Friday, November 2, 2012

Loss of the Bounty

Bounty, in happier days

Well, here’s the post I didn’t want to write.  While we were hiding from hurricane/superstorm Sandy, the wonderful historic ship was sailing from New England to their intended winter port of St Petersburg, FL, which meant that they were sharing the Atlantic with Sandy.  And as you probably learned by now, it’s been all over the news, they didn’t make it.  The Coast Guard staged an heroic rescue, saving 14 of the 16 aboard; the ship sank in the Graveyard of the Atlantic off Cape Hatteras.  The captain apparently went down with the ship – poetically appropriate for the period, tragically romantic, but horrible – and another crew member was lost.

Why were they out in the storm?  Were they so schedule-driven as to take a foolish risk?  The same modern weather forecasting ability that told us the storm was coming, also allowed them to know where the storm was.  According to their reports, they were able to navigate around to the back side of the storm, avoiding the worst of it.  They were in gale-force winds and heavy seas, which were unpleasant but they should have been able to survive that had nothing else gone wrong.  But other things did go wrong. They were taking on water faster than they could pump it out, lost power and propulsion.  At that point, there was no way they could keep themselves from turning sideways to the waves and broaching.

So, what do we learn?  Was it risky to go out when there was a storm?  Probably.  But any time you leave port, you take a calculated risk, because forecasts are good but not perfect, even for a day sail.  Any time you go out on passage, you go beyond the range of the weather forecast, and statistically, if you’re out for a week or more, at some time on your trip you will get rained on, or find yourself in a thunderstorm or squall or heavy wind.  Staying in bed isn’t even safe!  People “safe” at home died from this hurricane as well.  Some stayed in their bedrooms, and a tree fell crushing the roof.  Some avoided the falling tree risk by sleeping in the basement, and were swept away in a flood.

“A ship in a harbor is safe,” reads one of my favorite quotes, “but that is not what ships are for.”  After its appearance in the movie it was built for, what was this ship “for?”  Entertainment, education, and most of all, inspiration.  Getting kids hooked on history, dreaming of far horizons.

As long as there are far horizons, there will be dreamers to be inspired by them.
On the Bounty in Annapolis harbor, June 2012

Coast Guard photo of the sunken Bounty

Track of the Bounty's course, apparently showing them clear of the storm on the back side.
And then later, on the back side of the storm.  The storm was moving north, winds circulate counter-clockwise so the winds where they were would have been blowing north to south, and the northward movement of the storm would be subtracted from the strength of the winds, making this the relatively milder side.  But the Gulf Stream moves south to north here - wind opposing current makes for nasty seas. When they were picked up by the Coast Guard, they were in 40-knot winds and 18-foot waves.  What went wrong?

While the Bounty visited Annapolis in June, we spent 3 days aboard, volunteering for their educational mission, talking about maritime history and posing for photographs.  I wrote about it here and here.

I'm distressed to read the bashing of the decision to go to sea, that's showing up on the internet, and waiting for the results of this Coast Guard investigation into the sinking.  But here's what I know right now:  The sea is big and sometimes scary.  If we can convince ourselves that other peoples' dumb decisions are the cause of their problems, then we can convince ourselves that since we would never make a silly decision like that, we would be safe no matter what, and we don't have to face the real truth, that whenever you go to sea, however much you prepare, however vigilant you are, sometimes things will happen that put you at risk that you cannot control.

Addendum:  here's another sad photo from the Coast Guard
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  1. Interesting addendum to this, courtesy of our friend Phil:

  2. Breaks my heart to see this again. Yes, we saw it on the news and couldn't believe it. I imagine it was doubly hear-twrenching for you two, since you had actually spent time on her. Did you know the captain?