Investigators in this military shipyard region near the mouth of Chesapeake Bay have been asking two basic questions: Was the Bounty fit to sail in rough weather? And did the ship needlessly sail into harm's way?
About two months before the disaster, Walbridge, a master sailor with a lifetime of experience at sea, played down the seriousness of sailing through bad weather. "Have we run into stormy seas? We chase hurricanes," Walbridge said in a video interview posted on YouTube. "You don't want to get in front of it," he said. "You want to stay behind it, but you also get a good ride out of a hurricane."
Asked about that comment by Walbridge, Cleveland testified that the captain didn't mean literally chasing hurricanes. "It means we are trying to follow them into a navigable, safer" area of the storm, he said. The idea was "getting behind it, in a safe place" to make use of its favorable winds. "You don't want to be in its path."
Before the ship set sail from New London, the crew was very aware of the approaching hurricane, Cleveland said. Walbridge gathered them for a meeting in which he "mentioned his experience with hurricanes and he said if anybody wanted to leave there would be no hard feelings, no begrudging."
"I believed him," said Cleveland, who was then asked if the crew were offered paid expenses home. "In my experience, if you choose to leave, you would have to find your own way home."
"Nobody decided to leave," Cleveland said.
Walbridge said he wanted to "make tracks" to the south and east as fast as possible, Cleveland said, so the vessel could position itself to get the best winds from Sandy.
The captain believed, Cleveland said, that his ship would be safer riding Sandy out at sea, instead of waiting for the storm to hit them in New London. Cleveland said he agreed with that point of view, but there were also good arguments to remain in port.
Bounty first mate John Svendsen testified Tuesday that Walbridge wasn't chasing Sandy, but the captain had said "the ship was safer at sea."
Svendsen testified that as the storm worsened on October 29, he advised Walbridge to abandon ship more than once over a short period. "He said, 'I think we have more time.'" When Svendsen made a third request to the captain to abandon ship, he said Walbridge finally gave the order.
While the 13 other crew members, including Groves and Cleveland, made it safely to two life rafts, Svendsen spent three hours floating alone in his survival suit before Coast Guard rescuers saw his emergency beacon.
The Coast Guard said its goal for the investigation is to determine as much as possible about the cause of the tragedy and whether it was linked to equipment or material failure. Investigators are looking for evidence of "misconduct, inattention to duty, negligence or willful violation of the law."
Did Walbridge make a fatal error? People who weren't there have no right to pass judgment, the captain's widow, Claudia McCann, said last week from her home in St. Petersburg.
Although it's not a criminal hearing, Bounty owner Robert Hansen declined to testify, citing his Fifth Amendment constitutional protections against self-incrimination. Evidence could be forwarded to federal prosecutors.
In Thursday's testimony, Todd Kosakowski of Maine's Boothbay Harbor Shipyard said he raised doubts about Bounty's seaworthiness weeks before it sailed into the storm. He said he told Walbridge he was worried about rotting wood in the Bounty's frame. Walbridge, Kosakowski said, decided against fixing the rot.
"I believe that that could have had an impact on the strength of the vessel," Kosakowski said.
Joe Jakomovicz, a retired manager who worked at the shipyard for four decades, told investigators he disagreed with Kosakowski's analysis. The decay of the Bounty's timbers, he said, wasn't as bad as Kosakowski's assessment. "He's basing his judgment on probably five or six years of experience," Jakomovicz testified.
Claudene Christian's father, Rex, and her mother -- who shares her daughter's first name but goes by Dina -- were also at the hearing. For now, they've declined to speak with reporters.
Their daughter was relatively new to sailing, and told friends in May how excited she was to join the Bounty. A former beauty queen, Christian also said she was a descendant of Fletcher Christian, the infamous mutineer on the real HMS Bounty 220 years ago.
On Friday, her mother sat silently at the side of the hearing room, dabbing her eyes with a handkerchief and sometimes taking notes.