Descendant of Fletcher Christian dies in sinking of HMS Bounty

Ship went to sea to ride out the worst but was caught off guard by ferocity of Hurricane Sandy, almost 21 years to the day after the 'perfect storm'

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 31 October, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 31 October, 2012, 4:24am

The final hours of the tall ship HMS Bounty were as dramatic as the five adventure films made over the last century about the famous mutiny.

The crew abandoned ship in life rafts as their stately craft succumbed to the huge swells of Hurricane Sandy off the coast of the US state of North Carolina. The only crew member confirmed dead was a direct descendant of the mutineers' leader.

By the time the first rescue helicopter arrived, all that was visible of the replica 18th-century sailing vessel was a strobe light at the top of a submerged mast. The roiling Atlantic Ocean had claimed the rest. Coastguard helicopters pulled 14 crew from the ocean. Hours later, they located crew member Claudene Christian, who unresponsive and was later pronounced dead.

The 42- year-old from Oklahoma, who joined the crew in May, was a fifth great-granddaughter of Fletcher Christian, who led the mutiny against commander William Bligh in 1789 during a voyage from Tahiti in the South Pacific.

Rescuers were yesterday still searching for the captain, Robin Walbridge, was from St Petersburg, Florida.

The ship was a replica built for the 1962 film Mutiny on the Bounty starring Marlon Brando, and it was featured in other films over the years, including one of the Pirates of the Caribbean" movies. Another Bounty replica, built for the 1984 film version starring Mel Gibson and Anthony Hopkins, relocated from Sydney several years ago to Discovery Bay, to runs corporate charters.

The American vessel left Connecticut on Thursday with a crew of 11 men and five women, ranging in age from 20 to 66. Everyone aboard knew the journey could be treacherous.

"This will be a tough voyage for Bounty," read a posting on the ship's Facebook page that showed a map of its co-ordinates and satellite images of the storm.

As Sandy's massive size became apparent, a post on Saturday tried to soothe any worried supporters: "Rest assured that the Bounty is safe and in very capable hands… The fact of the matter is ... a ship is safer at sea than in port!"

But as the storm gathered strength, the Facebook posts grew grimmer. By mid-morning on Monday, the last update was ominous: "Please bear with us ... There are so many conflicting stories going on now. We are waiting for some confirmation."

Tracie Simonin, director of the HMS Bounty Organisation, said the ship tried to stay clear of Sandy's power. "It was something that we and the captain were aware of," Simonin said.

Coastguard video of the rescue showed crew members being loaded one by one into a basket before the basket was hoisted into the helicopter.

"It's one of the biggest seas I've ever been in. It was huge out there," said coastguard rescue swimmer Randy Haba, who helped rescue five crew members. A helicopter pilot put the height of the swell at nine metres.

The sinking of the Bounty comes almost 21 years to the day after the "perfect storm" of 1991 developed in similar conditions off the coast of New England, sinking trawlers and yachts and crippling ships. That storm became the subject of several books and a Hollywood movie.