ELIZABETH CITY, N.C. (AP) — The final hours of the HMS Bounty were as dramatic as the Hollywood adventure films she starred in, with the crew abandoning ship in life rafts as their stately craft slowly went down in 30-foot waves churned up by Hurricane Sandy off the North Carolina coast.
By the time the first rescue helicopter arrived, all that was visible of the replica 18th-century sailing vessel was a strobe light atop the mighty ship’s submerged masts. The roiling Atlantic Ocean had claimed the rest.
The Coast Guard rescued 14 crew members by helicopter Monday. Hours later, rescuers found one of the missing crew members, but she was unresponsive. And they were still searching for the captain.
“We pray there’s no loss of life and that they rescue all of the crew,” said Bill Foster, mayor of St. Petersburg, Fla., a frequent winter port for the ship and where it had been expected to arrive in November. “When a crew decides it’s safer in an inflatable than it is on deck, then you know she’s in peril.”
The ship was originally built for the 1962 film “Mutiny on the Bounty” starring Marlon Brando, and it was featured in several other films over the years, including one of the “Pirates of the Caribbean” movies.
The vessel left Connecticut on Thursday with a crew of 11 men and five women, ranging in age from 20 to 63. 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 that showed a map of its coordinates and satellite images of the storm.
The Bounty’s Facebook page reads like a ship’s log of her activities, with many photos of the majestic vessel plying deep blue waters and the crew working in the elaborate rigging or keeping watch on the wood-planked deck.
As Sandy’s massive size became more apparent, a post on Saturday tried to soothe any worried supporters: “Rest assured that the Bounty is safe and in very capable hands. Bounty’s current voyage is a calculated decision…NOT AT ALL… irresponsible or with a lack of foresight as some have suggested. The fact of the matter is… A SHIP IS SAFER AT SEA THAN IN PORT!”
But as the storm gathered strength, the Facebook posts grew grimmer. By mid-morning Monday, the last update was short and ominous: “Please bear with us … There are so many conflicting stories going on now. We are waiting for some confirmation.”
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.
Coast Guard video of the rescue showed crew members being loaded one by one into a basket before the basket was hoisted into the helicopter.
When they returned to the mainland, some were wrapped in blankets, still wearing the blazing red survival suits they put on to stay warm in the chilly waters.
“It’s one of the biggest seas I’ve ever been in. It was huge out there,” said Coast Guard rescue swimmer Randy Haba, who helped pluck four crew members off one of the canopied life rafts and a fifth who was bobbing alone in the waves.
The survivors received medical attention and were to be interviewed for a Coast Guard investigation. The Coast Guard did not make them available to reporters.
The crew member who was found unresponsive, 42-year-old Claudene Christian, was being taken to a hospital, the Coast Guard said.
The mother of another crew member, 20-year-old Anna Sprague, said her daughter had been aboard the HMS Bounty since May.
Mary Ellen Sprague, of Savannah, Ga., said she had spoken with her daughter twice but didn’t know many details because her daughter, normally talkative and outgoing, was being uncharacteristically quiet.
“She’s very upset,” Sprague said by telephone.
Sprague said her daughter told her the ship’s diesel engines failed, and then it started taking on water.
The crew was eager to return to St. Petersburg – and to calmer waters.
“I know they were very much looking forward to being here,” said Carol Everson, general manager of the pier where the vessel docks. “They were very excited about coming down.”
The Bounty’s captain, Robin Walbridge, was from St. Petersburg, she said.
Wallbridge learned to sail at age 10, according to his biography on the Bounty’s website. Prior to the Bounty, he served as first mate on the H.M.S. Rose – the Bounty’s sister ship.
A man who answered the door at a home listed as being owned by the captain and his wife said: “Not a good time,” and closed the door.
Foster said the city on Florida’s Gulf Coast always considered itself the ship’s home.
“We’re feeling a real sense of loss as a community,” he said. “We grew up with the Bounty.”
Foster, who was raised in St. Petersburg, remembered the ship as a family tourist attraction along the waterfront in the 1960s and 1970s. He recalled replicas of caves, a history display and pirate-themed exhibits near the Bounty. As a teenager, he attended dances on the ship.
About 10 years ago, the ship underwent a multimillion-dollar restoration.
The ship generally travels in the spring and summer. In August, large crowds greeted it when sailing into St. Augustine, Fla., Savannah, Ga., and Charleston, S.C.
Associated Press writers Bruce Smith in Charleston, S.C.; Tamara Lush in St. Petersburg, Fla., and Greg Schreier in Atlanta contributed to this report.