HMS Bounty and Reflections on Risk
“What each must seek in his life never was on land or sea. It is something out of his own unique potentiality for experience, something that never has been and never could have been experienced by anyone else” – Joseph Campbell
Last Monday night I listened to the shrieking outside. Hurricane Sandy, the monster mega-storm, was thrashing the east coast and even though Midcoast Maine was far from Sandy’s center we were still subjected to gale/storm force winds. From the safety of my house I felt the gusts buffet the exterior walls. Thoughts of relentless seas, shipwrecks, and the worry of loved ones for those whose lives hang in the balance all paraded through my brain. We are bound to the decisions we make and for those of us willing to leave harbor, we are forced to manage risk and deal with what Mother Nature throws at us.
Earlier in the day I read the reports about the sinking of The Bounty off Cape Hatteras. The 180-foot (overall) replica ship had gone down in angry seas. Through social media I followed the posts between friends of the crew and even the video of the rescue by the Coast Guard – an amazing feat given the conditions. Fourteen were airlifted to safety but two had not made it. One was recovered later but not before the sea had taken her. The other, the captain, is still still missing. Why had The Bounty attempted to lumber through such a large and well-forecasted storm? The ocean can be a merciless place. I discovered that myself almost exactly 16-years ago and in similar waters. My experience was very different then The Bounty sinking, but I have stared into dark seas that threatened my survival and I too received assistance from the Coast Guard. Tossing and turning that night Sandy howled, I was transported back to my personal event at sea.
When I was twenty-years old I cast off my lines and departed the Maine Coast for Alaska in a thirty-two foot sailboat. My goal was to live a true adventure. I was young and I needed to test myself. I was experienced for my age but young none-the-less, probably similar to some of the Bounty’s crew. With the help of a friend I hopped down the east coast in a series of short passages. We initially left Maine in a strong Northwester and blasted our way to the Cape Cod Canal. Another leg took us out of Buzzards Bay to the Chesapeake. Eventually we made it to Beaufort, North Carolina and it was from there that I departed single-handed for the Caribbean.
A strong cold front was forecasted. My goal was to cross the Gulf Stream, ride out the passage of the front and then crack the sheets and point my bow towards the tropics. Initially all went as planned. I made it through the Gulf Stream in moderate conditions. All the next day and night the wind and seas increased as my boat and I carried on. I did not sleep. Concerned about boat traffic I stood an almost constant watch. My second night out was exhilarating. It was blowing close to forty-knots. The boat was reefed down, doubled reefed main and staysail, and thanks to a monitor vane largely steering itself. I listened to my Walkman and witnessed the clouds skid overhead. It was a dark, rough night but I was living a dream. Wave after wave soaked me but I was content.
After midnight I started taking catnaps. I had a cheap cooking timer that I would crank up for 20-minutes. It would ring all too soon and I would climb back on deck to scan the horizon, check my course, and generally ensure that all was in order. I had a big flashlight that I shone all around the deck and rigging. I also set the alarm on my radar. If an object came within a certain distance than it would sound a warning. After each boat check I would lie back down in my bunk fully clothed in my foul weather gear.
Just before dawn my radar alarm sounded. Bracing myself, I stood over the LCD screen. A large blob was headed towards us. Squall. Reaching up through the companionway, I clipped my harness tether to a pad eye and clamored into the cockpit. Over the stern quarter I stared out over chaotic seas at the darkest, meanest looking squall I had ever seen. There was almost a pause before it hit. I was in a bad automobile accident once and I remember a similar mental snapshot. It was an immediate recognition that I might be F-ed. I popped the mainsheet that controlled the now triple reefed main and grabbed the tiller. The blast hit and the rail went down. I forced the boat off to run with the squall. The anemometer cranked up to fifty-knots. Rain fell as a torrent. Fifty-eight knots and then crack! My keel stepped mast snapped at the deck and flew over the side before crashing into the water. The boat began to wallow. I stood transfixed for a moment. Paralyzed. Lightening flashed and thunder boomed only seconds later. The rain fell so hard that it seemed to melt the seas.
