(Reuters) - The U.S. Coast Guard rescued 14 of the 16 crew members who abandoned the replica tall ship HMS Bounty off North Carolina in rough seas caused by Hurricane Sandy, using helicopters on Monday to pluck them from life rafts.
A Coast Guard MH-60 Jayhawk rescue helicopter later recovered crew member Claudene Christian, 42, who was described as unresponsive, while continuing to search for the 63-year-old captain of the ship, which sank in 18-foot seas.
Christian taken to Albemarle Hospital in Elizabeth City, North Carolina, where a hospital spokesman said she was in "critical condition."
The crew of the Bounty took to life rafts about 90 miles southeast of Cape Hatteras, North Carolina when the vessel began to take on water about 160 miles from the storm's eye, the Coast Guard said.
The three-mast, 180-foot (55-meter) ship, built for the 1962 movie "Mutiny on the Bounty," sank after water pumps apparently failed.
As the 16 crew members were abandoning the Bounty wearing cold-water survival suits and life jackets, the final three on board were washed overboard, said Coast Guard spokesman Chief Nyx Cangemi, relaying eyewitness reports from the search and rescue team. One of them was pulled onto a life raft but the other two remained at sea, he said.
The 14 were rescued from two lifeboats with canopies, the Coast Guard said.
A C-130 Hercules airplane and a third rescue helicopter continued the search for the two missing crew members, and two Coast Guard cutters were on the way to assist them, Cangemi said.
Captain Robin Walbridge worked on the Bounty for 17 years, said his wife, Claudia McCann, contacted by telephone at the couple's home in St. Petersburg, Florida.
"That was his passion," McCann said. "He's the best captain in the industry. ... There's not too many captains that can sail that kind of ship."
She said she was confident that he, as captain, was the last to leave the ship, wearing survival gear.
"That's the image I have in my head. I'm sure he made sure his crew were all tucked in their life boats before he got off the ship," McCann said.
The ship was on its way from New London, Connecticut, to St. Petersburg, Florida, said Tracie Simonin, director of the HMS Bounty Organization LLC. She said she was unsure how the captain attempted to navigate the storm.
"My understanding is that they were looking to sail around the hurricane," said Jane Pena, 31, who piloted the first rescue helicopter to reach the scene.
"They originally thought they'd be OK," Pena said. "We thought about flying deep water pumps out to them, but they were taking on so much water that we wouldn't be able to get enough pumps to them."
The vessel was taking on water and also without propulsion, stuck in 40 mile-per-hour winds and heavy seas, the Coast Guard said.
"By the time we got there, the ship was submerged but it was upright and you could see the three masts sticking out of the water," said Pena.
The original Bounty, a British transport vessel, gained infamy for a mutiny in Tahiti in 1789.
The 1962 movie starred Marlon Brando as lead mutineer Fletcher Christian. The replica Bounty has appeared in numerous documentaries and feature films including "Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest" with Johnny Depp, according to the ship's website.
(Additional reporting by Harriet McLeod in Charleston, South Carolina. Editing by Will Dunham and Cynthia Osterman)