Arctic Cruise Ship Disaster – The Prinsendam’s Effect On Coast Guard Response

cruise ship Prinsendam in the Gulf of AlaskaWith the Costa Concordia disaster headlining global news the questions most asked by mariners is: How will that disaster change the cruise ship industry?

For insight into this question we bring you an article by the US Coast Guard on how a mostly forgotten tragedy changed the face of future rescue operations in this country.

Thirty-one years ago the Coast Guard led one of the nation’s largest search and rescue cases when the 519 passengers and crew of the Dutch cruise ship Prinsendam were forced to abandon ship more than 150-miles off the coast of Alaska after an engine room fire spread throughout the vessel.

Over the course of 24 hours, Coast Guard Cutters BoutwellWoodrush and Mellon as well as rescue aircraft deployed from Air Stations Sitka and Kodiak would work side-by-side with the U.S. Air Force, Canadian navy and an AMVER-tasked tanker to rescue all hands from 12 to 15 foot seas and 25 to 30 knot winds generated by a nearby Arctic typhoon.

USCG Photo

The Prinsendam was a 427-foot long cruise liner built in 1973. The liner was transiting through the Gulf of Alaska, approximately 120 miles south of Yakutat, Alaska, at midnight Oct. 4, 1980, when fire broke out in the engine room.

With conditions too dangerous for the deployment of small boats from the cutters, survivors were forced to climb aboard the tanker and cutters with the help of two Air Force pararescuemen while hypothermic survivors were ferried to shore by rescue helicopters. The helicopters would then refuel and head back out to the scene for their next load of passengers.

In the immediate aftermath of the rescue, the Coast Guard identified areas of improvement in search and rescue operations which would save tens of thousands of lives in the decades ahead.

In the findings of the Prinsendam investigation, Rear Adm. Richard Knapp noted, “The training and expertise of the Air Force pararescuemen was responsible for the survival of passengers …. It is notable that we were forced to rely on another agency to provide these personnel. I recommend we develop a similar, highly-trained, well-equipped rescue elite.”

Those “rescue elite” would of course become the aviation survival technicians of the Coast Guard rescue swimmer program.

Another deficiency cited in the investigation was the need for rescue helicopters to return to shore to refuel while survivors remained in the water. The critical role rescue helicopters play during extended search and rescue cases would ultimately lead to the helicopter in-flight refueling capability now standard on Coast Guard rescue helicopters.

Prinsendam
U.S. Coast Guard photo.

The rescue of the Prinsendam was particularly significant because of the distance traveled by the rescuers, the coordination of independent organizations and the fact that all 519 passengers and crew were rescued without loss of life or serious injury.

These new capabilities would more than prove their value in future cases ranging from the Coast Guard response to Hurricane Katrina to another Arctic rescue when the Alaska Ranger was lost at sea.

At a time when America considers its Arctic future and the role the Coast Guard will play in protecting American lives and national interests in the often harsh conditions found above the Arctic Circle, the Prinsendam rescue serves as a stark reminder of the necessity for a robust Coast Guard presence in America’s Arctic waters.


This article was originally written by  Christopher Lagan and Ademide Adedokun for the blog CG Compass