Home Cruise Safely Prinsendam’s Sinking in 1980 Led to One of History’s Greatest Maritime Rescues


By Dave Kiffer of sitnews.us

At the beginning of most cruise ship sailings, the passengers gather for a safety lecture. It’s not really a drill because they don’t get into lifeboats or rafts that are then cast off. What takes place is a muster drill in which passengers are told where to gather in an emergency and how to don a life vest.

After all, cruise ship sailings are statistically exceptionally safe. Millions of people travel on them every year and while occasionally ships have problems, a full evacuation is almost never needed.

Once a decade or so a cruise ship faces a more serious problem, rarely, if ever, are passengers faced with a situation in which they have to completely abandon ship and remember those details they learned in their “muster” drills.

In fact, the nearly 1 million cruise passengers who visit Southeast Alaska yearly probably don’t even give more than a passing thought to the chance their cruise may be interrupted by the multiple blasts of the ship’s horn and the order from the captain to abandon ship.

But that is exactly what happened near Yakutat 35 years ago this month to one of ships in the Holland America fleet. A fire forced hundreds of passenger and crew of MS Prinsendam to abandon the ship before it sank in the Gulf of Alaska. No one died in the incident and some experts have labeled the evacuation one of the greatest in the history of maritime rescue.

On October 2, 1980, the Prinsendam left Ketchikan and headed to Glacier Bay before going into the Gulf of Alaska. Although the Southeast Alaska visitor season was over, the ship was on a special sailing from Vancouver, B.C. to Japan and other parts of Asia. It had made a single stop in Ketchikan, after leaving Vancouver.

By 2015 standards, the Prinsendam, at 427 feet, was tiny. Even in 1980, the ship was the smallest of the five in Holland America’s fleet, although it was the newest and, in some ways, the jewel of the fleet. It had been built in 1973 at a cost of $50 million.

Passengers on the Prinsendam had paid between $3,125 and $5,075 for the 29-day voyage from Vancouver through the Inside Passage and them across the North Pacific to Japan, Shanghai, Hong Kong and Singapore. Some of the passengers were going to stay on an additional two weeks as the ship visited Malaysia, Sumatra, Bali and Java.

Its total of 524 passengers and crew also seems miniscule compared to modern ships in the Alaska fleet that have six or seven times that number. But the difficulties encountered in safely evacuating even that relatively small number of passengers and crew point out just what trouble could await if a similar disaster happened to one of the leviathans in the modern cruise industry.

Still, the evacuation was also a blue print for just how to successfully deal with such a disaster at sea. It became, what Josh Reppinger called in 1981 article in Popular Mechanics, the “most successful large scale peacetime sea rescue in history.”

By the way, there is a Prinsendam currently in the Holland America fleet. In 2002, Holland America purchased the Seaborne Sun, which had been built in 1988, and renamed it the Prinsendam. The nearly 700 foot long ship carries approximately 1,200 passengers and crew. The ship offers “boutique” cruises to more out of the way tourism destinations such as the Black Sea, South America and Antarctica.

The Captain of the ill-fated Prinsendam, Cornelius Wabeke, had been a ship master for Holland America for 30 years and was one of the most experienced captains in the fleet. He would later be faulted for his response to the fire but not held solely responsible for the loss of his ship.

“Light rain greeted the Prinsendam as she eased into Ketchikan’s harbor early on Thursday morning, October 2 but the sky brightened to afford a day of sightseeing and shopping along the rustic boardwalk of Creek Street,” H. Paul Jeffers wrote in his 2006 book “Burning Cold: The Cruise Ship Prinsendam and the Greatest Sea Rescue of All Time.”

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