Crew of cruise ship that hit reef faulted for failing to update charts

The December 1998 grounding of the Royal Caribbean cruise ship Monarch of the Seas on a coral reef off St. Maarten was the result of a series of operational errors on the part of the bridge team, a joint investigation between U.S. and Norwegian authorities recently determined. Most significantly, the investigation determined that the grounding was a direct result of the crew’s failure to update the ship’s charts to include a change in the location of a buoy marking a reef — and the subsequent reliance on this buoy as a sole means of fixing the ship’s position.

The incident was so serious that it could have resulted in total loss of the ship. The report identified a number of contributing factors, including:

• failure to update a chart in accordance with Notice to Mariners information,

• lack of experience on the part of the second officer,

• strained relations among the bridge crew,

• fatigue,

• a vicious bout of diarrhea that reportedly impaired the master’s ability to remain on the bridge.

The 73,937-grt, 880-foot-long ship had diverted to Philipsburg, St. Maarten, in the early morning hours of Dec. 15 to disembark a passenger with a suspected heart attack (PM #39). The ship, under command of the captain, remained hove to off Great Bay as the passenger was evacuated with the assistance of the ship’s doctor and nurse, maintaining position with a bow thruster and its engines. At 0125, with the doctor and nurse back aboard, the vessel got underway for Martinique, its original destination.

The master, who was reportedly in a hurry to leave the bridge on account of a severe case of diarrhea, ordered the officer of the watch (OOW) to plot a course that would allow the ship to pass to the east of Proselyte Reef, a bank of coral lying in shallow water just to the south of Great Bay, despite a lack of navigational aids on this side. (A buoy was stationed on the west side of the reef.) Such a course provided a more direct, but riskier, route back to Martinique.

The OOW, the ship’s second officer, subsequently plotted a course of 160° using one of the vessel’s automatic radar plotting aids (ARPA), and reported that the course would allow the vessel to pass “three cables off and safe” to the east of the reef, the report stated. The vessel’s staff captain, considered the master’s deputy, but who was not taking part in the navigation of the vessel, was stationed at the propulsion controls.

Before departing the bridge, the master ordered the helmsman to bring the vessel on the proposed course of 160° and ordered the staff captain to make turns for sea speed. Once the ship was underway, the master immediately left the bridge, leaving the second officer in command of the watch.

Less than a minute later, however, the master returned to the bridge and asked if all was well. “Everything seems so quiet,” he said, asking the second officer if anything had been forgotten. Everything was fine, came the response, and the master again left the bridge.

The second officer had not performed set-and-drift calculations, either manually or automatically, according to the report, despite the presence of an easterly wind and a westerly-setting current. Nor did he ground lock the ARPA or take any bearings from shore or establish a fix on the chart, visually or by GPS. Weather conditions were fair, offering good visibility in all directions.

The second officer fixed the ship’s position only in relation to the Proselyte Reef buoy with the use of the ARPA, which is how he determined that the ship would pass three-tenths of a mile east of the reef. After the master departed the bridge, the second officer continued to monitor the ship’s progress by ARPA — solely as it related to the Proselyte Reef buoy.

Shortly after the master left the bridge for the second time, a smoke alarm sounded. The lookout responded, found nothing amiss, and then silenced the alarm. Seconds later, the second officer fielded a phone call from the purser’s desk regarding a passenger’s complaint of machinery noise adjacent to his cabin. While still on the phone, the second officer noted that the lighted buoy had come abeam of the ship — indicating to him that it was safe to turn the ship toward its ultimate course to Martinique. After promising to dispatch a member of the crew to investigate the machinery noise, the second officer hung up the phone and ordered a course change to starboard.

He expected the course change to take the vessel safely around the south side of the reef and onto a course of 190º toward Martinique. The ship struck the reef almost immediately after making the turn at 0130, approximately three minutes after departing Philipsburg, “raking” the reef at a speed of 12 knots, “although not becoming permanently stranded,” according to the report.

The master returned to the bridge seconds later, according to the report, having felt the severe vibrations caused by the impact, and took over command of the bridge. He learned that water was flooding numerous tanks and compartments, and then, after the safety officer reported that pumps in certain compartments were unable to stem the ingress of water, the master ordered all watertight doors closed.

