ELIZABETH CITY, N.C. — A replica tall ship caught in Hurricane Sandy’s wrath began taking on water, forcing the crew to abandon the boat Monday in rough seas off the North Carolina coast. The Coast Guard rescued 15 crew members by helicopter, but the captain was still missing.
Coast Guard rescue swimmer Randy Haba helped pluck several crew members off a 25-foot rubber life raft. He was also lowered to a crew member floating in the water alone. He wrapped a strap around the crewman’s body and raised him to the chopper.
‘‘It’s one of the biggest seas I’ve ever been in.,’’ Haba said. “It was huge out there.’’
Two crew members of the HMS Bounty were initially reported adrift wearing survival suits designed to help keep them afloat and protected from cold waters for up to 15 hours.
The Coast Guard found one of them, Claudene Christian, 42, but she was not responsive when taken to the hospital.
Rescuers are still searching for the ship’s captain, Robin Walbridge, 63.
The HMS Bounty, which has been featured in Hollywood films such as ‘‘Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest,’’ left New London, Conn., last week, en route to St. Petersburg, Fla. The ship was in Connecticut this month as part of an East Coast tour.
‘‘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.’’
The Coast Guard received a distress call late Sunday from the 180-foot, three-masted ship. At about 8 a.m., a helicopter had located the sinking ship, its masts partly underwater and most of the crew, who had gotten into 25-foot rubber life rafts.
Amid winds of 40 miles per hour and 18-foot seas, rescuers were able to save most of the crew from the life boats about 90 miles southeast of Cape Hatteras, Coast Guard Petty Officer 1st Class Brandyn Hill said.
Those rescued were taken to Elizabeth City. Most of the crew were in their 30s, although one man appeared to be in his 70s, Coast Guard officials said.
The ship left Connecticut Thursday when Sandy was over Cuba, and its path and effect on the East Coast was still somewhat uncertain. Sandy was then forecast to be several hundred miles off the Carolinas coast. Days before it sank, the vessel had rerouted to avoid the brunt of Sandy.
The Bounty replica was built for the 1962 film ‘‘Mutiny on the Bounty,’’ which starred Marlon Brando, and has been featured in other movies.
It has docked off and on over the years at The Pier in St. Petersburg, Fla., and was scheduled to arrive there in November, said Carol Everson, general manager of The Pier.
The ship was permanently docked in St. Petersburg for many decades. In 1986, it was bought by Ted Turner, and in 2001, it was purchased by its current owner, a New York businessman named Robert Hansen. About 10 years ago, it underwent a multimillion-dollar restoration in Boothbay Harbor, Maine.
The Bounty’s home port for almost a decade was Fall River, Mass. In 1993, Turner donated the ship to the Fall River Chamber Foundation, which used it to advance its efforts to teach seamanship and sailing.
The missing captain also has ties to Massachusetts. According to his biography on the tall ship’s website, Walbridge has worked with the ship since 1995.
He helped organize sailing lessons with an orphanage and alternative school while in Fall River. He also worked for two years on the USS Constitution, helping train sailors on America’s preeminent sailing vessel and floating museum.