It’s unclear how much all this factored into Walbridge’s decision to set sail on October 25. Kannegiesser and Doug Faunt both say that the St. Petersburg event was on the captain’s mind. But Simonin told me that the HMS Bounty Organization was “not aware of any concrete plans with the DeRamus Foundation at that time.”
Waiting for Sandy to pass, she suggested, just hadn’t seemed necessary. “We’ve been in seas like that before, even worse,” she said, “and we didn’t think it was insurmountable. We always had the utmost confidence in him.”
ON A SNOWY DAY in December, the Bounty’s extended family, including more than 100 former crew, assembled in Fall River, Massachusetts, to memorialize Robin Walbridge and Claudene Christian. They tossed wreathes into the ocean, struggled through eulogies, and stood on the deck of a battleship while DeRamus recited the Pledge of Allegiance. It was an exhausting day. The survivors that I spoke to were all having trouble sleeping. Many were in therapy; some were on indefinite walkabouts as they waited to see what’s next.
But first they’d have to make it through the Coast Guard hearings. Coast Guard spokesperson Michael Patterson said that investigators were particularly interested in last summer’s Boothbay refit. Yard workers and crew would be required to testify, and all material witnesses were told to be available for the full two weeks.
The hearings are part of a larger investigation to determine the cause of the accident and whether there is evidence of “misconduct, inattention to duty, negligence, or willful violation of the law.” The investigation will only make recommendations, but those may be taken into account in any future proceedings—whether Coast Guard, criminal, or civil. Svendsen and the other licensed captains on board could face anything from license restrictions to outright revocation. 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.
The stakes may be highest for Robert Hansen, who could face additional civil and criminal proceedings. Everyone’s actions, from Simonin to the Boothbay yard workers, will be scrutinized. “A lot of things have to go wrong for a ship to sink in these circumstances,” says Martin Davies, director of Tulane University’s Maritime Law Center. “There may very well be plenty of blame to go around.”
And while the Bounty lies at the bottom of the Atlantic, the future may be dim for ships like it. The Coast Guard could choose to enact more rigorous regulations, seeking to reel in these ships sailing out on the fringe. That, says Daniel Parrott, is probably a good thing. “Robin spent so long operating in the margins that he no longer recognized how marginal the operation was. If you spend enough time tiptoeing on the edge of something, sooner or later you’re going to fall.”
Kathryn Miles (@Kathryn_Miles) is the author of All Standing: The Remarkable Story of the Jeanie Johnston, the Legendary Irish Famine Ship.