R.I.P. HMS Bounty – Decision Making at Sea

Teresa Carey Words 30 Comments

UPDATE: Dec 9, 2013
For an compelling read on the entire story click here.
For a brilliant article on decision making at sea in relationship to the Bounty tragedy, click here…a must read!
For my own post about evaluating preparedness, click here.

UPDATE: Feb 13, 2013
I wrote this blog post during the chaos of Hurricane Sandy. I heard the awful news that the Bounty was in trouble, but knew little information about the details.

Recently OUTSIDE magazine posted a great article on the progress of the investigation. It is a good reference for people looking for more accurate information. It can be found at this link.

Today Ben and I are hunkered down in our friend’s boat, preparing to ride out Hurricane Sandy. We’ve stocked up on flashlights, water, and chips and guacamole. We’ve charged our cell phones, computers, and camera batteries. And we’ve got our foul weather gear standing by. While we still have power, we are monitoring Sandy on multiple weather websites.

I just read the recent news of the sinking of HMS Bounty. Its sad to know that another tall ship is lost from the fleet, and even worse that two crew members are missing. I know a lot is being said about this tragedy. I’ve read the news, their FB page, and anything else I can to find out more about those last two sailors. I’m disheartened by some of the comments and negative judgments placed on the Captain’s decisions during the last few days. Two sailors are still missing. The energy we pour into this situation should be respectfully focused on positive thoughts and prayers for their safe return, and the wellbeing of the USCG rescuers, all the Bounty crew, their family members, and what they now face after this loss. Read more about my decision making process and what I learned from the Bounty tragedy.

I remember a delivery I was sailing on a few years ago. We were caught offshore in a strong gale. Things began to break, sails tore, and lines flogged. The rain poured down in sheets. A stool was thrown through the galley cabinet. A crew member was vomiting on herself in her bunk. When we weren’t on watch, we were ordered to stay in the cabin. But I didn’t need the order. I wanted to stay below anyway. The Captain told us that if we were working on deck we had to be clipped in. I will never forget him saying, “because if you fall overboard, we aren’t coming back for you.” The truth is, he probably couldn’t come back for us. None of us slept much. After 48 hours of not sleeping, I felt dizzy and disoriented. I even peed my pants without knowing it. The few times I’ve told that story, people have laughed. In hindsight, it is nice to be able to laugh at it. But staying awake for that long brings on a debilitating fatigue.

That might be the worst weather I’ve sailed in. It wasn’t fun, but what I learned is that there is never a single moment where a right or wrong decision is made. Its not that simple. Situations like this are never black and white. Usually what happens is a long series of small situations. Little things that can be managed individually go wrong such as weather, things breaking, injuries, sickness, darkness, fatigue, cold, etc. But collectively they are tragic. They all compound into a large problem. Most storms don’t strike suddenly. They steadily intensify while all your energy and abilities decline. They slowly grate you down. Those of us safe ashore can foolishly try to understand what happened. We can say, “they should have done this or that…” but we are wrong and thats the bottom line. There is absolutely no way I can understand all the layers of the situation the Bounty faced before and during the storm. And to make a statement like the ones I’ve read such as, “They shouldn’t have been out there anyway.” blocks all opportunities for learning from the situation.

Sometimes I wish it were that simple. That there was one pivotal moment where there is a clear decision to be made. Then I could go to sea with a stronger sense of confidence. But the scary thing is that moment doesn’t exist. Any one of us, despite our most informed decisions, could find ourselves lost in a complex and extreme plight dealing with more than what we can manage. The hardest part for me to make peace with is the fact that tragedy struck an experienced Captain who had been through many many severe storms before. Its a lesson that teaches us that no one is immune, no matter how many miles we’ve sailed.

It’s in our nature to want to understand situations like these. I want to understand it too.  I believe in the goodness of people, that everyone leading the operation did so with good intentions and their best judgement. I know that its not possible to understand the situation intimately enough to judge the decisions made aboard the Bounty in the last few days. I think judging only invites bad sea-karma anyway. There will be a time for questions later. But really, only for questions.

There are a lot of ships at sea in the Atlantic right now. There are at least nine waiting to enter a nearby local port, which is unfortunately closed now. More than two dozen departed from NYC this morning because they determined it was better for them to be at sea then in port. Lets keep them all close to our hearts as well as the Bounty crew, their families, and the rescue team.

from marinetraffic.com yesterday at 5pm


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Comments 30

    1. Johan

      If far from shore, in a smaller boat, and to be caught in a hurricane, . . . wouldn’t the best thing be to reel in all sails, throw a drift anchor into the sea, and then hide in the cabin and wait it out?

