POLITICS

Search continues for captain of Canadian-built ship that sank during hurricane

10/30/2012 11:23 EDT | Updated 12/30/2012 05:12 EST
ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. - The U.S. Coast Guard used ships and airplanes to search the Atlantic on Tuesday for the captain of the sunken HMS Bounty as the sailor's wife held on to a sliver of hope that he had survived the harrowing ordeal.

The Coast Guard was optimistic Robin Walbridge, 63, of St. Petersburg, Fla., could still be alive in his blazing red survival suit 144 kilometres off the North Carolina coast.

Walbridge went overboard early Monday when the Canadian-built replica 18th-century sailing vessel rolled over in 5 metre waves.

Walbridge's wife waited in their in St. Petersburg home to hear any word, surrounded by friends and crying often.

"He's been in many storms. He's been doing this a good portion of his life. He's been in lots of hairy situations and he's very familiar with the boat. Same boat for 17 years, he knows it like the back of his hand," Claudia McCann told The Associated Press by telephone.

The ship was built at Smith and Ruhland Shipyard in Lunenburg, N.S., for the 1962 film "Mutiny on the Bounty" starring Marlon Brando, and it was featured in several other films over the years, including one of the "Pirates of the Caribbean" movies.

Tuesday's search for Walbridge was hampered by 4.5 metre waves, but the water temperature was about 25 degrees Celcius.

"There's a lot of factors that go into survivability. Right now we're going to continue to search. Right now we're hopeful," Coast Guard Capt. Joe Kelly said.

A decision on how much longer to search was to come later Tuesday.

The Coast Guard rescued 14 crew members of the Bounty by helicopter Monday, all of whom were in good condition.

Hours later, rescuers found missing crew member Claudene Christian, 42, unresponsive. She was later declared dead.

Christian was a rookie sailor with a marketing background and a name and a lineage familiar to anyone who knew the story of the original HMS Bounty, whose crew famously took over the ship from its commander, Lt. William Bligh, in April 1789.

The uprising was led by Fletcher Christian, whose story was told in the 1962 film for which the replica vessel was built. Claudene Christian said in August that she was Fletcher Christian's great-great-great-great-great granddaughter.

"I was at the helm the first week and said, 'Captain, are you sure you're comfortable having a Christian at the helm? I wasn't sure if he got my joke," she told The Halifax Chronicle Herald when the Bounty visited the city for a tall ships festival.

Rochelle Smith, 44, met Christian this summer in Nova Scotia.

"She loved the Bounty. She absolutely loved it. She was so happy to be on it and doing something that she found that she loved to do," said Smith, a medical transcriptionist who lives in Thunder Bay, Ontario, Canada.

When the Bounty set sail last week, Walbridge believed he could navigate the ship around the storm. After two days in rough seas, he realized his journey would be far more difficult.

"I think we are going to be into this for several days," Walbridge said in a message posted Sunday on the vessel's Facebook site, which reads like a ship's log of its activities. "We are just going to keep trying to go fast."

His wife last heard from him on Saturday when he sent her an email. He told her not to worry about the hurricane.

"He said, 'it's going to be fine,'" she said. "He said they were prepared. They were prepared. He was just watching to see what the hurricane was going to do."

By Monday morning, the vessel had started taking on water, its engines failed and the crew of the stately craft had to abandon ship as it went down in the immense waves.

By the time the first rescue helicopter arrived, all that was visible of the ship was a strobe light atop the mighty vessel's submerged masts. The roiling Atlantic Ocean had claimed the rest.

The 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.

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

When they returned to the mainland, some were wrapped in blankets, still wearing the blazing red survival suits they put on to stay warm in the chilly waters.

The survivors received medical attention and were to be interviewed for a Coast Guard investigation. The Coast Guard did not make them available to reporters.

The Bounty's captain learned to sail at age 10, according to his biography on the Bounty's website. Prior to the Bounty, he served as first mate on the H.M.S. Rose — the Bounty's sister ship.

"The ship was almost like his home," said Smith, who met Walbridge in 2010 when she sailed on the Bounty. "That's where he spent most of his time was aboard the ship. He was so full of history and so interesting to talk to. And he knew his sailing stuff."

Meanwhile, many in Nova Scotia were devastated when they heard the ship had been lost.

Premier Darrell Dexter said the Bounty was a spectacular ship and a symbol of Lunenburg's proud tradition of shipbuilding.

"It is a sad loss for the community, but no ship is as important as the safety of its crew. I commend everyone involved for their swift action," Dexter said in a statement late Monday.

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Dalesio reported from Elizabeth City, N.C. Associated Press writers Bruce Smith in Charleston, S.C.; Jeannie Nuss in Little Rock, Ark..; Greg Schreier in Atlanta, and Jeffrey Collins in Columbia, S.C., contributed to this report.