Canyon, a treacherous section of the Atlantic roughly 90 miles southeast of the Outer Banks.
No one knew the ship’s exact position or what kind of shape it—or its 16-member crew—was in. Since the captain’s initial email to Simonin at 8:45, the ship’s onboard electronics had failed, and communication was possible only by hand radio, the range of which is limited to line of sight. Storm conditions had intensified beyond the capabilities of the Coast Guard’s cutters and even its Jayhawk helicopters, so the Sector Field Office issued an urgent marine bulletin requesting Samaritan assistance from the handful of vessels still in the region. Only the Torm Rosetta, a 30,000-ton Danish oil tanker, was in hailing range. But it reported back that conditions were too dangerous to respond.
As far as hurricanes go, Sandy was not particularly powerful—on the weekend of October 28, it was fluctuating between hurricane and tropical-storm status—but it made up for that in size and complexity. Sandy would ultimately cover 1.8 million square miles and take on characteristics of what meteorologists call a hybrid storm: in this case, part hurricane, part nor’easter. The Bounty’s last known position—about 100 miles off Cape Fear around noon—put the vessel right in the worst of it, with winds at 60 knots and pelting rain severe enough to render even a large wooden ship invisible on radar. Sending the C-130 was risky, but Coast Guard officials hoped McIntosh could get close enough to establish communication and assess the situation. Once weather conditions allowed, rescue choppers could fly out from Elizabeth City if need be.
The plane took off from Raleigh around 11 p.m. Before long its anti-icing system failed, forcing McIntosh to fly below 7,000 feet. Then the weather radar malfunctioned. McIntosh and his co-pilot, Mike Myers, were now flying using visual flight rules in zero-visibility conditions. Wearing night-vision goggles to help them pick through layers of clouds, they descended to 1,000 feet. Then to 500 feet—right into the brunt of the storm.
By now it was just after midnight. While McIntosh struggled to steer, Myers searched for the Bounty. “I kept asking Mike, ‘What do you see? What do you see?’” McIntosh recalls. Finally, Myers shot back, “I see a giant pirate ship in the middle of a hurricane.”
The plane initiated a sharp circle so the flight crew could get a better look. The Bounty was listing at a 45-degree angle, its starboard side all but submerged. Waves the size of two-story houses crashed over the hull.
There was little McIntosh and Myers could do. The ship’s rigging, more than 100 feet in the air, threatened to ensnare the C-130. Turbulence was so severe that three of the airmen were vomiting uncontrollably. McIntosh made radio contact with John Svendsen, the Bounty’s first mate, who reassured him that the ship would make it until morning, when the crew planned to make an orderly descent into life rafts.