(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, the Coast Guard said.
The crew of a Coast Guard MH-60 Jayhawk rescue helicopter later recovered the body of an "unresponsive" woman, identified as Claudene Christian, 42, while continuing to search for the 63-year-old captain of the ship, which sank in 18-foot seas.
The crew of the Bounty took to life rafts about 90 miles southeast of Hatteras, North Carolina when the vessel began to take on water about 160 miles from the storm's eye.
The three-mast, 180-foot (55-meter) ship, built for the 1962 movie "Mutiny on the Bounty," sank after water pumps apparently failed.
"It is under water. The mast of the ship is still protruding from the water," Coast Guard spokesman Chief Nyx Cangemi said, relaying eyewitness reports from the search and rescue team.
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, Cangemi said. One of them was pulled onto a life raft but the other two remained at sea, he said.
The 14 were rescued from two 25-person lifeboats with canopies, the Coast Guard said.
Crews aboard a C-130 Hercules airplane and a third rescue helicopter searched all day 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 (a square-rigger)."
Honoring his role as captain, she said she was confident he 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 first of two rescue helicopters arrived on the scene at about 6:30 a.m. and hoisted five people to safety, and a second helicopter arrived and rescued nine people, the Coast Guard 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.
The vessel was believed to be taking on water and was without propulsion, stuck in 40 mile-per-hour winds and 18-foot (5.5-meter) seas, the Coast Guard said.
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.
Editing by Will Dunham