ROCKLAND — New details about the disastrous sinking of the HMS Bounty, and the heroic rescue of nearly all of its crew, emerged during a lecture by author Michael Tougias at the Maine Lighthouse Museum on July 6.

His recent book, Rescue of the Bounty, co-authored with Douglas Campbell, recounts the loss of the 180-foot vessel during Hurricane Sandy on Oct. 29, 2012. Based on hours of personal interviews with crew members, Coast Guard rescuers and others, the authors pieced together the facts that led up to the ill-fated trip, and Capt. Robin Walbridge’s tragic decision to try to “sail around” the storm.

In the end, Walbridge was lost at sea, and 42-year-old crew member Claudene Christian died, her body later recovered by the Coast Guard.

Tougias projected dramatic digital images from the rescue throughout his presentation. Some elicited gasps, murmurs and head-shaking from the assembled audience, which included retired Coast Guard members, skippers, boating enthusiasts and history buffs.

Rescue helicopter cameras chronicled the startling sight of the tall ship on its side in massive waves, colorful debris in the rigging, life rafts (both upright and overturned), and ultimately, stunned survivors in soaked life gear back on dry land.

Tougias explained why Chief Mate John Svendsen may be “the luckiest man in the world.” Seriously injured in a fall aboard the ship, and then separated from the other survivors, he ultimately was the first rescued by the Coast Guard. Unlike the other crew members, who huddled together in two life boats, Svendsen was alone, adrift in the dark in towering waves, when Coast Guard C-130 pilots miraculously directed helicopter rescuers to check out the strobe attached to his survival suit.

Tougias praised the heroics of the rescuers, noting the pilots and crews flew in hurricane winds to the disabled ship about 90 miles off Cape Hatteras, N.C. One gust pushed the airplane up 400 feet, only to have it plummet 200 feet, and the pilot watched as the wings flexed five feet.

With the boat taking on water and no propulsion in reported 40 mph winds and 18-foot waves, the crew abandoned ship in the dark. Some jumped and others fell into the waves, washed overboard when it keeled over. The Coast Guard reported seeing as many as 30 strobes flashing, though only 14 were attached to survivors. Others represented empty survival suits and a waste of time, fuel and energy.

At 500 feet using night-vision goggles, Tougias found it remarkable that the C-130 pilot directed the rescue chopper to Svendsen first, based on a suspicion his was not an empty survival suit. That decision likely saved Svendsen’s life.

In interviews with Tougias, the crew shared their thoughts, with one young man revealing he became tangled in the rigging of the three-masted ship and was pulled 20 feet under water.

He said he thought about a promise he had made to his mother that everything would be OK as he sailed from Maine to Florida. He decided to climb onto a mast, then heard a voice clearly say, “Get off the mast,” and believed it was the voice of God. He jumped and got clear of the ship, which he believes saved his life.

There were lighter moments, too, as Tougias shared rescue swimmer Dan Todd’s heroics. Todd fought his way to the enclosed life raft in treacherous seas and then introduced himself to stunned survivors, saying, “Hey, I’m Dan. I hear you need a ride.”

He rescued nine crew members, loading them into baskets which were hoisted into the helicopter. At one point the life raft flipped over and he feared the remaining crew would drown beneath or inside of it. Diving underwater, Todd remarked to Tougias that he was surprised at how clear and beautiful and serene the deep sea was. Back on the surface, he found he was “back in a washing machine,” but fortunately all were clinging to the sides of the raft.

The author said there are a few misconceptions about the Bounty, which was built in 1960 as a replica of the original 18th century square rigger. It was built for the 1962 movie Mutiny on the Bounty, starring Marlon Brando, and later featured in the Pirates of the Caribbean movies.

However, Tougias said it was more than “a movie prop,” as some have said. He described it as a beautiful wooden boat that had been built by craftsmen in Nova Scotia and meant to be a sailing vessel. It was sailed from Nova Scotia to Tahiti for the movie, and more recently used as a recreational boat, so it did not undergo the rigorous inspections passenger boats would require.


Bounty had been in Boothbay Harbor for repairs before it left Maine on its fateful journey. Some in the audience had seen it at the nearby boat shop, and knew it had significant rot in the planking and also the ribs, and that expensive and required repairs were being put off due to time and financial restraints. One man said he was “thunderstruck” to learn it had sailed into the path of the hurricane and sunk.

The boat was valued at approximately $4 million and was for sale at the time it sank.

Tougias also said while many have demonized the 63-year-old captain for being everything from arrogant to incompetent, in most of the interviews he did, Walbridge was praised.

“He was an amazing guy,” he said. “They say he was very knowledgeable and an excellent teacher. He could solve problems and fix anything.”

The National Transportation Safety Board investigated the sinking and concluded the captain was to blame, for making a reckless decision to sail in a compromised vessel with an inexperienced crew in what had been a well-forecasted storm.

This is the sixth book Tougias has written about disasters at sea, and in the past he had been critical of the National Weather Service for making poor weather predictions. In the case of the Bounty, however, he said the predictions were completely accurate.

“Hindsight’s 20/20,” he said, noting there was “a lot of negative information coming in” regarding the storm and the condition of the ship. But Walbridge decided to proceed, likely due to a fundraising event scheduled in Florida. Because he had outrun hurricanes in the past, he apparently believed he could do it again.

Many have been critical of Walbridge’s comments, which now seem cavalier or even delusional, as he boasted, “Bounty loves hurricanes.” He wrote publicly on Facebook and in private emails during the last voyage, claiming things were going well, when actually the ship was taking on water, pumps were not running, crew were injured (himself included), and many were seasick and exhausted.

Asked if there was any chance there had been a mini-mutiny aboard this Bounty, Tougias said no. He said the crew remained loyal to Walbridge to the end, and even in interviews with the author, still spoke fondly of the captain.

In an unusual twist, the woman who died in the sinking was a descendant of infamous mutineer Fletcher Christian of the original Bounty.

Paul Dilger of Warren, retired after 30 years in the Coast Guard, lent his insight, commenting after the program that the longer a person is at sea, the smarter they think they are.

“I always tried to guard against that,” he said, warning safety comes first. He said he always considered his crew, then the ship and then the mission, in that order.

Stan Metcalf of Union, who spent 26 years in the Coast Guard, said he was not surprised the Bounty sank in the hurricane. He noted the sea is not very forgiving.

“That’s the way she goes,” he said. “You make a bad decision, you pay for it.”

For more about Rescue of the Bounty, visit

A 28-minute interview with Bounty Capt. Walbridge done during the ship’s visit to Belfast in August, 2012 may be seen by searching “Belfast TV Bounty” on YouTube.