The status allowed the Bounty to avoid requirements reserved for higher classified ships -- including a sometimes expensive, time-consuming Coast Guard hull inspection every two years. The ship's classification also allowed it to hire less experienced crew to serve in officer positions.
To charge admission for shipboard tours at dockside, the Bounty required only a simple, brief Coast Guard inspection that checked for obvious safety issues such as major leaks or malfunctioning emergency equipment. The Bounty passed one of these in August, about two months before the disaster.
No safety inspections whatsoever were required for the ship to go to sea.
That's because the Bounty carried no passengers. Under the law, its human cargo -- the crew and captain -- did not count.
While lives hung in the balance the night of the storm, now careers are at stake. Investigators' conclusions could determine who, if anyone, might lose their license as a result of the disaster. The findings also could be forwarded to prosecutors who would determine whether to file criminal charges.
The Bounty's owner, Robert Hansen, declined to testify. He pleaded the Fifth. Many of the boat's traumatized survivors fought back tears when asked to describe the night the ship went down.
One by one, investigators asked them the same questions: Where on the ship did you last see Claudene Christian? Where was Capt. Walbridge when you saw him last? Were you comfortable with the captain's decision to set sail from Connecticut? Why did Walbridge change his original plan to sail wide to the east of the storm?
The lead investigators, Carroll and the NTSB's Rob Jones, pressed engineer Barksdale and second mate Sanders hard for details about the failed engines, generators and pumps.
They hammered questions at first mate Svendsen about the timeline connecting Bounty's repairs in Maine to the ship's deadly horizontal roll.
Were you satisfied that the ship was seaworthy? When was it clear that the Bounty had lost its battle with the water? Did you suggest to Capt. Walbridge that he reconsider his decision to leave Connecticut? How many times did you and the captain discuss when to give the order to abandon ship?
Astonishingly, nobody pointed fingers.
All 14 surviving crew members testified. Not one leveled any criticism at their shipmates or at Walbridge.
They loved their captain. They trusted his judgment. They sailed into a hurricane. The ship rolled over. A cherished shipmate died and the man they called Captain Robin remains missing.
It was almost as if they thought the disaster was unavoidable.
As a sailor might put it: You know, shit happens.
With the conclusion of the testimony, investigators now have the difficult task of weighing the evidence to determine what happened -- and the next steps.
Of countless factors involved, which ones contributed to the tragedy most? How much responsibility, if any, rests on the captain?
Was Walbridge a blameless victim of the deadly forces of nature? Did the Bounty sink despite his experience and expert judgment?
Or did he take unacceptable risks? Did he turn his head from serious maintenance issues? Would more training and experience among the crew have averted the disaster or saved lives?
Investigators quoted the YouTube video in which Walbridge boasted about chasing hurricanes. And they heard from Walbridge's former boss, Capt. Richard Bailey of the wooden tall ship Gazela, who said he was astonished that the Bounty sailed toward Sandy. Walbridge, he said, "didn't seem like the type to do something reckless."
Without a doubt, the captain's harshest critic at the hearing was Jan Miles, one of the world's most respected tall-ship pilots and a self-described friend of Walbridge.
Captain of the Pride of Baltimore II, Miles summed up Walbridge's actions in four words: "reckless in the extreme."
He questioned why Walbridge was in such a hurry to get to St. Petersburg that he would sail into one of the worst hurricanes in memory.
For centuries, sailors have told tales about adventure on the high seas. The stories often celebrate a long-missing voyager's return.
This sad seafaring story concludes with the loss of two lives and perhaps the most frustrating of endings: with, as Miles said, "questions that have no answers."