      1. Al B

        Really? Would you want to be in a storm of that magnitude in a ship that isn’t exactly deemed watertight nor by recent accounts in that seaworthy a condition?

        Only today is common sense deemed hindsight or armchair sailing… especially when docking the ship and holing up in a hotel would have been the wise decision. I’ve never replaced two lives…you?

  1. Jerrett

    Teresa, fantastic blog entry, as always. Well put, and I know its not easy to describe what you are talking about. Especially the difference between what unknowing people might assume is black and white, vs the reality of the situation: a long sequence of events. This blurry zone (I won’t say shades of gray) is where our individual traits of experience, knowledge, skill, strength, courage, cooperation and even luck can make the difference!

  2. Curtis

    Teresa you said things so perfectly. When i started to hear and read about people second guessing the captain one does not know what can happen at sea. You framed it so right when you said the storm intensifies while you slowly start to get fatigued. There will be plenty of time to investigate now it is time to put our energy towards the survivers and the the missing.

  3. Matt

    A heartfelt and compassionate post, Teresa. Sending thoughts and safe wishes to you and everyone on the eastern seaboard right now.

  4. Jackie N

    Teresa—so beautifully written and tastefully done. Prayers and good thoughts to all members of the HMS Bounty and their families who await their safe return.

  5. midbay

    Why make an offshore passage when you know that there will be truly dangerous weather covering an immense area in your immediate vicinity. That’s the question that should’ve been answered before they left. I’m sure that there were many many people that decided to stay put this week rather than go.

    1. Post

      Joel! I haven’t heard from you in forever. I’m sure this would have made an interesting conversation across the gunwales when we were sailing in convoy. Lots to learn from it! You bring up a good question, and I’m sure they did answer it before they left…just not to you or me or all the other people that weren’t questioning then! Like I said above: The hardest part for me to make peace with is the fact that tragedy struck an experienced Captain who had been through many many severe storms before. Its a lesson that teaches us that no one is immune, no matter how many miles we’ve sailed.

  6. Aubrey


    I know it’s been a while since we talked, but it’s always a pleasure to read your posts. Your insights reminded me of the difficulties we face in medicine. It’s always easy to say in hindsight that we would have treated the patient differently or we would have seen the nuances that could have made the diagnosis, but it’s not true.

    As you said, it would be better if it were true. It would give us the confidence to believe that we can make the right decisions all the time. Especially when we are sleep deprived and physically fatigued, it would be nice to think that if we just plug A + B into the algorithm that we can always get the right answers.

    I appreciate your holistic approach to this complex situation. The sea is beautifully terrifying and those who brave its forces deserve nothing less than support and respect.

  7. Brittany

    Theresa, awesome post and so very true. Tragedies at sea are rarely (if ever) due to one event…it’s why meticulous upkeep should be so high a priority for sea goers (but even the most meticulous upkeep and preparation sometimes isn’t enough). My dad always told me that one thing going wrong at sea is (usually) no big deal, two things going wrong it gets tricky – and when three or more things go wrong on a ship, the sailor runs a high risk of getting overwhelmed. Add in exhaustion and fatigue and yeah, you have a recipe for disaster. This is such a tragedy that, as you so eloquently state, hopefully we can learn from.

  8. Cathy Norrie

    Teresa, you have written a beautiful, touching posting. I’m sure that any of the survivors, family members and friends reading this would appreciate your kind and insightful message. You are so right when you say that it is not one action that can result in disaster but many little things that are compounded with exhaustion and sleep deprivation. We should all take this as a reminder of what can happen to any of us when we are out on the sea.

    Teresa, thank you. I hope that you and Ben and your friends stay safe.

    Fair winds and smooth seas
    SV Terrwyn

  9. Fran

    We continue to pray for the crew and their families. I am not surprised by your writing and thoughts, but have to say it is always good for people to be reminded that we should try not to stand in judgment of anyone, during life’s journey. There is always more than what we think we know. Be safe……..

  10. James Schipper

    Thank you for your words, Teresa. I’ve been following the trip since they left, and looking forward to seeing the ship again here in St. Pete. I’ve surely been giving Facebook an aneurysm hiding all the posts of blame and such nonsense from people who weren’t there.

