By Harriet McLeod
CHARLESTON, South Carolina (Reuters) - The U.S. Coast Guard announced an investigation on Friday into the sinking of the replica of the sailing ship HMS Bounty with the loss of two crew members during Hurricane Sandy.
Rear Admiral Steven Ratti, commander of the Coast Guard's 5th District, ordered the formal investigation on Thursday after the Coast Guard suspended its search for the Bounty's missing captain, 63-year-old Robin Walbridge.
Fourteen crew members were rescued on Monday from life rafts by Coast Guard helicopters after the Bounty took on water and foundered at sea during the hurricane.
The captain and one other crew member were swept overboard and never made it to the rafts. The body of Claudene Christian, 42, was recovered later but she was pronounced dead.
"This has been classified as a major marine casualty due to the loss of life and the gross tonnage of the vessel," Coast Guard spokesman Lieutenant Michael Patterson said.
"We'll be looking into anything that may have caused the incident or contributed to it, communications, records, schematics of the vessel, testimony of the survivors and crew and other persons of interest as they're identified," he said.
Investigators will then be able to determine if negligence, misconduct, or equipment failure contributed to the sinking, and also whether the Coast Guard could have done anything differently, Patterson said.
"This was an unprecedented storm," he said. "What were their sailing intentions? Was their intent to ride it out in what they thought was the safest place to be? Professional mariners know how to take avoidance measures," he added.
The Bounty's three masts were visible for some time above the waves but from Tuesday night, the Coast Guard has been unable to locate the ship, Patterson said. The water depth where Bounty sank is around 13,000 feet, he said.
Coast Guard officials have debriefed the 14 surviving members of the crew, who were taken to the Coast Guard's Elizabeth City Air Station and turned over to the Red Cross. "We were able to get those initial narratives first-hand from the survivors rescued," he said.
"That information can be used in our subsequent investigation, and they can be required to provide more testimony," he said.
The Bounty left New London, Connecticut, on October 25, according to its Facebook page, en route to its winter berth in St Petersburg, Florida.
The captain's last communication to the Facebook page on the night of October 27 said:
"I think we are going to be into this for several days. The weather looks like even after the eye goes by, it will linger for a couple of days. We are just going to keep trying to go fast and squeeze by the storm and land as fast as we can."
The Bounty sank about 90 miles off Cape Hatteras, North Carolina, in high seas kicked up by Hurricane Sandy after its water pumps apparently failed.
The three-masted, 180-foot (55-meter) ship, built for the 1962 movie, "Mutiny on the Bounty," was about 160 miles from the eye of the hurricane when it foundered.
The original Bounty, a British transport 'square rigger', gained infamy for a mutiny in 1789.
The investigation could take months and involve hearings, which will likely be open to the public, Patterson said.
(Editing by David Adams and David Brunnstrom)