Sunday, July 6, 2014

Rescue of the Bounty by Michael Tougias and Douglas Campbell


Why I read it: To review it for Sea History, the magazine of the National Maritime Historical Society.

Summary: We all watched it live on TV during Hurricane Sandy; the old wooden sailing ship Bounty is claimed by the storm and most of its crew is rescued by the Coast Guard.

My Thoughts: Some of these books are hitting closer to home than I would like them to.

First, I know one of the authors. Mike Tougias is a fellow Massachusetts writer, who flipped from nature topics to the sea. As he did so, I was navigating those same waters, and asked him to submit a few articles, book blurbs, really, to a magazine I was editing. I also arranged for him to speak at a few events I was leading in the region.

Second, I knew the boat. I'll never forget seeing Bounty at Fall River, near Battleship Cove, tied up to the pier. I knew it had a very cool history, appearing out in the South Pacific in the movie for which it was built, Mutiny on the Bounty starring Marlon Brando. I didn't know that Disney then lay in its future, nor that this event would ever happen. What I saw was an old sailing ship with a wonderful backstory that was in rumored financial trouble; I had no way of knowing what its ultimate fate would be.

Third, I can pinpoint personal proximity to Captain Robin Walbridge, who went down with the ship during the storm, to a specific date and place. About two decades ago, on the 200th anniversary of the launch of the USS Constitution, the Navy sailed her around Boston Harbor. I was on a friend's fishing boat that day, joining with the thousands of others in the spectacle out on the sea. Robin Walbridge was up on deck of Constitution, the fill-in for the Navy captain should he become incapacitated. It's a weird connection to make - and it's one that those other thousands can now make as well - but here it is.

The book is half the tale of the Bounty, and half the tale of the rescue. One can hear Tougias' sea adventure voice coming through as loudly as Campbell's technical knowledge of sailing ships. They make for a good tandem in attacking the topic. And they don't shy away from the obvious question, the one we all asked when we first heard the ship was in trouble during the storm: what the hell are they doing out there? It's the underlying foundation of the book. Who was Robin Walbridge and why did he make such a poor decision, in retrospect? One wonders how the media coverage would have been had Bounty made it through unharmed. There would probably have been a mid-page mention of the "harrowing tale" of passage on rough seas rather than front-page headlines screaming for the captain's head.

Since this book was completed (I read it in galley form) the Coast Guard has released its investigation report, pointing the finger at the captain. Aside from his own, the decision to sail toward the storm took a second life, ironically the sole crew member who claimed distant relation to Fletcher Christian, the master's mate on the real Bounty in the 1700s. But should Walbridge's entire life be judged by this one bad decision? It's hard to say "yes," but saying "no" doesn't exactly make one feel good either.

My last thought is the historic impact. When Titanic sank and the world realized there were not enough lifeboats aboard the ship, passenger vessels around the United States scrambled to come up to new codes for the number of lifeboats now legally necessary. Will there be any fallout in the historic sailing ship fleet governance, any rules implemented because of the actions of Walbridge and the Bounty crew? Or was the error in sailing toward the hurricane so egregious that no such rules about weather states, pump power, etc. need creation?

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