Of all the nightmares that a cruising sailor might have about misadventures at sea, one of the most vivid is that of watching your boat sink while you climb into a life raft in a raging storm. What would it be like... how would you feel...? Here a survivor from the sinking of the HMAS Bounty, Chris Barksdale, tells his story to Katrina Koerting:
HMS Bounty in her death throes
Being in the water was the most frightening, looking up at the masts and rigging rising and falling toward me with the force of the 20-foot waves.
That’s when I didn’t know if I was going to make it or not. I had to break free of the rigging several times. The worst part was trying to get away from the ship.
The limited flexibility in our immersion suits and the waves made it difficult for us to deploy the life rafts and climb aboard.
I have no idea how long we were in the water, it seemed like an eternity.
Barksdale and five others had managed to make it onto one of the two rafts, which hold 20 people. The other raft held a majority of the remaining crew. Waves continued to smack the crew, sending them to the other side of the raft.
But back to the beginning...
Before Hurricane Sandy caused the sinking of the famed tall ship, Chris Barksdale had started to think of his fellow crew members as a family.
'When you’re together 24/7 like that, you become family relatively quickly,' the fifty-six-year-old told the Nelson Country Times. 'We were all pretty close before the tragedy and we’re closer now.'
Barksdale was one of 14 crewmembers rescued about 90 miles off the coast of North Carolina when the Bounty went down. Two crewmembers died — the ship’s captain, Robin Walbridge, whose body was not found, and deckhand Claudene Christian.
The ship had set sail from New London, Conn., on Oct. 25 en route to Florida when it crossed paths with Sandy a few days into the trip. The storm was not unexpected by the crew; Walbridge had called everyone on deck to tell them about the approaching hurricane before they left Connecticut, saying he would understand if people decided to get off the ship, Barksdale said.
'Naturally I was a little hesitant about that, but [the captain] explained the situation and it seemed like he had a pretty good strategy,' Barksdale said. 'We were going to try and get around the hurricane. Nobody knew that it was going to have the intensity and size it ended up having.'
Rough winds and waves shook the ship for about a day and a half. Crewmembers had to cling to parts of the Bounty or they would be thrown overboard.
Around midday Oct. 28, the crew noticed the ship was taking on more water than normal. Mechanical problems developed, including the failure of one of the main engines and the water pumps. The U.S. Coast Guard and the Bounty’s land office were alerted.
Conditions worsened later in the day. Crewmembers began pulling out immersion suits — used to keep them dry and warm in the water — and stuffing dry bags with rations in case the order came to abandon ship, Barksdale said.
Up until the early hours of Oct. 29, the crew’s priority was saving the ship.
Barksdale said that while he knew they were in trouble, he thought they would be OK because of the crew’s training, experience and preparation.
'There was never any panic amongst anybody,' he said. 'The crew knew what they needed to do; everybody was sticking together. Everybody was making sure that we were prepared.'
When the battered and sleep-deprived crew went on deck in the hours before dawn, waves continued to hammer the ship. The Bounty had taken on so much water she was almost on her side with her three masts in the ocean.
'It became apparent that you didn’t have much choice, you were going in that water,' Barksdale said.
This was the last time Barksdale saw the captain and Christian.
It was the next morning, about 6:30 a.m., that the Coast Guard’s helicopters provided a welcome soundtrack overhead. A Coast Guard rescuer dove into the waters and began pulling the Bounty’s crew to safety using a basket tethered to the helicopter. The basket spun in the 40 mph winds during the ascent.
'The character of a man that would jump in and have himself lowered into those seas and go swimming in those seas to rescue people he had never laid eyes on, there’s a lot to be said for him,' Barksdale said.
As the life raft began to empty and become lighter, the wind force from the helicopter’s blades flipped it, sending Barksdale and a few others back into the ocean as they awaited rescue.
After a rough ride up into the helicopter, Barksdale and his friends had a cramped two-hour flight to Elizabeth City, N.C. At the base, they were given food, clothes and medical attention and learned the fate of their other crewmembers.
'I have the highest admiration for the Coast Guard and Red Cross,' Barksdale said.