The Coast Guard is searching off the Carolinas for a former Apalachicola resident who was swept off the deck of a tall ship by Hurricane Sandy.
Robin Walbridge, 63, is the captain of the 180-foot, three-masted schooner HMS Bounty, a replica built from the plans of the original 18th century wooden ship in Nova Scotia to use in filming “Mutiny on the Bounty” with Marlon Brando in 1962. It later also appeared in a version of Treasure Island and “Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest.”
The Bounty, which has since acted as a training vessel and museum, is owned by New York businessman Robert Hansen. According to a Facebook page for the ship, Walbridge was attempting to skirt the outer edge of Hurricane Sandy to safe harbor in St. Petersburg.
In a press conference Monday, Tracie Simonin, director of the HMS Bounty Organization, said the ship tried to stay clear of Sandy's power. "It was something that we and the captain of the ship were aware of," Simonin said.
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.
"This will be a tough voyage for Bounty," read a posting on the ship's Facebook page showing satellite images of the storm.
She began to sink at around 6:30 p.m. Sunday, about 90 miles southeast of Cape Hatteras. Amid 40 mph winds and 18-foot seas, Walbridge ordered his crew to abandon ship after an engine failed and the Bounty began to take on water faster than pumps could remove it.
Crew members were outfitted in “survival suits.” Capt. Jerry Weber of Apalachicola said these suits mask human scent from predators, fight hypothermia and often contain EPIRB tracking beacons or a flare. According to reports from the scene of the Coast Guard rescue, one crew member was spotted floating alone in the water because of a strobing beacon attached to his gear.
Fourteen members of the crew successfully launched in lifeboats but Walbridge and two female sailors were swept overboard by a wave. One woman managed to reach a lifeboat. The second woman, Claudene Christian, 42, was recovered from the water late Monday but rescuers were unable to revive her. She has been called the first North American casualty of Sandy.
All 14 crew members initially evacuated were airlifted by the Coast Guard on Monday morning amid what one rescue swimmer described as 30-foot waves.
Walbridge is still missing and the subject of an ongoing Coast Guard search.
Kristen Anderson of Apalachicola knows Walbridge well. She said he came to Apalachicola in the early 1990s and taught a captain’s course here which she attended.
“He was a big boon to the community, and helped a number of local captains become qualified to take on charter passengers,” she said. “He was the captain who trained the captain of the USS Constitution,” referring to the refurbished schooner originally launched in 1797 that is the oldest commissioned US Navy vessel.
She said he was also pivotal in the rescue and renovation of the Bounty. “He was completely and totally devoted to the Bounty,” Capt. Randy Mims said. “It was by his efforts the ship stayed maintained. He was one of the best square rigger sailors left in the world and that is a dying art.”
Anderson said he helped out with the Governor Stone when it was based in Apalachicola. “I spent one of the best days of my entire life with Robin on the Governor Stone. Two couples from St. George Island wanted to go to Little St. George. When they showed up on the dock, it was clear the women were not pleased with spending all day on the boat. Conditions were absolutely perfect. It was so beautiful,” she said.
“The Stone heeled over a little bit and went to work like a good horse. Later, when we were out on the bay, one of the wives said to her husband, ‘Why don’t you get rid of that boat you’ve got and get something like this?’
“Robin was a sailor,” said Anderson. “And if you’re a sailor, when time’s up, that’s the best way for a sailor to go.”