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A star, sitting by the dock of the Pier through February

The HMS Bounty, built for the 1962 filming of Mutiny on the Bounty, will be docked at the Pier through Feb. 28.

By JON WILSON, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published February 9, 2003


ST. PETERSBURG -- Often considered St. Petersburg's own tall ship because of its long stay here years ago, the HMS Bounty could start returning regularly for a few months every year.

The three-masted square-rigger, built for MGM's 1962 filming of Mutiny on the Bounty, has been tied up at the Pier for several weeks and will be here until Feb. 28.

After that, it leaves for the Dry Tortugas, Key West, Miami and up the east coast in time to hit Washington, D.C.'s Cherry Blossom Festival.

What it eventually will do during sailing's offseason is uncertain.

"I would like to see St. Petersburg totally become the winter home," said Robin Walbridge, the Bounty's captain since 1995 and a resident of Historic Kenwood.

"We'd have to gravitate toward some place to sponsor the ship. I think people want it. We just have to figure out a way," Walbridge said.

Built in Nova Scotia two years before the movie, which starred Marlon Brando, Richard Harris and Trevor Howard, the Bounty already has exceeded by many years a wooden ship's expected life span in the classic age of sail more than two centuries ago.

But its saga hasn't always been smooth.

A few years ago, it almost sank at a dock in Fall River, Mass., when a power failure shut down pumps. Sea worms bored holes in the bottom and sides. A plastic "diaper" had to be used to keep water from coming in through seams in the planks. Pieces of the old wood, kept below to show the extent of the worm damage, look like honeycombs.

"Marine termites, that's a good way to describe the worms," said Andrew Jagger, a member of the local Tall Ship Society. The society helps with Bounty chores and, in general, tries to preserve the tradition of square-rig sailing.

Even after a $1.5-million renovation job by its current owner, New York businessman Bob Hansen, the 180-foot vessel looks timeworn.

Above the water line, chipped paint reveals battered wood, patched in places. Decks need recaulking. New sails and new rigging are high on a wish list. Yards and masts need nearly constant attention, typical on any wooden ship. Crew members and volunteers work hard at carpentry.

The renovation's first phase included making the ship seaworthy by replacing all of the ship's planking and most of its frame, or ribs. Crews used white Tennessee oak to do the job. A 550-horsepower diesel electric engine was added.

The ship's oldest feature remains the massive wheel, or helm, which was used in the movie's 1935 version. The wheel, about 5 feet in diameter, takes two to operate.

The Bounty stayed in a Boothbay Harbor, Maine, shipyard for 18 months to undergo its rehabilitation.

"It's in the best shape it's been since the 1970s," Walbridge said.

He said it would take another $1.5-million to make it shine cosmetically, add more safety equipment and do rewiring. The Bounty is trying to earn some of the money through tours, festival appearances, passenger fees and summer training camps.

It seems a lot of money to shape up what was built originally as a movie set.

Walbridge, a captain for 25 years, said costs are relative. He cited the millions companies pay for 30-second Super Bowl television ads as an example of something expensive, but thought to be worth the money by those paying.

The old square-riggers, he said, represent "the leading edge 200 years ago. They were out literally shaping who we are today. Wars, plain discovery, bringing new people to the states. It's just such an important piece of history and the thing about it, it's getting lost."

Besides that, the Bounty, while used as a movie set, wasn't truly built as one.

It had to be stout so that it could be sailed to the South Pacific where filming took place. So it was built not as a mere prop, but as a seaworthy vessel able to log thousands of ocean miles.

The replica of the ship seized in 1789 from Captain Bligh by Fletcher Christian was supposed to be burned. Actors such as Brando wouldn't hear of it.

"She was saved mostly by the efforts of the stars," Jagger said. "They fell in love with it."

After a promotional tour, MGM set up the Bounty here as a tourist attraction.

Its stay was fairly quiet. Moored in the Vinoy Basin on the Pier approach, it occasionally went to sea, as in 1982 when it sailed to Mexico for filming of a Monty Python pirate spoof.

Tours and parties took place on board. A gift shop sold souvenirs. For a while, a ship dog named Gringo hung around.

Media magnate Ted Turner acquired the Bounty and the MGM film library in the mid 1980s. Turner donated the ship to the Fall River Chamber of Commerce Foundation in 1993. Hansen bought it in 2001.

If you go

The Bounty is open for tours most days but is closed Monday. Cost is $6 per person, $5 for seniors and $4 for students 4-17. Day sails also are available and the ship is accepting passengers for its upcoming sail to Washington, D.C. For information, call (866) 467-2686.

'Bounty' statistics

Built: 1960

Gross tonnage: 41/2

Draft: 13 feet

Length on deck: 120 feet

Length overall, including bowsprit: 180

Beam: 30 feet

Sail: 10,000 square feet, 18-plus sails

Lines: 18 miles of rigging

Cannons: 4 1- to 11/2-pounders

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