"Robin asked, 'What went wrong?'" testified Bounty boatswain Laura Groves Friday. "He asked for some brainstorming. 'At what point did we lose control?' "
Groves' testimony, so far the most compelling and clear of the four-day Coast Guard hearing, opened an inside window into the tragedy that claimed the ship, its captain, and crew member, Claudene Christian.
Groves testified that, for some reason, the Bounty's engine-room pumps were not operating as efficiently as they had before. She and Third Mate Daniel Cleveland said the pumps usually had no trouble gulping seawater and discharging it, but as the ship headed into the storm, the pumps worked too slowly.
Groves said the crew tried to get back-up hydraulic pumps working, but that was delayed when they found corroded fittings. Finally, the crew tried an emergency gasoline-powered pump, but no one could get it to work. Cleveland testified no one had been trained to use it.
The boatswain said one problem was clear: There were two splits in the Bounty's hull seams, one above the waterline in the engine room, and another in the mop closet. As the ship rolled in the heavy seas, Groves said she could hear water spraying through the gaps.
For four days, Coast Guard investigators and an attorney representing Claudine Christian's family have focused on the Bounty's wooden hull, and whether the planks were properly caulked. Several crewmembers and shipyard workers have testified the ship's frame and planks had spots of rot, but they differed at how serious the problem was.
Groves testified that the crew used two types of hardware-store sealant for the hull seams. She said one kind appeared to be the type used to seal cracks in basement walls. When asked why the crew wasn't directed to use marine-grade sealant, she said, "I understand that is very expensive."
In addition to potential problems with the Bounty's structure, Coast Guard officials are exploring the captain's decision to set sail from Connecticut to Florida and right into the path of Hurricane Sandy.
Crew members have testified the captain wanted to skirt the storm and pick up winds that would push the ship south. At one point, the captain changed course and cut in front of the hurricane.
More Bounty survivors are expected to testify in this hearing Monday.