Former HMS Bounty captain remembers tall ship sunk by Sandy

The Beaufort GazetteNovember 1, 2012 

Superstorm Sandy Ship

In this July 7, 2010, photo, the tall ship HMS Bounty sails on Lake Erie off Cleveland.


He sailed the HMS Bounty to New York City — a trip with its own sort of mutiny — and on voyages through the Great Lakes, the Panama Canal, and to Seattle, Nova Scotia and a movie set.

As someone with a deep connection with the ship — he was its captain from 1986 to 1990 — Hilton Head Island resident John Rumsey was shocked to hear she’d sunk Monday during Superstorm Sandy.

The ship, a replica of the 1787 Royal Navy sailing vessel built in 1960, went down off the coast of North Carolina. Fourteen of 16 crew members, including a Savannah woman who had just joined the crew in May, survived, but one crew member died and the Bounty’s current captain is still missing.

The U.S. Coast Guard continued the search for the Captain Robin Walbridge on Wednesday. Rumsey hopes Robin Walbridge is found alive.

“It’s wonderful that most of the people were saved, though it’s sad that the captain is still missing,” he said. “He could still be out there, of course.”

Rumsey first saw the Bounty in 1961, after participating in a sailing race from San Francisco to Tahiti. The ship was on the island for the filming of “Mutiny on the Bounty,” starring Marlon Brando and Trevor Howard. Participants in the race were invited aboard to serve as crew for some of the final sailing shots in the movie.

“Of course then, I never thought I would be the captain of it,” he said.

About 25 years later, he became the ship’s skipper when his friend Ted Turner bought it as part of his purchase of MGM. Rumsey’s first voyage was to New York City for the July bicentennial celebration of the Statue of Liberty.

That trip ran into a snag in Connecticut, when his 15-member crew said they’d no longer sail without pay — a much less dramatic mutiny than the 1789 uprising that made the original ship famous, but a mutiny nonetheless.

“It was a few days before the Fourth of July, and they said ‘We’re not going any further until we get paid,” he said. “It wasn’t a mean mutiny; they were right.”

Turns out paychecks had been delayed during the transition of the Turner takeover. Rumsey and his friend, Bunky Helfrich, solved the problem by paying the sailors themselves, so the Bounty sailed on.

Rumsey remained captain through trips to other parts of the U.S., including the 1990 Goodwill Games in Seattle.

He even sailed it to Treasure Island — the 1990 film starring Charlton Heston. There, the Bounty played the “Hispanola,” and Rumsey was part of the “second unit,” the crew that worked behind the scenes to sail the ship.

Among their jobs was making the boat look like it ran aground or keeled over for some scenes. Rumsey constructed a model of its mast that was used in fight scenes that couldn’t be shot on the ship.

Between takes, he talked to stunt men who engineered explosions, been chariot drivers in “Ben Hur,” and worked on “Lawrence of Arabia.”

“I’d tell them some sailing stories, but those were kind of bland (compared to their tales),” Rumsey said.

Rumsey ended his run as captain of the Bounty in the summer of 1991.

“It was a terrific adventure,” he said. “I treasure it.”

In May, when the ship was in Savannah for the Tall Ships Challenge, Rumsey met with the crew and gave them some Bounty paraphernalia he has collected : a Canadian flag — the ship was built in Nova Scotia — used when the boat sailed to Tahiti for the movie and brochures used for tours when he was captain.

Now, he’ll add a sadder bit of the ship’s past to his collection.

“It’s just a terrible shame to have lost it,” he said.

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