Monday was supposed to be U.S. Coast Guard Lt. Jane Peña’s day off, but the Pierce County native found herself at the center of a dramatic rescue effort as a replica sailing ship sank while trying to outrun Hurricane Sandy off the North Carolina coast.
Peña, a 2004 graduate of the University of Washington whose maiden name is Johnston, was the co-pilot of one of two Coast Guard helicopters that plucked 14 HMS Bounty crew members from the turbulent waters of the Atlantic after they were forced to abandon ship.
“It was kind of scary, but it was all worth it,” Peña, 31, told The News Tribune on Monday.
The Bounty was built in 1962 for use in the Marlon Brando movie “Mutiny on the Bounty,” and was featured in the 2006 movie “Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest.”
Its sinking was one of the major stories Monday as Sandy struck the Eastern Seaboard, bringing rain, high winds and flooding to New Jersey, New York, Connecticut and other states.
CNN, ABC, NBC and other news outlets featured the rescue story during their storm coverage, including airing Coast Guard video of helicopter crews hoisting survivors to safety.
The body of one crew member, Claudene Christian, 42, later was pulled from the water. The ship’s captain, 63-year-old Robin Walbridge, remained missing late Monday.
The square-rigged Bounty, which appeared at Tacoma’s Tall Ships Festival in 2008, left Connecticut on Thursday and was headed for St. Petersburg, Fla. It eventually was going to spend the winter in Galveston, Texas.
“They were staying in constant contact with the National Hurricane Center,” said Tracie Simonin, the director of the HMS Bounty Organization. “They were trying to make it around the storm.”
Troubles for the ship and its crew of 16 began Sunday night. The Bounty was about 100 miles off the North Carolina coast about 10 p.m., struggling to reach port ahead of Sandy, when crew members radioed the Coast Guard saying the ship was taking on water.
Crew members said they thought the 180-foot vessel might hold together until 8 a.m. Monday, but then they’d be forced to abandon ship, Peña said.
Turns out they were off by four hours, and they were forced into the water about 4 a.m.
The public affairs office for the Coast Guard’s Fifth District reported the Bounty crew radioed it was without propulsion from its two diesel engines and that its crew was donning cold-water survival suits and life jackets and launching two 25-person lifeboats.
“It went badly very quickly,” Peña said.
Peña, Lt. Cmdr. Steve Cerveny, flight mechanic Mike Lufkin and aviation survival technician Randy Hoba were aboard the first MH-60 helicopter on the scene. The conditions were challenging, Peña said, with winds gusting to 40 miles per hour, low visibility and ocean swells topping 30 feet.
“This is the first case I’ve ever seen like this,” said Peña, who graduated from Curtis High School in University Place in 2000 and got clearance to fly for the Coast Guard about a year ago.
With the help of a circling C-130 airplane, the helicopter crew spotted a lone survivor bobbing in the ocean, Peña said.
While Peña spotted and kept an eye on fuel gauges and the weather, Cerveny maneuvered the helicopter into position about 300 feet above the water so Hoba could jump in and help the Bounty survivor into a rescue basket lowered by Lufkin.
With that person safely aboard, the crew found a life boat carrying seven other survivors, not far from where the Bounty foundered, all but its masts submerged.
Peña and her colleagues got four of them aboard before being forced to return to Air Station Elizabeth City because they were running out of fuel. Another helicopter crew rescued nine more survivors, the Coast Guard reported.
Peña said the mission validated her career choice.
“I’m glad I’m a Coast Guard helicopter pilot,” she said.