Floating in a life raft with Hurricane Sandy raging around them, the crew of the HMS Bounty remained surprisingly calm and even told jokes after their ship rolled them into the Atlantic, survivors said.
Testifying Friday before a Coast Guard hearing, former Bounty third mate Daniel Cleveland and boatswain Laura Groves revealed breathtaking details about the shipwreck last fall that left a deckhand dead and the captain missing.
The vessel and its crew of 16 were heading from New London, Connecticut, to St. Petersburg, Florida, when it ran into Sandy's vicious winds and waves 90 miles off North Carolina. The ship began taking on water and eventually it lost power to its pumps and engines. In the 4 a.m. darkness of October 25, Capt. Robin Walbridge gave the order they all knew was coming: abandon ship.
Dressed in red survival suits, they stood on deck preparing to take to their lifeboats. Suddenly 50-mph winds and up to 30-foot waves flipped the ship horizontally, tossing the crew overboard.
It was chaos.
"Everybody panicked at that point," said Groves, fighting back tears as she described the struggle to keep their heads above water.
Cleveland said he recalled being "thrown around, caught on stuff and underneath stuff and being hit by things." While they were treading water under the Bounty's huge sails, the wind began slamming the sail rigging down "on all of us repeatedly," said Groves. "We were doing our best to swim away from the boat and the rig."
Cleveland, Groves and a few other crew members found a large piece of wood grating that kept them afloat. "We were all looking for each other," Cleveland said, "but all you could see was a bunch of red suits and there was a lot of yelling."
In a stroke of luck, the crew clinging to the wood grating found a floating capsule containing an inflatable life raft. With some difficulty they inflated the raft and got inside. They had seen a Coast Guard aircraft circling overhead, giving them confidence a rescue helicopter would arrive soon.
"We were there for a while telling jokes and stuff," said Cleveland. "No one was in a bad mood -- crying or anything." He said they talked about the terrifying experience they'd just been through and "what we were going to do when we got home."
"At some point we sang a few sea shanties," recalled Groves. "We were in relatively good spirits."
Dawn broke, followed by the the sound of a Coast Guard chopper, which dropped a rescue swimmer down to the life raft.
"He said, 'Hi, I'm Dan,'" Groves remembered. "'I heard you guys need a ride. Let's get out of here.'"
While the swimmer was helping survivors get out of the life raft, it flipped upside down. "We all thought we were going to drown again," remembered Groves. Instead, they swam out of the raft and held on to the outside until the chopper hoisted them to safety. Related: Watch Bounty survivors being rescued
Meanwhile the Bounty -- a replica of an 18th-century sailing ship that was longer than half a football field and weighed about a million pounds -- was descending to the bottom of the Atlantic.
During his testimony, Cleveland was asked about the last time he saw deckhand Claudene Christian, 42. More than three months after the shipwreck, the exact circumstances surrounding her death remain unclear. Before the ship rolled, Cleveland said he remembered holding Christian's hand as he helped her and other crew members prepare to launch the life rafts. Searchers found Christian's body later that evening.
The final glimpse Cleveland got of Walbridge, 63, was just before the ship went on its side.
Walbridge's body has not been found. His widow said she believes the captain died trying to help Christian escape.
Bounty was much more than a creaky 50-year-old wooden tourist attraction. It was a bona fide Hollywood star, featured in the 1962 film version of "Mutiny on the Bounty," which starred Marlon Brando, and more recently in the "Pirates of the Caribbean" franchise that starred Johnny Depp. But it also was a ship where inexperienced sailors could learn seafaring skills that go back hundreds of years.
The hearings, which include the National Transportation Safety Board, could lead to federal recommendations aimed at improving safety for other ships like the Bounty.
Investigators in this military shipyard region near the mouth of Chesapeake Bay have been asking two basic questions: Was the Bounty fit to sail in rough weather? And did the ship needlessly sail into harm's way?
About two months before the disaster, Walbridge, a master sailor with a lifetime of experience at sea, played down the seriousness of sailing through bad weather. "Have we run into stormy seas? We chase hurricanes," Walbridge said in a video interview posted on YouTube. "You don't want to get in front of it," he said. "You want to stay behind it, but you also get a good ride out of a hurricane."
Asked about that comment by Walbridge, Cleveland testified that the captain didn't mean literally chasing hurricanes. "It means we are trying to follow them into a navigable, safer" area of the storm, he said. The idea was "getting behind it, in a safe place" to make use of its favorable winds. "You don't want to be in its path."
Before the ship set sail from New London, the crew was very aware of the approaching hurricane, Cleveland said. Walbridge gathered them for a meeting in which he "mentioned his experience with hurricanes and he said if anybody wanted to leave there would be no hard feelings, no begrudging."
"I believed him," said Cleveland, who was then asked if the crew were offered paid expenses home. "In my experience, if you choose to leave, you would have to find your own way home."