ELIZABETH CITY, N.C. – 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 the immense 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 66. 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.
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.
A helicopter pilot said the waves appeared to be 30 feet high during the rescue. The Coast Guard said in a news release that waves in many places topped out around 18 feet.
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 taken to a hospital in Elizabeth City, where she was listed in critical condition Monday evening.
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 Bounty’s captain, Robin Walbridge, was from St. Petersburg, she said.