Capt. Robin Walbridge assembled his crew of 15 sailors on the deck of the Bounty—a tall ship built for the 1962 movie Mutiny on the Bounty with Marlon Brando. It was Thursday, Oct. 25, 2012 and Walbridge knew the crew was hearing reports of an approaching hurricane named Sandy.

He called the crew together for two reasons: to tell them he still planned to set sail from New London, Conn. to St. Petersburg, Fla., but that they were under no obligation to join him.

He explained to his crew that “a ship is always safer at sea than at port,” and that  he intended to sail “around the hurricane.” The captain made it clear that anyone who did not want to come on the voyage could leave the ship—there would be no hard feelings. Not a single sailor took the captain up on his offer.

Four days into the voyage, Superstorm Sandy made an almost direct hit on Bounty. The vessel’s failing pumps could not keep up with the incoming water. The ship began to lose power as it was beaten and rocked by hurricane winds that spanned over 800 miles.

A few hours later, in the dark of night, the ship suddenly overturned 90 miles off the North Carolina coast, sending the crew tumbling into an ocean filled with crushing 30-foot waves. The Coast Guard then launched one of most complex and massive rescues in its history.  

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Robin Walbridge’s disastrous decision to leave port is the way most people will remember him. But we have all made mistakes, and it seems unfair that over a lifetime of difficult choices a person gets labeled for their last one.

Coast Guard Captain Eric Jones explained it this way: “One bad decision does not undo all the positive influence Robin Walbridge had on sailors.” I think he’s right, and almost every crewmember who survived Sandy agrees—they almost all spoke highly of Robin’s leadership and training skills.

We also need to remember that Hurricane Sandy was unlike other hurricanes. It was epic—900 miles wide, the largest storm ever recorded in the North Atlantic.

Capt. Walbridge and all those who followed him as he steered the Bounty out of New London, Conn. believed they could skirt the storm. And maybe if it was “typical” hurricane they might have done just that. But Sandy’s reach was so massive that by the time they realized its magnitude there was no safe direction to sail.

Still, the captain should have thought of his crew first, and not that “a ship is safer at sea than at port” during a storm. His decision was further influenced by his desire to bring the vessel to an event in St. Petersburg. But one thing I’ve learned in the course of writing six disaster at sea books is that schedules can get you killed when the ocean is involved.

One question that has nagged people who followed the Bounty sinking is “Why did the entire crew decide to go with the captain, especially when he gave them the chance to leave?”

Most of the Bounty sailors said they had confidence in the captain, the ship and their own training. But I think there was another, more subtle factor at work—the group itself. Perhaps no one wanted to be the first to walk off the Bounty, appear to be afraid, or be perceived as letting down fellow crewmates. Remember, most of the crew was under 30 years old, and they felt a loyalty to each other and to the captain without the benefit of decades of sailing.

Also, the manner in which Capt. Walbridge made this announcement likely influenced the outcome. The crew was forced to make a quick decision, without having the time to check various forecasts for themselves. Nor did they have the luxury to sleep on their decisions, discuss it with family, or have a private conversation with the captain.

Instead, when no one spoke up and said they were leaving, the captain ordered them to prepare the ship for getting underway. 

I might have made the same decision when I was in my early 20s, and the story of the Bounty might help others learn to pause and ask for more time when faced with a decision that has a high degree of risk. Sandy took the lives of the captain and one crewmember of the Bounty. And it didn’t have to happen. 

Michael Tougias is the author and co-author of several true nautical thrillers, most recently Rescue of the Bounty: Disaster and Survival in Superstorm Sandy, available at