It is an image Jack Weldon will never forget: teens whose lives had seen more hardship than hope perched aboard a tall ship, hoisting sails.
One person made that happen for the adolescents at St. Vincent’s Home in Fall River: Robin Walbridge, tall ship captain and man of the sea.
“It was a once-in-a-lifetime experience,” said Weldon, executive director of St. Vincent’s, an agency for families and children. “And their relationship with somebody like Robin, who was committed to what he was doing for God-only-knows what reasons — he passed on his enthusiasm.”
Walbridge was the captain of the HMS Bounty from 1995 until Monday, when the 180-foot, three-masthead tall ship sank in churning waters off the North Carolina coast, claimed in a collision with Hurricane Sandy. Fourteen of 16 crew members were rescued by the US Coast Guard on Monday. Another crew member, Claudene Christian, 42, was found and later pronounced dead. As of Tuesday evening, Walbridge, 63, of St. Petersburg, Fla., remained missing.
The Bounty, a replica ship built in 1960 for the Marlon Brando film “Mutiny on the Bounty,” was on its way to St. Petersburg from New London. A popular vessel in the tall ship tour circuit — and once owned by CNN founder Ted Turner — the Bounty, which also appeared in a “Pirates of the Caribbean” film, called Fall River home from 1993 to 2001.
For Walbridge, keeping the Bounty afloat was a “labor of love,” according to his biography on the HMS Bounty Organization LLC website, which said he had also been guest captain on the USS Constitution in 1997. He considered the Bounty “a living classroom for the scores of children who have crossed her decks, and slept in her cabins.”
It was the summer of 1998 when about eight teens — 15 to 19 — from St. Vincent’s Home went to see the ship, Weldon said. Walbridge decided a tour was not enough, and partnered with the agency to make the teens part of the crew that summer as the vessel traveled to Boston, New Bedford, Newport, R.I., and New York.
“He was very soft-spoken, very laid back, very competent about sailing, and he exuded enthusiasm about tall ship sailing, and was a very willing teacher,” Weldon said.
The vessel was given to the Fall River Chamber of Commerce Bounty Foundation by Turner, who chose Fall River from among 45 cities vying for the ship, said Robert Boisselle, the chamber’s former president. Boisselle was on the committee that hired Walbridge to captain the Bounty. He said Walbridge would tell tour groups lively histories of the real Bounty and its replica.
The Bounty visited Newburyport in July, forging a connection with the community, said Ann Ormond, president of the Greater Newburyport Chamber of Commerce.
“We had just seen them and got to know so many of them,” Ormond said. The sinking, she said, “was heartbreaking, almost unbelievable. Really, it’s just so sad.”
In the maritime field, Walbridge is a well-known figure, said Bert Rogers, executive director of the Newport nonprofit Tall Ships America.
“We maintain our hope for his speedy rescue, and we are utterly saddened by the loss of Bounty,” said Rogers, who has encountered Walbridge at tall ship events for three decades.
Since the Bounty’s sinking, Rogers said speculation has swirled about why the ship was at sea in the middle of a hurricane.
“It was a big surprise to learn she was at sea in those circumstances. It’s not something we would normally expect to see a tall ship or any other vessel put to sea in those conditions,” Rogers said. “I don’t presume to judge from a distance what was in Captain Walbridge’s mind when he made those decisions.”
The Coast Guard received a distress call Sunday night, after the ship lost power and the pumps could not keep up as the vessel began taking on water.
Two Coast Guard cutters and a plane continued Tuesday to search about 1,350 nautical square miles for Walbridge, who had on a bright red survival suit when the Bounty sank, said Coast Guard Fifth District spokesman Nyx Cangemi.
The captain expressed concerns about Sandy in a communication posted Sunday on the ship’s Facebook page to Tracie Simonin, director of the HMS Bounty Organization, which owns the Bounty. “I think we are going to be into this for several days,” Walbridge wrote. “We are just going to keep trying to go fast and squeeze by the storm and land as fast as we can.”