The U.S. Coast Guard has ordered a formal investigation into the sinking of the Nova Scotia-built replica tall ship HMS Bounty, which left one crew member dead and another missing.

The sinking Monday morning came several hours after the crew decided to abandon ship in high seas brought on by Hurricane Sandy off the coast of North Carolina.

As the 16 crew members scrambled to get to covered life-rafts, Capt. Robin Walbridge, 63, and deckhand Claudene Christian, 42, were washed overboard. Christian's body was recovered on Monday and the search for Walbridge was called off Thursday night.

Lt. Mike Patterson, external affairs officer for the Coast Guard 5th District Marine Inspections and Investigations Branch, said the formal review is common practice after there is a loss of life related to a marine incident.

"The purpose of this investigation, a district formal investigation, is to thoroughly review the cause of the accident, to make a full determination of the cause and any contributing factors — whether negligence, equipment failure, misconduct or failure of a propulsion system or equipment — if any of those things contributed to a casualty, the purpose of this investigation would be to identify that," said Patterson.   

Examining physical evidence in the investigation will be difficult, Patterson said. No one has seen HMS Bounty since Tuesday after the ship sank.  

If the vessel did sink to the bottom, Patterson said, it might not be possible to raise it, as the waters in that area of the Atlantic are about four kilometres deep.  

Patterson said the investigation will take several months to complete, and if there is a finding of negligence the file would be turned over to the U.S. Department of Justice for possible criminal charges.  

The investigation will attempt to determine:

  • The cause of the accident.
  • Whether there is evidence that any failure of material or equipment was involved or contributed to the casualty.
  • Whether there is evidence that any act of misconduct, inattention to duty, negligence or wilful violation of the law on the part of any licensed or certificated person contributed to the casualty.
  • Whether there is evidence that any coast guard or other government agency personnel caused or contributed to the casualty.
  • Whether the accident should be further investigated by a Marine Board of Investigation.

Cmdr. Kevin M. Carroll, chief of the Coast Guard 5th District Marine Inspections and Investigations Branch, will head the investigation, which is expected to take several months.

Surviving crew members in good health

HMS Bounty was caught in 5.5-metre seas about 320 kilometres southeast of Hatteras, N.C., earlier this week.

The U.S. Coast Guard immediately launched a rescue effort, and the 14 surviving crew members were hoisted by helicopters and taken to shore, where officials said they were in good health.

Searchers covered thousands of square kilometres of ocean in an effort to find Walbridge, to no avail.

The replica of HMS Bounty, which launched in Lunenburg in 1960, was made famous in the 1962 movie Mutiny on the Bounty starring Marlon Brando. It has also appeared in Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest starring Johnny Depp.