102 rescued from passenger ferry that ran aground in Virgin Islands

Five passengers were injured when a ferry ran hard aground on the tip of an island in the U.S. Virgin Islands.

The bow section is elevated and stuck on the rocks in an area that also includes sensitive coral reefs. The vessel remained stranded for six weeks. (Photo courtesy Sea Tow Virgin Islands)

All 102 occupants of Royal Miss Belmar were evacuated after the 90-foot vessel ran aground along Great St. James Cay in rough weather, the U.S. Coast Guard said. The vessel remained stuck on the rocky point for six weeks.

Royal Miss Belmar was sailing southward from St. John to St. Croix on July 4 when the ferry went off course and ground to a halt. The Coast Guard orchestrated a swift evacuation response, using a 25-foot response boat and several good Samaritan vessels.

No propulsion or steering breakdowns were reported, and no mayday call was made until after the ferry abruptly stopped on top of the island point, said Coast Guard spokesman Ricardo Castrodad.

"It happened at night and they basically just stopped on the rock. It was a sudden stop," Castrodad said.

Royal Miss Belmar's master radioed the Coast Guard shortly after 2200 to report the emergency.

The accident and rescue took place during a burst of bad weather and large waves in the passage.

"It was very, very rough — 6- to 9-footers," said Alan Wentworth, owner of Sea Tow Virgin Islands, which assisted in the evacuation.

Wentworth said the passengers took turns transiting in rafts from the ferry to the other vessels. The operation lasted about eight hours. Some of the injured were placed on backboards, and a few had splints on their arms and legs, he said.

The ferry Royal Miss Belmar is hard aground on the tip of Great St. James Cay in the U.S. Virgin Islands the day after the accident on the night of July 4 during a voyage from St. John. (Photo courtesy U.S. Coast Guard)

"Five of the passengers who reportedly sustained injuries on board, including a baby, were transferred to awaiting emergency medical services personnel in Red Hook Harbor," the Coast Guard said in a statement.

Royal Miss Belmar's master radioed the Coast Guard shortly after 2200 reporting "ongoing distress," the Coast Guard's statement said. No equipment breakdown was reported.

The rocks and reef punctured a fuel tank, and 400 gallons of diesel spilled along the northeastern tip of the island amid endangered coral colonies in a marine protected area.

Royal Miss Belmar is operated by Aquatic Management LLC, doing business as VI SeaTrans, based in St. Thomas. The company did not reply to phone and e-mail messages requesting comment. A telephone recording in late July said the company's ferry service would remain suspended for an estimated three more weeks.

Royal Miss Belmar carried 98 passengers and four crew. The Coast Guard would not say whether the ferry's officers were intimately familiar with the route. Normally Royal Miss Belmar serves the east-west run between St. Thomas and St. John. The voyage to St. Croix was a special Independence Day holiday trip following a boat parade and fireworks at St. John.

Wentworth's Sea Tow and Husky Salvage were among the first responders, removing about 600 gallons of unspilled fuel from the vessel. They discovered that the ferry's bottom had multiple punctures and dents. The Coast Guard said maritime units from the National Park Service and St. John's rescue authority also responded to the emergency.

The ferry grounded within the St. Thomas East End Reserve, which includes elkhorn and staghorn coral. The Nature Conservancy's Caribbean Coral Restoration Program surveyed the environmental threat, and its report recommended that the vessel be lifted vertically off the rocks.

VI SeaTrans hired Donjon Marine Co., which sent the tugboat Mary Alice and 400-ton crane barge Columbia NY from New York to lift the boat. The Donjon crew deployed cargo straps around the bottom of the ferry and lifted it off the rocks Aug. 13. Royal Miss Belmar may never sail again, Castrodad said.

"The vessel is being transported to Savannah, Ga., where they are going to make assessments on the future of the passenger ferry, whether it's repairable or whether it's a total loss," he said in mid-August.

Details on the seriousness of the passengers' injuries were unavailable.

Dom Yanchunas

By Professional Mariner Staff