Winonan and woodgrain expert Taff Roberts posed for a quick photo aboard the HMS Bounty.
It has been called the "Storm of the Century" and "Frankenstorm." Even with unflattering nick names, Hurricane Sandy continues to pummel the entire Eastern Seaboard, leaving at least 39 people dead and millions without power. Images of flooded neighborhoods, mangled trees, and overturned cars shocked and saddened Winona resident Taff Roberts. Out of all those horrific sights, one stands out: the still photo of the famous HMS Bounty replica falling below the churning waters off the coast of North Carolina early Monday morning.
Roberts, a wood graining expert and lifelong seaman, spent several months in 1991 aboard the ship, and was devastated when he learned the Atlantic swallowed the famous vessel.
“She was such a beautiful ship,” Roberts remembers. “It was just sad, really. She was an important part of history that dated back to the 1700s and it just brought a lot of people together.”
In Abererch, Wales, a province on the Lleyn Peninsula, Roberts’ father and grandmother were talented woodgrainers, or artists who have perfected the unique decorative style of recreating the look of wood using different colors of primers and glazes. Roberts soon also became an expert, working on many architectural projects, including large vessels.
In late 1990, his talent caught the eye of his friend, and captain of the replica HMS Bounty, Joseph Davies. Davies brought him aboard to help restore the ship and enhance her aesthetic appeal, which gave Roberts the opportunity to live on a piece of history that may now be lost forever.
the deep blue sea
Built in 1961 in Lunenburg, Nova Scotia, the 180-foot, three-masted vessel was constructed using the exact design plans of the original HMS Bounty, which was destroyed during a revolt in the late 1700s off the coast of Tahiti. The replica, which Roberts said was about 25 percent larger, was built for MGM Studios and originally used in Lewis Milestone’s film adaptation of "Mutiny on the Bounty," starring Marlon Brando.
Cable mogul and avid sailor Ted Turner bought the ship shortly after the completion of the film, and it was used in the box office hits "Treasure Island" and "Pirates of the Caribbean—Dead Man's Chest." Throughout the next three decades, the ship sat docked in a Florida marina. In 1990, Turner called the ship’s captain, Joseph Davies, and asked him to assemble a crew to repaint the interior. Naturally, Davies contacted Roberts.
“Turner wanted the ship upgraded so he could entertain Japanese businessmen out on the West Coast,” Roberts said. Because the ship was used primarily as a large prop, the interior was made of plywood that was in dire need of a paint job. “At the time, the set designers had painted the wood to look like Cherry and Rosewood.”
In February 1991, Roberts boarded a plane bound for Chula Vista, Calif., to begin the trip aboard the HMS Bounty replica.
“She is a stately vessel,” Roberts wrote in a crew log dated 1300 hours, 7 March 1991, off Pointe San Jacinto, Mexico. He had been on the ship for two weeks already. “And I find her to be well built and fit. With the help of the crew members aboard, we sanded down all the woodwork on port side that was to be woodgrained.”
Roberts got to work repainting large bulkheads, stateroom walls, and port side doors using his perfected woodgrain process. However, the oil-based paints he was accustomed to using weren’t available in California, because of environmental protection measures. So, he improvised.
“I used beer,” Roberts laughed. “We would make different glazes using a powder and I mixed it with beer. The glaze was brushed over the yellow and salmon colored primers. To get the right look, it had to float on top of the primers. Beer gave it the floating time I needed.”
Once the primers and glazes were painted on, Roberts then applied a varnish to seal in the color. The many rooms and seemingly endless six-foot pillars kept Roberts and crew members busy on the ship for three weeks.
Roberts wrote in his log that he planned to finish the work on the lower deck of the ship, but the ship's upcoming trip to Acapulco and on to the Panama Canal prevented him from continuing the work. However, Skipper Davies invited him to join the voyage to Acapulco.
“I am writing this account underway on our trip southward from San Diego to Acapulco in Mexico. Below me about twenty feet is blue water, and as I look on my right side, I see the land, a scant six miles away, high mountain tops, blazing hot sand dunes. And on my left is blue water as far as the eye can see.”
Roberts sailed down the west coast of Mexico and recounted the warm sunny days, soft breezes, and starry night skies. “Today we sailed in towards the shore past Guadalupe Island, a volcanic isle with peaks reaching to over four thousand feet. Clear, winds southeast, twelve knots.”
While sailing near the Tropic of Cancer, Roberts found on board a copy of the logbook of Captain William Bligh, HMS Bounty’s original captain. He said the captain meticulously wrote in the logbook—and often made his crew dance on the upper deck to boost morale. Three days after writing that entry, on March 13, 1991, Roberts reported that the ship was just 30 miles off the coast of Acapulco.
“It has been a great experience and I will miss the night skies full of stars,” he wrote. “It was a dream come true to have the opportunity to sail on the replica of the Bounty and the fresh air and the wide blue open space will always be around us.”
Roberts flew home from Acapulco shortly after the last journal entry, but was asked to fly to Miami that June to finish the starboard side of the vessel.
Roberts spoke softly about the fate of the replica HMS Bounty. He said the crew members and Captain Robin Walbridge, who is still missing, were steadfast seamen and lovers of the ocean.
“It’s really unfortunate that this had to happen,” Roberts said. “It’s sickening to think about what they went through. There were no watertight compartments on this ship and it’s sad to see it sink.”
In some severe weather cases, Roberts said the captain is right to take the vessel out to sea, and said he had done so for other boat owners in the past.
“When I was living in Rhode Island, oftentimes we were paid by owners to take ships out to sea during a storm. That way they would be away from rocks in the harbor,” Roberts said. Two days before the replica foundered, Captain Walbridge reported the voyage out to sea was not irresponsible and said a ship would be safer at sea than in the port. “When there are strong surges, huge tides and high winds, chances are the ship is going to get beat up being in the dock.”
As rescue crews continue to look for Captain Walbridge, Roberts is reminded of the two hurricanes and many bad storms he has lived through while at sea.
“Being in that situation is horrific,” Roberts said. “I don’t know the captain but I know that he’s been with the ship for several years. I understand that he was wearing a life jacket and suit. And, yes, the water temperature is ideal, but I just hope they can find him.”
It is uncertain if the ship will be resurrected once Hurricane Sandy subsides, but Roberts said if it is, he would be in line to help salvage whatever, if anything, is left. But one thing is certain: the replica HMS Bounty was a beloved piece of history.
She played the star role in movies, she entertained the likes of rich businessmen and famous film stars, she sailed the most beautiful waters the world has ever seen. Like Roberts' poetic logbook from the time he spent aboard her majestic deck, stories will continue of her for years to come. And the sign-off for every one of Roberts’ detailed entries is a fitting way to bid farewell to the famous ship.
This ends another day.