Interviewing Captain Robin, Part 1

Wandering around in the depths of my computer I just came across this interview I failed to sell anywhere 11 years ago. Its subject, Captain Robin Walbridge, became national news last year when his ship the H.M.S. Bounty sank off North Carolina during Hurricane Sandy, and he was lost at sea.

I had been sent to meet Walbridge by Tom Huntington, at that time editor of American History magazine, and a shorter article of mine, mostly about the ship, appeared in that magazine’s December 2002 issue. I took many photos of the Bounty and its crew that day in Boothbay Harbor, but for some reason don’t seem to have any of the captain. He seemed like a great guy, and I very much enjoyed spending the afternoon with him.

H.M.S. Bounty

* * *

July 15th, 2002. I’m riding around Boothbay Harbor, Maine in a pickup truck with Robin Walbridge. Since 1995, he’s held one of the most storied posts in maritime history: captain of H.M.S. Bounty.

His Bounty, of course, is not the ship scuttled and burned off Pitcairn Island by mutineers in January 1790. “Our ship was built in 1960 for the ’62 movie,” Walbridge tells me, on his way across town to finish up some last-minute errands before setting sail once again. “Essentially it’s just a big movie prop, a third larger than the original. During the movie they did all the location filming first, before the soundstage work, and they were supposed to have burned this Bounty, like they burned the original. Marlon Brando is credited with saving it. He said, ‘If you burn this ship, I won’t do the rest of the movie,’ and kind of blackmailed them into saving it. They built a model, and burned that, so we have the Bounty today.”

The film studio, Walbridge says, did not appreciate its treasure. “All of a sudden MGM ended up with what, at that time, was the most expensive movie prop ever built. They absolutely had no idea what to do with it. So they took it to St. Pete, Florida, and it sat there 21 years. The problem was that, as a museum attraction and not as a sailing attraction, the majority of repairs on it were just cosmetic, to make it look good. Not structural repairs.”

I assume that, as a movie prop, the Bounty never has been too sturdy, but Walbridge tells me I’m wrong.

“People always think, why would they build a ship structurally sound if they were just going to burn it at the end of the movie? They forget that the Bounty, which was built in Nova Scotia, had to sail halfway around the world to get to Tahiti for the filming. The big problem was Mother Nature: if they had built less than a solid ship, and they’d run into foul weather, they could have lost it at sea.

“So MGM had to build a bona fide ship. But you have to remember that they had no intention of keeping it, and then all of a sudden they were stuck with this albatross. Then in 1986, Ted Turner, when he started TBS Broadcasting, bought the film library from MGM. Some slick attorney, down in the fine print of the contracts . . .”

I can’t believe it, I say.

“Turner didn’t even know he had bought the ship till he started getting the bills. So he got stuck with it, used it for a couple of movies, but he didn’t really want it, and ended up giving it away. He gave it to a foundation, that really had no concept of what they were doing with it, and they also didn’t have any money to put into repairs. Effectively, the ship has had no honest, real repairs since 1960 until now.

“The current owner saw the ship as it was, literally, sinking, and he said, ‘I think that this should be saved.’ So he made arrangements to have it come into this shipyard. The reason we brought it here to Samples, in Boothbay Harbor, Maine, is that it’s one of the few yards left that actually has the skills, or that could get the skills, to restore a big wooden ship like this.”

The Bounty has just finished a year of restoration in coastal Maine. “Effectively, we need to rebuild the whole ship. Really everything ultimately needs to be overhauled and rebuilt,” Walbridge says. “What we did, we started with the hull below the waterline. It’s kind of a shame, because we’ve spent a year doing all this repair work, and somebody who had seen the vessel before we went into the yard, and then saw it again now, would say, ‘Well, what did you do?’ Because everything we did was down below the waterline. Making sure it was safe to float.

“This is what you call heavy timber,” he continues. “It’s not a steel ship, it’s not a fiberglass ship, it’s big wooden timbers. It’s hard to find people who can still work with big heavy timbers — there’s very little other industry that uses big, heavy timbers like this.

“We had probably about 20 shipwrights working on it over the course of the winter, for the last year. 10 on one side, 10 on the other side. We replaced the entire frame, and all of the planking below the waterline. Most of the shipwrights are like independent contractors; they’ll work on this job . . . most of them, when we finished up this job, went to Albany, New York, where they’re now restoring an authentic old canal barge. They’re kind of migrant workers — people who probably walked a different way of life and decided that they really liked doing woodworking.”

The shipyard had to go to Tennessee to get the planking, he says, “which was the closest place that we could find it. Oak anywhere from 3-1/2 to 6-1/2 inches thick. Most of it is about 10 to 12 inches wide and about 25 to 30 feet long. The Samples shipyard has been . . . I’d really like to stress this, because this has been a wonderful, wonderful experience. They’ve been a wonderful yard, and I can’t say enough good things about them. I would say this is probably the biggest project they’ve ever done, and they were able to put everything together to restore our ship. We were on the rail for about 11 months, so this has been a huge project.”

The second Bounty, he says, draws about 13 feet in the water. It’s 115 feet high, 32 feet wide, and 180 feet long overall. “We’ve actually lengthened it a little bit in this yard period.” It weighs 412 tons.

Was the ship built that accurately for the movie? Except for the size difference?

“I want to say yes,” he says, after thinking a moment. “It’s probably nothing like the original Bounty, but it’s very authentic probably to an 18th-century square-rig ship.”

Even after a year of work, much remains to be done. “We’re probably only a third of the way on the restoration,” Walbridge says. “We still have to do the top half of the boat, and all of the masts, then by the time that’s all done, we’ll be starting back on the bottom again.” He hopes that work also will be done at the Staples yard.

“We will be back here,” he says. “I really am not sure what the schedule’s going to be. The owner would like to come back and spend another year here, but quite frankly I think that that’s wrong. A year is just too long to try and do this kind of a project. I would like to see, for the next 10 years, we’d book October and November and December, and we’d just come back [here] and do three months. That way the crew stays fresh. Obviously, though, when we did the bottom . . .”

You had to take your time and make sure the hull was right, I agree.

“Now we’ve got the ship floating, and it’s safe. There’s probably another year of solid work, and then another year of miscellaneous work. But the old saying, you know, “The ship never sleeps.” We are constantly doing work on the ship all the time. Just because we’re out sailing, it’s not — you know, everybody pictures you out there kicking back, and drinking beer.”

Or rum.

“Yes, rum. Or in our case, ice cream. We’re out there, we stand watch, the ship operates 24 hours a day, and everybody puts in a 12-hour day. They stand watch, two four-hour watches, and then one four-hour watch of doing maintenance on the ship.”

Do you dress in costumes, or wear uniforms?

“Not yet.”

Is that the plan?

“Let’s put it this way, the owner would like to do that. I’m not too crazy about it. We’ll have to figure out at some time what it is that we really want to do. Uniforms I think is great, but costumes . . . if that’s what we want to be, a costume ship, then that’s the road we’ll go down. But if we want to be a serious sail training vessel . . .”

(Part 2)

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