November 13, 2011
This was Chris Barksdale's second opportunity to work on the HMS Bounty ship, so when the first mate offered him a job as the engineer on board, Barksdale knew it was an opportunity he couldn't turn down.
The historic tall ship was built in 1960 for the Marlon Brando movie, Mutiny on the Bounty and later appeared in the Pirates of the Caribbean series. The historic ship was scheduled to leave New London, Connecticut for St. Petersburg, Florida.
"I told myself not many people get this chance in life," Barksdale said. "I felt the need and desire to go for the adventure."
Barksdale was in for more adventure than he bargained for. As 'Superstorm' Sandy brewed in the Atlantic Ocean, the ship's captain, Robin Walbridge, called the crew to the deck for a meeting.
"At that point in time, I didn't know a hurricane was coming," said Barksdale. Captain Walbridge told the crew he wouldn't blame them if they wanted to get off the ship and he wouldn't hold it against them.
"Naturally, I thought about it," Barksdale said. "But the captain had a good plan to circumvent the storm and at that point, we didn't realize the magnitude of the storm."
Citing the old saying a ship is safer at sea than at port, none of the other 15 crew members opted out either. The Bounty set sail on Thursday. Three days later, the ship sailed directly into Hurricane Sandy's path.
"I knew we were in trouble early afternoon on Sunday," Barksdale recalls. "It appeared we were taking in more water than we were pumping out."
With winds reaching 80 miles per hour and waves three stories high, Barksdale recalls having to hold on at all times on board, or risk being tossed across the ship. A few crew member suffered broken arms and ribs from not holding on tight enough.
Around 2:30 Monday morning, the crew was ordered to abandon the ship. Originally, the plan was to wait until daylight before making an organized decent into the life rafts. "Unfortunately we didn't have time for that," Barksdale said. "The boat heeled over so the masts were in the water and we pretty much went sliding off the deck into the ocean."
The crew of the HMS Bounty didn't have time to deploy the life rafts before the ship began to sink, but they did manage to put on their immersion suits. Also known as "Gumby Suits" the bright orange suits protected crew members from hypothermia and helped them stay afloat in the ocean.
Barksdale said the biggest threat he faced wasn't from the weather or the water, but the ship itself. "The scariest part about all of that-and this was the point I was really concerned whether I live or die-was you imagine this three mast schooner all of the rigging that's involved in it." Barksdale said the way the ocean was pounding the ship, the masts and all of it's rigging would dip into the ocean where he was floating. "I got hung up in all the rigging at least two or three times and had to fight to get myself free from it."
Barksdale managed to swim a distance away from the sinking ship. While hanging onto a piece of the ship's deck that had come loose, Barksdale bobbed in the water for several minutes before he noticed a canister with a life raft inside floating by.
"That was a mighty nice sight to see,"Barksdale recalls. "Once we were able to get ahold of that and get it deployed, that was a good thing."
The inflatable raft was covered and could hold up to 20 people. Barksdale and five other crew members climbed in.
"It seemed like every five minutes a huge wave would hit the raft and would knock half of us to the other side of the raft," Barksdale said. "The whole time we were getting more and more water in the raft."
The group waited in the raft for four hours until Coast Guard helicopters could reach them. Barksdale said they could hear the rescuers before they could see them.
"We were all hooting and hollering," Barksdale said. "I have the highest praises for those guys."
Just after daybreak, Coast Guard rescue swimmer Dan Todd was lowered into 18 foot seas about 100 miles off the coast of North Carolina. He swam to the raft Barksdale and the rest of the crew were riding out the storm.
"He swam up to the raft and said, 'Hi, my name is Dan, I understand you guys want a ride, and I said yes indeed we do," Barksdale recalls.
One-by-one crew members were positioned in a winch basket and lifted from the raft into the helicopter. Barksdale was in for a rough ride. "No sooner did I get inside the basket than a huge wave hit me, so my head it the top of the basket," Barksdale said. "I ended up getting banged up pretty good."
The pain quickly forgotten as soon as Barksdale was lifted into the helicopter and saw the faces of his fellow crew members. Barksdale said the group would cheer each time a new face would emerge from the basket. "There was a lot of joy in there.
Since a second helicopter had to turn back to refuel, 13 people were stuffed into the helicopter for the two-hour ride to Elizabeth City, North Carolina. Once on land, Barksdale realized two members of the crew were missing.
"It was very difficult for all of us," Barksdale said. "WE were praying that they would be found safe."
The body of crew member Claudine Christian was recovered later that night in the Atlantic Ocean. A search for Capt. Walbridge was called off three days later.
Barksdale says he is just beginning the healing process but would get back on a boat. But for now, he is just glad to be home in Nelson County spending time with his family.
"I'll never have a bad day the rest of my life," Barksdale said. "It's made me very very thankful for everything that's around me."