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 14 crew members by helicopter, but two people were 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 his body, and raised him to the chopper.
"It's one of the biggest seas I've ever been in. It was huge out there," Haba said.
Two crew members of the HMS Bounty were adrift wearing survival suits designed to help keep them afloat and protected from cold waters for up to 15 hours, but so far the Coast Guard hasn't seen any sign of them.
The HMS Bounty, which has been featured in Hollywood films such as "Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest," left Connecticut last week, en route to St. Petersburg, Fla.
"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."
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The Coast Guard received a distress call late Sunday from the 180-foot, three-mast 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 mph 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 mother of one of the crew members said she had talked to her daughter after the rescue. Mary Ellen Sprague said her 20-year-old daughter Anna Sprague had been aboard the HMS Bounty since May. The ship had traveled to London, then to St. Petersburg, Fla., and was going to spend the winter in Galveston, Texas.
"She was probably the youngest member of the crew," Mary Ellen Sprague said.
She said she hadn't learned many details yet because her daughter, normally talkative and outgoing, was being uncharacteristically quiet.
She's very upset because the ship's captain and another crew member are still missing, Sprague said from her home in Savannah, Ga.
The ship left Connecticut on Thursday when Sandy was over Cuba, and its path and effect on the East Coast was still somewhat certain. 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. However, a statement on its website acknowledged, "this will be a tough voyage for Bounty," the Tampa Bay Times reported.
The ship was built for the 1962 film "Mutiny on the Bounty," which starred Marlon Brando, and has been featured in other movies.
The HMS Bounty has docked off and on over the years at The Pier in St. Petersburg, Fla., and was scheduled to eventually arrive there in November, said Carol Everson, general manager of The Pier.
"I know they were very much looking forward to being here," she said. "They were very excited about coming down."
The Bounty's captain, Robin Walbridge, was from St. Petersburg, she said.
She and other employees of The Pier were closely following the story.
"It's devastating," she said. "Obviously you want all of the crew to be safe. It's a shame that the vessel has gone down because it's a tremendous piece of history and a great piece of history for St. Petersburg."
Wallbridge learned to sail at age 10, according to his biography on the Bounty's website. Prior to the Bounty, he served as first mate on the H.M.S. Rose — the Bounty's sister ship.
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, New York businessman named Robert Hansen.
About 10 years ago, the ship underwent a multi-million dollar restoration.
In recent years, the ship has wintered in Puerto Rico and travels in the spring and summer. In August, large crowds greeted the ship when it sailed into St. Augustine, Fla., Savannah, Ga., and Charleston, S.C.