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Notable Narrative: ‘Sunk,’ by Kathryn Miles

Featured February 21, 2013
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As federal safety hearings end today in the dramatic sinking of the HMS Bounty, we choose the Outside magazine story “Sunk,” by Kathryn Miles, as our latest Notable Narrative. The piece, a heavily reported tick-tock, looks at the circumstances surrounding the demise of the tall ship, which went down in violent seas in October after sailing directly into Hurricane Sandy. One crew member died and the captain, Robin Walbridge, beloved and trusted by his team, was lost at sea and is presumed dead. The nation watched, rapt, as the Coast Guard rescued 14 others. The Bounty was an old, slow replica of the famous merchant vessel by the same name; it was built for the film Mutiny on the Bounty and then became a tourist attraction. Miles, an environmental writing professor in Maine and the author of All Standing, about the famine ship Jeanie Johnston, discovered, among other things, that the Bounty had foundered at least once prior to October and had called on the Coast Guard and Navy for rescue. Its seaworthiness was dubious. Those details and others make Miles’ story the most thorough narrative of the maritime disaster to date. The piece is noteworthy because Miles:

Miles

Miles

Examined the captain’s possible motivations for steering his ship into an epic storm, laying out revealing details including:

Still, the number of incidents surrounding Walbridge has led many to question his judgment. He didn’t do himself any favors last fall when he spoke to a reporter for a Belfast, Maine, public-access station. In a 30-minute shipboard interview first broadcast in August and later posted on YouTube, Walbridge describes taking the ship through 70-foot waves, telling the reporter flat out, “We chase hurricanes.”

Friends and family said that Walbridge didn’t really mean it, but it’s hard to explain what follows: a detailed description of how he drives the ship through major storms. “You don’t want to get in front of it,” he tells the reporter. “You want to stay behind it. But you’ll also get a good ride out of the hurricane.”

Chronicled the capsizing and rescue so vividly you may feel seasick just reading it:

McIntosh put the plane in a quick descent as his crew rushed around the open hold, reconfiguring the ramp for a life-raft drop as rain pelted in. Within minutes, however, the plane hit its bingo-fuel level, the moment when any aircraft must turn around. They dropped the rafts and headed back, not knowing if anyone had made it off the ship alive.

At least 14 did, but they were fighting to survive. When the vessel capsized, it rolled sharply onto its starboard side, sending the crew and everything on deck—including the emergency drybags—tumbling into the sea. Svendsen, who’d been on the radio with the Coast Guard, was the last off the vessel; he broke his right arm and cut up his face as he crashed into the rigging on the way down.

The wind was blowing 50 knots and gusting higher. The sea was chaos. Its force pulled the Bounty’s masts 20 feet out of the water before slamming the rigging—and the tangled crew—back down. Josh Scornavacchi estimates that he was dragged 15 feet underwater. Barksdale says he was trapped underwater multiple times.

“That was the scariest part,” he says. “I didn’t know if I was going to make it or not, but I did know that I needed to get the hell away from that ship.”

Illuminated a subculture of people devoted to tall ships:

Close bonds are common on tall ships. Seasons run six months or longer, and crew members rarely have much more personal space than a coffin. They are notoriously overworked and underpaid—the Bounty’s crew worked 12-to-18-hour days for as little as $100 a week. They are united, however, by their love of being at sea.

Check back tomorrow for a Q-and-A with Miles about the reporting and writing of “Sunk,” and more.


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