But there must have been another Captain Walbridge, one who overestimated himself and his ship, and who felt invincible after all those years at sea. In one interview, he talked about "chasing" hurricanes. It was important not to sail in front of a hurricane, but to stay behind it, in the southeastern quadrant, in which case it would make for a smooth ride, he said. He had sailed through 20-meter (66-foot) waves that way, Walbridge said -- not exactly the words of a cautious captain.
When he stood on deck that afternoon, he wasn't just speaking as a captain, but perhaps also as an underling. He knew that the owner of the Bounty, a New York businessman, wanted to sell the ship for $4.6 million (€3.55 million). There was no official buyer yet, but when a ship is worth that much money, you don't just leave it at the mercy of the elements.
Walbridge began his address to the crew with the words: "If anybody wants to get off the boat now, I won't hold it against you."
Not Much Time to Think
Then he explained his plan. He didn't want to spend the night in the harbor, as planned, but instead intended to set sail immediately, and to get the ship as far offshore as possible, in an easterly direction, before the hurricane could catch up with them. They would monitor the weather en route and adjust their course accordingly. The destination was St. Petersburg, Florida, the last stage in the current tour before the ship was to be taken to its winter moorage site in Galveston, Texas.
This account is from those who accompanied the captain on the journey. Their memories were used to reconstruct the ship's duel with the forces of the sea, a duel that began as a daring exploit and ended in catastrophe.
"I know that some of you all have been getting e-mails and phone calls regarding the hurricane," Walbridge told his crew as he stood on the deck. Then he said that the ship would be safer out at sea than in port.
The youngest member of Walbridge's 15-member crew was 20, the oldest was 66. Some were experienced sailors, while others were on board a sailing ship for the first time.
Chris Barksdale, 56, the ship's engineer, didn't know what the captain was talking about. Barksdale is a quiet man with a broad face, gray temples and metal-rimmed glasses. He had sailed a few times before, but he had never been responsible for the engine room of such a large ship. When its sails were lowered, the Bounty was propelled by two diesel engines. At home in Nellysford, Virginia, Barksdale worked as a handyman. He was divorced, and he no longer had parents who could worry about him. He had also had few conversations with the other crewmembers, which is why he hadn't even heard that a storm was approaching.
There wasn't much time left to think about it and Barksdale hesitated for but a moment. If he wanted to go on land, he would have had to go into the cabin immediately to pack his things. The thought of it felt like betraying the crew, which had become like a family to him.
Halfway to Europe
Barksdale didn't gather any information about the storm, and he didn't call anyone. He simply remained on board, like the others, and got to work.
The Bounty put out to sea an hour later, traveling in a south-southeasterly direction, in the hope that the storm would soon turn to the west. The waves started getting bigger and the wind picked up, but it was a warm wind. It was still the kind of storm weather most of the crew had experienced before.