But none of his journeys was as treacherous, perhaps, as navigating through a hurricane churning up the East Coast, becoming part of an epic storm — and a daring rescue — that seemed ripped from the Hollywood films that made the ship famous.
Walbridge’s wife describes him as a passionate, experienced captain, one with a cool head and a kind heart. Photos of him on the ship’s wooden deck just days before the ill-fated trip show a white-haired man with a steady gaze in a blue windbreaker, a man who was at ease with the sea.
“He’s been in many storms,” his wife, Claudia McCann, said Tuesday from the couple’s St. Petersburg home. “He’s been doing this a good portion of his life. He’s been in lots of hairy situations and he’s very familiar with the boat.”
McCann said she talked to him on the phone on his birthday — Oct. 25 — and last heard from him in an email Saturday. He said he and his 15-member crew were prepared to sail around the storm.
But by Monday, the ship began to take on water, its engines failed and the crew abandoned the boat off the North Carolina coast. They were rescued by the Coast Guard, though one member had died. The captain was swept into the sea and still missing.
While the seas were still about 15-feet Tuesday, water temperatures were a tolerable 77 degrees.
“There’s a lot of factors that go into survivability. Right now we’re going to continue to search. Right now we’re hopeful,” Coast Guard Capt. Joe Kelly said.
The Coast Guard said they would continue searching with a plane and two ships through Tuesday night.
Walbridge’s wife waited in their in St. Petersburg home to hear any word, surrounded by friends.
The couple met 17 years ago in Fall River, Mass., during an after-hours reception aboard the ship. It was about the time Walbridge took the ship’s helm.
“He was a gentle soul and he was like no one I had ever met before,” she said.
About seven years ago, the couple moved to St. Petersburg, which was also where the Bounty has called home off and on since the late 1960s.
Life as a sailor’s wife wasn’t always easy; they would go months without seeing each other. Sometimes, she took voyages with him, staying in his cramped and rustic sleeping quarters.
“He was a fantastic captain and he was the best in the industry,” she said. “He had a reputation that followed him.”
Walbridge was a teacher, not only for the visitors to the Bounty, but for his crew, too. They were 11 men and five women, ranging in age from 20 to 66, and many of them weren’t experienced on the sea. In a 2010 interview, the captain told a radio station that was how he liked it.
“We take people and we actually put them to work, just like a regular crew member. They will do everything the normal crew does, whether it is steering the boat, setting sails, hauling lines,” he told radio station KFAI in Duluth, Minn.