It was the butt of my mast circulating above the surface that snapped me into action. The jagged aluminum extrusion was threatening my hull. The rig was still attached to the boat by the standing and running rigging. One wrong wave and my boat could be opened up like a can. I dove below and found my big bolt cutters under my bunk. Stumbling on deck I clipped in to the jackline that ran forward. I followed it. The boat was rolling like crazy and the squall was still pounding down. Spitting out the rain I started to cut all the wire and lines. I pinned myself inside the metal pulpit and pounded out the clevis pin to the headstay. The bow rose and fell, plunging deep and sending water shooting up my bibs. Before severing the remaining leeward shrouds I took my time with the backstay. It doubled with as my radio antennae and I wanted to cut above the lower insulator. I half slipped over the side with my cutters attached by a lanyard and reached out to make my cut. That accomplished, I finished the remaining standing rigging. I watched as the whites of my sails sank to the deep.
I was fortunate. The front passed and the weather improved dramatically. There was a pit in my stomach and I felt a little sick once the adrenaline and danger had passed. I remember going below and sitting at my chart table. I forced myself to eat several peanut butter sandwiches and chugged water. Making a “to do” list, I wrote down my next steps. Eventually I fired up my little diesel engine and turned the boat back towards the Carolina coast. With two spinnaker poles I made an A-frame rig and attached two sails. It was slow going. I was able to make a couple of calls. I informed my parents of my location and situation. That first evening was breathtaking. I was headed towards the setting sun. Winds were light and the sky was lit up like a painting. I stood transfixed in the cockpit taking it all in. I knew I was whipped and I felt like a dog with his tail between his legs but I was also relieved to simply be breathing. I had a video camera on board and I boldly narrated how this was only a set back and I would be back to sea before long. When I watch the tape now, years later, I see the face of youth. I look so young and I know that other plans laid ahead for the 20-year old Thor.
I made it back into the Gulf Stream but I was running low on fuel. My boat was small and set up to sail where it needed to go. The following night I was met by a Coast Guard cutter that sent over a RIB with jerry cans of fuel. I filled up and carried on. My progress was so slow and my communications poor so the Coast Guard refused to leave me. The next day we decided to try a tow. In the end my little boat and I were hauled by the cutter all the way back to the Cape Fear River. Another strong Cold Front was rapidly approaching and who knows how I would have faired in my broken state. I might have gone down like The Bounty in Hurricane Sandy. The Coast Guard bailed me out and I owe them a debt of gratitude.
The squall that took my rig also marked a major turning point in my life. Initially I hit the skids. The calm satisfaction to simply be alive wore off and I felt the bitter taste of failure. It had been bad luck. A new mast and well-tuned rigging had failed inexplicably – perhaps a manufacturing defect. I never made it to Alaska. I found a home in the outdoors but my solo sailing days were put on hold. It took a long time to get a new mast and I ended up going to work for Outward Bound leading long wilderness courses. My experience served me well as an outdoor educator. The mission of the school is to impel people into value forming experiences, essentially putting them through a tough experience that will aid them in their life. Leading groups taught me a lot and I was able to develop my own philosophy. I believed in teaching skill-based courses that ramped up in intensity and allowed for the students to develop judgment and to experience a tough expedition that was largely accomplished by their skill, fortitude, and humor. Many lessons are best taught out of the classroom and I found that students thrived on hands on learning through adventure in the outdoors.
I ended up working all over North America as an outdoor educator, ski patroller, and guide. My mother likes to say that I have used up several of my lives. Beyond the dismasting, I have been hit by lightening with a group and caught in an icefall on Mount Rainier. Spend enough time outdoors and even when you are supposedly doing everything right Mother Nature can throw a wrench. Adventuring, especially when leading others, requires constant risk management. There are a lot of variables and ultimately experience, skill, judgment, good gear, and solid expedition planning all come into play. I also believe that luck, good or bad, plays a role in incidents. Each experience leaves a lasting mark, especially the ones that do not go as planned. They become part of us and effect the future decisions we make.
