The December grounding of the 74,000-ton cruise ship Monarch of the Seas was apparently the result of a basic piloting error on the part of the ship’s officers. The 880-foot vessel had anchored off St. Maarten to discharge an ill passenger and was returning to sea when, at 0130 Dec. 15, it smashed into a charted reef one mile offshore of St. Philipsburg.
The grounding tore open a 60-foot-long hole below the waterline that allowed seawater to flood 18 watertight compartments. Monarch of the Seas remained afloat, and the captain ordered the ship grounded on a sand beach. Although all 2,557 passengers were safely evacuated and no one was hurt in the grounding, this is the most serious accident for Royal Caribbean Cruise Lines in the Norwegian company’s 28-year history. The U.S. Coast Guard is given jurisdiction to investigate cruise ship accidents because of the industry’s heavy reliance on American customers.
The ship had anchored one-quarter mile off Fort Amsterdam near St. Philipsburg while the passenger, accompanied by a nurse and doctor, was put ashore in a tender, said Lt. Blake Welborn, the Coast Guard lead investigator. Once the nurse and doctor returned to the vessel, the captain suggested to the duty officer a course of 160° from their anchorage on the chart. After this was done, the duty officer reported to the captain that the course would allow the ship to pass "three cables [.3 nm] east of the buoy [at Proselyte Reef] and safe."
The vessel calls on St. Philipsburg every week of the year, according to Welborn, but it had never passed to the east of the buoy, which is placed west of the reef. The reef’s eastern boundary, the side the ship attempted to pass, is unmarked.
Once the anchor was up, the ship’s engines were programmed, through a computer program that brings the engine up to speed in the most efficient and safe manner, to make turns for 15 knots on a course of 160°. At 0130, minutes after getting underway, the vessel struck the reef.
"There was no mechanical failure whatsoever," Welborn said. "No steering or engine problems. They were taking strictly visual fixes and there was no plotting being done on the chart once they were underway.
"The grounding occurred because the ship did not have a good starting point. In other words, they laid a course on the chart in a position that was not accurate, so that when they followed the course, it took them right onto the reef. Apparently, no initial position off Fort Amsterdam had been fixed," Welborn said. A change of watch occurred just two minutes before the grounding, at 0128, according to reports. The vessel was being steered manually, not by autopilot.
By 0415 all passengers had been safely evacuated by local tenders, not by the vessel’s lifeboats. All aboard received a full refund and a voucher for a free future cruise.
No pollution was reported, but Proselyte Reef, a popular dive spot for visitors to St. Maarten and part of the St. Maarten Marine Park, was heavily damaged, according to reports. Parts of the reef lost six to eight feet of coral off the top. Approximately 27,000 square feet of the reef was crushed.