  11. Kevin

    Sorry, everyone, but the issue isn’t the decisions the captain and crew made AT SEA, but the decision they made at the dock. The weather models were clearly showing a massive and, likely, record breaking storm moving up the coast from the direction they were heading. I’m sad for the victims and their families … terribly sad, and I can’t imagine the terror on that boat in the hours leading up to her demise. But others put their lives on the line to save them and all of that could have gone much, much worse. None of this had to happen. They could have waited it out. Someone from the Bounty organization apparently posted today that boats are more vulnerable at docks than at sea. Perhaps … but people are safer.

    1. Post

      Kevin, My blog post was intended to be about the decision making process only, not about the decisions. I was stressing that the biggest lesson for me has been to simply not judge or make assumptions. I won’t comment on the decisions made because I don’t feel informed enough to do so. While I do know about the weather reports, I don’t know the details of their circumstances. And from my experience, despite all the news reports, I believe that we will never know the details because we didn’t live them. I also have heard the phrase that ships are more safe at sea. I like your addendum: “Perhaps … but people are safer.” Thank you.

      1. Marc Dacey

        It is quite possible that the voyages was going well and the ship was holding up to the seas until…it wasn’t.

        A sprung plank below the WL on a ship like that and I don’t fancy my chances with the best pumps and generators at sea.

        I like this blog and will link it to my own. Good writing and good thinking.

  12. Andy

    Hi Teresa! Excellent words, I think you hit the mark. Everyone in the sailing community wants to get their two cents in on this one, and you’re the only one I’ve read so far that hasn’t offered an opinion or judgement.

    I was most shocked by the footage released from the Coast Guard showing the rescue attempt for the crew. I’ve never seen something quite that terrifying. The raw footage that showed even the helicopter’s instrument display – which read under 30-feet of altitude at times – and the quiet voice in the background announcing the ‘ALTITUDE, ALTITUDE’ alarm really made it intense and difficult to watch. They had to pick up their swimmer at least twice when he drifted away from the people he was trying to rescue. Well done for the USCG. I can’t quite imagine what that must have been like, though I suppose those guys live for moments like that.

    Anyway, thanks for the insight. Hope you and Ben are safe (and dry) in Annapolis!


    1. Post

      Thanks Andy. Its hard for me to judge people in situations like these. It comes more naturally for me to keep a humble attitude when talking about the sea and storms because we can’t win: even with the best training, highest licensure, latest instruments, strongest hull, fastest boat, radar, SSB, GPS, ESP….the best of the best equipment and training. Even with all that, the sea is still unpredictable and more powerful than any one of us. Its best to accept that and simply try to learn from other’s misfortune.

      1. Andy

        The bigger point, I think, is like you say, that it’s not even win or lose – ocean sailing’s not a competition, nothing in nature is as a competition. You’ll never ‘conquer’ a mountain or an ocean, and there isn’t you ‘against’ anything. The wilderness is just there.

  13. Connie Gortney

    Thank you for sharing from one who has been in such a frightening experience and to be able to help me understand that there is not always a wrong or right answer when things go horribly wrong. God be with the families of those affected by Sandy. Did you and Ben do ok?

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  15. Toddio

    I stumbled across your blog wanted to post a comment. I have spent the last decade chasing hurricanes and have experienced way to much of this weather phenomena up close to post here tonight.

    Here is the simple fact: the captain made a bad decision. He allowed the random sequence of events to take the lives of two people. Instead of being in control he used intuition, gut instinct, and bravado to chance the safety of his vessel and crew. Experience has nothing to do with it. You seem dumbfounded how his intellect failed to provide a pathway through this terrible storm. You failed to mention the most important attribute in the personality of anyone who constantly leads people into dangerous situations, and that is…humility. Understand that the Carribean is littered with thousands of sunken vessels whose leaders used the same
    calculus to decide to stay put, or take a chance against such unimaginable power. He made a bad decision. It that simple. Please don’t try to spin this any other way. His crew as well as the first responders he petitioned to help save him from his gross incompetence are blessed it did not get any worse.

    1. Al B

      True enough. All to get to Florida to make a meet. Geez. All he romantic puddle-pirate types tried to spin this that way on the Facebook page and I couldn’t believe the lack of rationale by the lemmings who parrotted that “safer at sea” crap after the sinking…unbelievable.

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