Sailing Lake Michigan on the tall ship, The HMS Bounty – August 2010
Lately, we’ve been a little obsessed with tall ships–the beauty of the sails and the awe of the masts’ heights. So, we booked passage on a tall ship as it made it’s way to Chicago for the Tall Ships Parade and festival. Our ship was the HMS Bounty. The Bounty was built in the 60s for “Mutiny on the Bounty”. It also had a part in the “Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest”.
Getting to the HMS Bounty
Our journey began on Sunday, August 22, 2010. We loaded up the backpacks and took the el into the loop, walking over to Union Station. We had tickets on Amtrak’s Hiawatha Express to Milwaukee. The Bounty was currently in Port Washington, WI and we were to meet her there.
We had to stop first to see the Great Hall at Union Station, famous to us from the scene in the Untouchables where Kevin Costner and Andy Garcia get Capone’s accountant and save the baby in the carriage during the shoot out. Such a Great Hall it is too. I wish the days of train travel were still just as cool as that Hall reminds us.
$22 one way/each. And packed to the gills on this Sunday afternoon. The ride was only an hour and a half, past the rail yards and the loop, into the suburbs, and with just a glimpse of the midwestern prairie before reentering Milwaukee’s suburbs.
Next step was to find transportation to Port Washington. Bryan negotiated $50 for a cab to take us there…only about 30 miles north. Arrived at the quaint little town on a crisp, sunny day around 3:30 in the afternoon. Stopped for a drink and a bite at a pub sitting just above the little festival. And there they were…the masts of the Tall Ships sticking up above everything else in the harbor.
On board the HMS Bounty:
We boarded, met some of the crew and got the introduction to life on board the Bounty. The crew works 2 shifts per day…broken into 4 hour increments. 12-4, 4-8 and 8-12. AM or PM, doesn’t matter, you work 12a-4a and again noon-4pm. We got the 8-12 shifts, though not required to do them seeing as how we’d paid $125/night per person and brought our own bedding to be aboard.
The captain began prepping for departure in the morning on Monday, 8/23. He started by quizzing the crew on “how would we sail out of here…no motor?” We were docked between 2 other ships and the wind was light, but in the wrong direction vs what we needed. Lots of debate and discussion about the location of the anchor, the direction of the sails, and the ruddering to avoid the dock, the other ships and squeezing through the breakers.
Anchor up and sails down around noon as we pulled out of the harbor. The crew climbed the ropes and unfurled the sails from high above deck. “Ease Out and Haul Away!” “Two. Six. Two. Six.” “Don’t give any back.”
Miles and miles of rope, reaching up to the sails and wrapped around pegs on deck. There’s a special way to coil the ropes so that they are “belayed”–neatly stowed, but ready to go. I heard terms like mizen, bosun (the boatswain, responsible for the rigging), mainsail (said man-sail). I watched people tie-off knots and climb like monkeys up the rigging and then stand like tight-rope artists on a rope while folding and unfolding sails.
And holy cow…what a gorgeous sight when those buttery yellow sails came down and caught the wind! The sheer height of them stretching into the blue sky and catching the sun behind them so that only rays peered around. They covered the ship in shade. Life got quiet once we sailed. Work began on tarring the ropes and finishing a yard.
I sat in the sun–staring up at the sails and snapping away. Bryan got harnessed up and climbed the ropes into the crow’s nest. A long peaceful day of sailing–quiet, breezey, and a warming sun.
Golden Hour was about the best ever. The golden orange on the wooden deck floors, the passing colors over the parchment and butter sails. The moon rising in a baby blue sky. A Maxfield Parrish sky as the green sailing lights were lit beneath the sails. The white of the sails against the darkening blue sky as the crew climbed up to lower the royals for the night. Magic. Just magic.
That evening, we took a juice with our flask of rum and had a nip. And slept like babies with the gentle rocking of the boat, with the rum and the day of sun easing us to sleep.
I should mention Dina and the galley. This woman cooks 3 meals a day in a galley where everything moves. She made bacon, waffles, eggs, roast pork, etc. over the 2 days we were there. Delicious food. Everyone washes their own plates. Those on duty pass the line and someone else washes for them. Coffee is always available.
I awoke before dawn. Dark and cold on deck. Red, safety lights lighting the galley and the navigation shed on deck. It was a cloudy morning, trying to spit some rain. Fortunately for us, it never mustered the strength and the day turned into another sunny, cooler day.
Today, we watched as the crew hung the yard on the stern mast. A process that took over an hour, with 3 crew members up in the rigging.
As we entered the Chicago area around 1:30, we could see Evanston, and then the skyscrapers of downtown Chicago. The crew was getting excited…some of them had never been to a city this size before.
