Keeping a tall ship up to snuff takes a very deep pocketbook, for everything from repairing wooden hulls and canvas sails to maintaining the generators, engines, and navigation systems hidden inside the ships’ historical exteriors. Hansen declined requests for interviews, but one thing is certain: the Bounty proved burdensome from the start. Before he bought it, Coast Guard inspectors estimated it was taking on 20 to 40 gallons of water a minute. Its brokers say it was more like 30,000 gallons an hour—enough to fill an Olympic-size swimming pool every day. When the bilge pumps failed in September 2001, it took the entire Fall River Fire Department, under the supervision of the Coast Guard, to save the ship. Hansen towed it to Boothbay Harbor, Maine, where it underwent the first of three overhauls, none of them substantial enough to receive Coast Guard classification as a passenger vessel.
And so, as Daniel Parrott, a captain and the author of the 2004 book Tall Ships Down, explained to me, the Bounty operated on the fringe of the tall-ship world, a kind of counter-culture in which vessels try to eke out a profit as what the Coast Guard classifies as moored attractions vessels, which in most cases are prohibited from carrying passengers unless they enlist as crew. The Bounty starred as a merchant ship in two Pirates of the Caribbean movies. Its website advertised sail-training and summer-camp programs, though it was classified to do neither. And according to one former crew member, it sometimes did take on volunteer passengers, including youth groups and corporate teams.
But mostly, Walbridge and his crew made do with what little income the ship fetched through $10-a-head tours, stopping in about 25 ports in the Great Lakes and along the Eastern seaboard each summer—with occasional trips to the West Coast and Europe—then wintering in Florida, Texas, or Puerto Rico. Sometimes, one of the crew told me, they had to use cash from the day’s till to buy groceries. Another crew member, Doug Faunt, said that it was not uncommon for the Bounty to have to wait to dock until more money had been freed up on the ship’s credit card.
Meanwhile, Walbridge worked tirelessly to preserve the vessel. “Robin was the sole vision and energy source for everything associated with the Bounty,” says Jan Cameron Miles, captain of the tall ship Pride of Baltimore II and one of the industry’s most celebrated helmsmen. But that struggle became more difficult every year. In 2010, Hansen put the ship up for sale, asking $4.9 million. It was still on the market when it went down.
Walbridge spent much of 2011 casting about for possible benefactors, including Richard Branson, the billionaire chairman of the Virgin Group, whose family sailed aboard the ship when it visited the British Virgin Islands last winter. “Robin was so proud of the ship,” Branson told me in an email. “He must have shown thousands of people over it but did so with us as if it was his first time. Still brimming with genuine excitement.”
Branson decided not to buy the ship, but as the 2012 tour season wrapped up, Walbridge believed he had secured a fresh infusion of cash and purpose for the Bounty. Both, he believed, could come from the Ashley DeRamus Foundation, a private organization dedicated to raising awareness about Down syndrome. Walbridge looked forward to using the Bounty as an educational platform for people with special needs, and it may have been that new mission, in part, that led him into the storm.
THURSDAY, OCTOBER 25 WAS Walbridge’s 63rd birthday. It was a perfect fall afternoon in New London, Connecticut, where the Bounty had docked just long enough to host the crew of the USS Mississippi. It was a busy time on board: the ship had spent the past four weeks on the rails at Boothbay for a major refit and would depart the next day for the 14-day trip back to Florida. Walbridge freely admitted that the Bounty was underpowered for her size; even with her sails up, she averaged only five knots—about six miles per hour—and St. Petersburg was 1,400 nautical miles away.
That afternoon, Walbridge called his 15-member crew to the Bounty’s capstan, the manual winch at the vessel’s stern where captains have summoned their crews for centuries. For the first time in a long while, say several crew members, he seemed hopeful.