Still, McIntosh was worried. The ship was without power or sails in a hurricane, and he had a feeling the crew was about to go overboard as well. While Myers prepped Svendsen on protocols for abandoning ship, McIntosh radioed the Sector Field Office, which would coordinate the rescue, then called the Elizabeth City base. Helicopter rescue crews were about to embark on one of the most perilous missions of their careers, and he wanted them to know just how serious the situation was. Then he and his team did the only thing they could: they circled overhead, trying to make sense of the feeling that they had somehow flown 200 years into the past.
As the drama of the Bounty’s final hours unfolded on CNN and the Weather Channel, seamen and landlubbers alike were asking the same question: what was a square-rigged ship doing in the middle of a hurricane—a storm that had been forecast for days? Sailors pointed fingers at the captain, Robin Walbridge, insisting that his poor judgment and bravado were to blame. It’s true that Walbridge had tempted fate before. In each instance, some combination of skill and luck had returned the ship home safely.
But the full answer to why the Bounty sank was much more complex than a captain’s rash decision. It was a story decades in the making, a veritable opera of near misses and fantastic schemes involving a dogged captain, a fiercely loyal crew, and an owner who was looking to sell. And in the ship’s last act, an unlikely new character had emerged: a young woman with Down syndrome who, perhaps inconceivably, held the key to the Bounty’s future.
IN SOME WAYS, THE Bounty was lucky to have survived as long as it did. Built in 1960 for the Marlon Brando version of Mutiny on the Bounty, the ship was supposed to be burned for the film’s final scene. Hollywood legend has it that Brando threatened to walk off the set if the vessel was destroyed, so MGM sent it on a worldwide tour to promote the film and then moored it in St. Petersburg, Florida, as a dockside attraction offering public tours.
Thus began a four-decade struggle to keep the Bounty afloat. Wooden ships are notoriously difficult to maintain, especially those docked in warm water. Planks loosen and warp; fasteners corrode. Topsides splinter in the sun and rain accelerates rot. Long, unshelled clams called teredo worms bore through hulls like termites. Even vessels lovingly hauled out of the water and repaired each year disintegrate in these conditions.
By the time the Bounty’s current owner, Robert Hansen Jr., a sailor and the founder of the Long Island heating and air-conditioning company Islandaire, bought the ship in 2001, it had fallen into disrepair. The ship had been acquired by Ted Turner in 1986 as part of MGM’s film library, used in the 1990 Charlton Heston TV movie Treasure Island, and then donated in the early '90s to the town of Fall River, Massachusetts, which planned to use the Bounty to take schoolkids and paying sailing enthusiasts out to sea. But the repairs necessary to obtain Coast Guard classification to carry passengers proved too costly, and the Fall River Chamber of Commerce put the Bounty up for sale for $1.6 million. Hansen bought the ship for an undisclosed sum, but less than the amount owed its creditors, according to reports at the time.
Hansen created the HMS Bounty Organization, a limited-liability company based at Islandaire’s East Setauket, Long Island, headquarters, and hired Tracie Simonin, the company’s staff accountant, as director. He also kept on Walbridge, who’d taken the helm in 1995 at age 46. Walbridge’s widow, Claudia McCann, would later describe him as having two great loves, her and the Bounty; he described the ship as “an extension of myself.” A St. Petersburg native, he’d worked as a diesel mechanic, a pilot, and a truck driver but found his calling on tall ships like the USS Constitution and the Bill of Rights, where he developed a passion for training at-risk kids and children with disabilities to sail. Walbridge had already taken the Bounty through the Panama Canal and on at least two European voyages. He and Hansen hoped to sail it as far as Tahiti, the original Bounty’s last port of call before the famous 1789 mutiny, when mate Fletcher Christian led a small group of sailors against commanding lieutenant William Bligh.
There was reason to believe they would be successful. The tall-ship renaissance, which began just after the U.S. bicentennial in 1976, had grown into a multimillion-dollar industry, with hundreds of ships in North American waters alone. Most of these operate under the Coast Guard classification of passenger vessel or sailing-school vessel. Whether 19th-century originals or modern replicas, they exist within a byzantine system of rules mandating everything from the number of licensed mariners on board to the placement of life preservers.