Arrival in Chicago and the Tall Ship Parade:
Small boats approached us–“Welcome!” they’d shout and snap some pictures of the giant Bounty. As we entered the Chicago area proper, more tall ships arrived too…as did more small sailing boats and motor boats and coast guard and police and fire boats. Everyone who had a boat appeared to be in the area between 2-5p as the tall ships arrived. We tooled around waiting for all the tall ships to arrive so we could line up for the 4 p.m. Parade into Navy Pier.
A gilligan boat brought 3 “media” guys to the Bounty to do stories. They had trouble getting close enough to climb up and over. But finally made it. One guy came with a 1960 National Geographic and asked about the original nail from the original Bounty that was supposed to be on ship somewhere. Jesse calmly and without drama told the guy that the nail was in the scrapyard. Broke his heart, that did.
It was crazy crowded in the water. The Coast Guard and Police boats had megaphones and kept announcing “PLEASE STAY 100 YARDS AWAY FROM THE TALL SHIPS”. Still, some sailboats passed dangerously close–perhaps not realizing that we could not turn or stop quickly enough to avoid hitting them if something happened. It’s amazing how many boats were around us–and how many of them I snapped taking pictures of us.
Around 4, we began lining up. Our Bounty was the finale, behind the Flagship Niagra. We sailed into the breakers and past a crowded Navy Pier. Ships firing whatever “cannons” they had on board in a salute to Chicago. And the Chicago Fire Department boat giving us a water cannon salute as we turned and headed back out of the breakers to drop sails. Really proud moments…the city looked beautiful, the ships were amazing and seeing this all from the deck of the best ship of them all was too much!
We motored around while the sails were furled, and then we entered the breakers again as the sun was going down, and made our way over to our dock on the North side of Navy Pier. I heard the Navy Pier dock crew ask over the radio if we needed a guiding boat to dock. The Bounty captain politely declined. As did Niagra. We motored past the lighthouse as the light turned it pink.
Again, people welcomed us and clapped from the dock. The crew threw ropes over so the little navy kids could catch them and tie us off. The docking process took maybe 20-30 minutes as we eased into the space and tied off. Bryan exited quickly…he was already nearly 2 hours late for work. I left about 30 minutes later. I turned in the near dark to take one last photo of the Bounty resting at dock.
POSTSCRIPT 10/30/12: She sails no more. Strike the Bell slowly….
On 25 October 2012, to avoid Hurricane Sandy, the Bounty left New London, Connecticut, heading for St. Petersburg, Florida. “A ship is safer at sea,” wrote Captain Robin Walbridge. Initially the Bounty was going on an easterly course to avoid Hurricane Sandy. Later, the ship would turn towards the category II hurricane, which was not turning towards land as had been expected. According to crew, The Bounty was motor sailing—using engines and sails. “We were moving as fast as I’ve ever seen the boat move under power,” said shipmate Faunt. “We worked those engines hard.” Waves grew to 20 feet, wind was gusting at 70 mph and it took two people to hold the wheel.
The initial request for Coast Guard assistance was sent in an email by the captain to the vessel’s organization. At about 8:45 p.m. EDT on 10/28, the organization relayed the request to the Coast Guard about Bounty’s situation. The ship was taking on water, had lost electrical power due to water flooding the starboard generator, and the crew was preparing to abandon ship. Some of the 16 people on board had been injured from being thrown about by the crashing waves.
The C-130 rescue plane had equipment outages on its rescue flight, including its anti-icing system and its weather radar, and because of the turbulence caused by the Hurricane, the crew was sick. Because of the poor visibility conditions, the pilots conducted the search at approximately 500 feet in an attempt to locate the vessel visually. Shortly after midnight on 29 October, the Bounty was discovered. “I see a giant pirate ship in the middle of a hurricane.”
Bounty was listing at about a 45 degree angle on its starboard side. The plane dropped life-rafts but had to leave the vessel and crew on their own in rough seas and 58 mph winds because they ran low on fuel. It would be more than an hour until the first Jayhawk helicopter arrived to begin the dangerous rescue attempt around dawn. The storm had washed the captain and two crew overboard—one of the latter had made it to a life-raft, but the other two were missing. Claudene Christian, one of the two missing crew members and who claimed to be related to HMS Bounty mutineer Fletcher Christian, was found by the Coast Guard. She was unresponsive, and later pronounced dead at a hospital. The other missing crew member was long-time captain, Robin Walbridge.
A formal investigation into the sinking concluded that Captain Walbridge’s decision to sail the ship into the path of Hurricane Sandy was the cause, a “reckless decision”. The ship had persistent problems with leakage, “bondo Bounty” some would say. But the ship was considered to be “in the best shape of her life” in October 2012. Walbridge had tempted fate before. In each instance, some combination of bravado, skill, and luck had returned the ship home safely.
Captain Robin Walbridge’s body was never found.