From the start, the captain fostered a devoted crew. I spoke with people who served throughout Walbridge’s tenure on the Bounty, and without exception they talked about their tremendous respect and admiration for the quiet, unassuming man with thick glasses and a small ponytail, describing him as a “genius,” a “father figure,” and a “bad-ass.” They swore time and again that he wasn’t irresponsible. Instead, he was unapologetically—and sometimes myopically—devoted to the Bounty.
Close bonds are common on tall ships. Seasons run six months or longer, and crew members rarely have much more personal space than a coffin. They are notoriously overworked and underpaid—the Bounty’s crew worked 12-to-18-hour days for as little as $100 a week. They are united, however, by their love of being at sea.
Even in that world the Bounty was special. “That ship created friendships stronger than anything,” says Grant Bredeson, a 32-year-old Florida seaman who worked on the ship from 1995 until last May. “The crew is like family, only closer.”
The 2012 crew, Bredeson says, was one of the most experienced the Bounty had ever seen. The well-respected first mate, John Svendsen, a soft-spoken 41-year-old Minnesotan with long blond hair and a perennially serious expression, had joined up in 2010. Two others were licensed captains: 37-year-old second mate Matt Sanders, another Floridian, and Jess Hewitt, a 25-year-old recent graduate of the prestigious Maine Maritime Academy. Four crew members were Merchant Marine-certified able-bodied seamen: third mate Dan Cleveland, 25, Laura Groves, 28, Drew Salapatek, 29, and the ship’s electrician, 66-year-old Doug Faunt, who served as a volunteer.
The remaining hands were a mix of new employees and volunteers. Four paid deckhands in their twenties—Adam Prokosh, John Jones, Josh Scornavacchi, and the youngest crew member, 20-year-old Anna Sprague—had sailed with the ship since the start of its 2012 season. Mark Warner, 33, joined as a deckhand later in the year. The ship’s cook, 34-year-old Jessica Black, and its engineer, Chris Barksdale, 56, had only just come aboard while the ship was in dry dock that September. Finally, there was Claudene Christian, who’d volunteered in May. At 42, she was one of the older crew members and the least experienced.
But that sense of camaraderie was tested on October 25. Earlier that day, tropical storm Sandy had intensified into a Category II hurricane, with sustained winds of more than 110mph. Already, it had claimed the lives of 58 people across the Caribbean, and Coast Guard C-130’s were flying up and down the Atlantic seaboard, issuing radio broadcasts urging mariners to stay in port.
When the crew gathered around the capstan, Walbridge told them he wouldn’t hold it against anyone who wanted to return to the dock. “I know you’ve all been getting a lot of texts and calls from people worried about the hurricane,” he said. He held his hands in a circle, indicating the storm’s expanse. He told the crew he felt pretty confident it would soon track toward land. He reminded them that he’d been in hurricanes before and that the Bounty had always made it.
Walbridge emphasized again that anyone was welcome to leave. No one did. Instead, they began preparing for heavy seas. They took down the topmost rigging and lashed it to the deck. A few crew members told me they’d felt a little apprehension but nothing that would prevent them from going.