In my current life I spend a lot of time on the ocean. These days I am more coastal than open ocean. I still sail in gales and head out in trying conditions in kayaks and on paddle boards. Often the cold North Atlantic is only inches away but I rely on my ability, fitness level, and judgment to make good decisions. The knowledge that a wrench could be hurled at me is always in the back of my mind and serves to humble but I thrive on being outside. Some of us were not meant for safe harbor but we must also be prepared and make good decisions, especially when leading others. I enjoy pushing myself solo but my thought process is very different when leading others. I increase the safety margins and constantly assess and reassess decisions. Sometimes it is as simple as plotting out what is the worst-case scenario? How can we make a solid plan that incorporates contingencies? Sometimes it means backing off and creating a more black and white scenario out of a situation that appears gray. I have been involved in several rescues, in the role of rescuer, and they often have similar themes. Often it is a series of events that are easy to second-guess later but at the time a person or group continues to head down a road that leads to trouble.
That night during Hurricane Sandy, I huddled close to my two young sons and thought about the crew of The HMS Bounty and their experienced captain who remains lost at sea. Over the past several days I have read the media reports. I am sure an inquiry will be made especially because of the nature of the storm, their location, and the type of vessel. Perhaps analysis of the incident will provide valuable information. By all accounts the pumps failed due to a loss of power. Quite possibly, given working systems, they would have made it through the storm with a lively story to tell. Instead the highly trained US Coast Guard rescuers swooped in and did their duty ensuring that most lives were saved. A ship and possibly two lives were lost. The surviving crew, their families, and the community surrounding The HMS Bounty should be allowed to grieve and they deserve support.
The incident should also serve as a lesson for those of us who put to sea, climb mountains, and adventure. We must always manage the risk and be prepared, especially when we are responsible for other people and rescuers could become involved. Hurricane Sandy obviously did far more than sink a ship. It slammed into the east coast, took lives, and destroyed a lot property and infrastructure. Storms like Sandy may become more frequent and those who adventure may have to adapt and become more conservative.
I can’t help but continue to stew on the events that led to the demise of The Bounty. Armchair quarterbacking is all too easy. I have no experience with tall ships and how they operate. I know experienced, passionate people sail them and they run amazing programs on the high seas. The Bounty was a beautiful ship with historical significance and it had covered a lot of miles. It had deep ties to the Maine Coast and was recently refitted here. I keep thinking through the risks they took on. If I had been a crewmember in New London, CT before departure I would have been pretty tempted to get off given the nature of Hurricane Sandy. Quite possibly I would have wanted the ship to sail north towards Maine or Atlantic Canada to wait out the storm and increase the odds of crew and ship safety. Off the banks of Cape Hatteras would have been the last place I would have wanted to be given the likely conditions. There are a lot of variables that make that stretch of water a graveyard. The only favorable aspect is that they were close enough for a speedy rescue.
We all wish that The Bounty had either made an alternate plan or that they had not lost power, managed the flooding, and made safe passage to Florida. I would have preferred to carry on to Alaska after my own tamer incident. The twists of fate can be unfriendly. Similar incidents will continue to take place on the seas and in the mountains. Hurricane Sandy may be yet another example of increased severe weather caused by global warming. Many of us are adventurous and are more than willing to leave safe harbor, but we may have to be even more vigilant. We endeavor for our own unique potentiality for experience. As I prepare for future adventures I will be even more thorough in my preparations. The HMS Bounty has now settled below the waves but lessons learned and support for the crew should continue on the surface.
Thoughts and prayers to the crew and families of the HMS Bounty and all of those effected by Hurricane Sandy!
Many thanks to the United States Coast Guard.
- Thor Emory is the owner of Thorfinn Expeditions. A Maine based outdoor adventure and education business. www.thorfinnexpeditions.com