In the minutes following the grounding, the master informed the ship’s agent in Miami of the situation, spoke to Royal Caribbean’s fleet captain and to Port Philipsburg officials, requesting the deployment of numerous transport vessels for the possible evacuation of the ship’s passengers. Twelve minutes after impact, the master sounded the general emergency signal — seven short blasts followed by one prolonged blast — informing passengers of the contact with the reef. He requested that they get dressed, don life jackets and report to their muster stations to prepare to abandon ship. The announcement, which was in English, was translated into Spanish, German and French.

Damage-control teams, including specialists in fire, flooding and medical care, were dispersed throughout the ship by 0155, at which point the captain had already turned the vessel around with the intention of beaching the vessel on a sandbar at Great Bay, outside Philipsburg. He continued to inform the passengers of the situation and, after slowing the ship for a soft approach to the beach, ordered the stern anchor deployed at 0221. At 0233, the starboard anchor was dropped, and at 0235 the vessel grounded on a sandbar at Great Bay at a speed of 5 knots. Although damage-control teams had readied the ship’s lifeboats for launch, by 0515 all 2,557 passengers had been evacuated safely by vessels dispatched from St. Maarten.

In the days following the grounding, Ft. Lauderdale-based Titan Maritime was contracted to patch and refloat the ship, and Monarch of the Seas ultimately sailed for Mobile, Ala., under its own power for dry-dock repairs.

The investigation was jointly directed by the U.S. Coast Guard’s Office of Investigations & Analysis (The Coast Guard has jurisdiction to investigate foreign cruise-ship incidents because of the high volume of Americans participating in cruises.) and by the Norwegian Maritime Directorate. Royal Caribbean performed an internal investigation as well, as required by the International Maritime Organization.

One of the key findings of the joint report was that the ship’s charts had not been updated in accordance with Notice to Mariners. Had the charts been current, they would have noted a recent change in the location of the Proselyte Reef lighted buoy — about 400 feet to the west. Since the second officer was using the location of this buoy alone to fix the ship’s position and to monitor progress of its course around the reef, the change in location of the buoy resulted in his bringing the ship too close to the east side of the reef. Further, the ship’s original departure position — from Great Bay — had not been fixed, either by GPS, radar bearing or visual bearings, which meant that the plotted course began at a questionable position.

The report faulted the second officer for not using more than one navigational aid in his plotting. The report quoted Royal Caribbean’s own International Safety Management manual regarding the importance of using more than one navigational aid and all means necessary to establish fixes: “For the safest possible navigation, the nautical officers shall never rely on only one navigational aid for considerable time. Whenever possible, the radar and/or terrestrial navigation shall be used for fix positions and the GPS for continuous follow-ups.”

The report, also citing the ISM manual, faulted the bridge crew for failing to establish a voyage plan for the deviation to St. Maarten and for the departure to Martinique around Proselyte Reef. Nor did the captain verify his officer’s departure plan — perhaps as a result of his case of diarrhea, as he reported to investigators. The report, citing the second officer’s arrival to the ship just 24 hours before the grounding — suggested that Royal Caribbean should have a break-in period for officers arriving from shore leave.

Another contributing cause, according to the report, was the friction between the master and the staff captain. The staff captain admitted to investigators that he was “surprised” by the decision to sail to the east side of the reef, but he did not suggest sailing to the west — and safer — side because his suggestions in the past had been met with a “negative” response by the master. As a result, he said, he remained quiet and did not involve himself in the navigation of the vessel upon departure from Great Bay.

Although the report credited the captain, bridge team and damage-control teams with responding to the emergency swiftly, efficiently and with significant skill, it quoted the safety officer’s belief that had watertight door No. 10 — separating the ship’s two main compartments — not been closed, the ship “would have been lost” in the minutes following the grounding.

That this watertight door was open at the time of the grounding was a violation of the ship’s standard operating procedures, which required that the door be closed at 2300 every night. Despite the closure of this and other watertight doors, the safety officer also believed that the ship could well have been lost if the captain had not deliberately grounded the ship at Great Bay.

A Coast Guard stability test concluded, however, that the ship would have stayed afloat (following closure of all watertight doors) “provided that there was no progressive flooding due to additional structural failures such as watertight subdivision boundaries.” The report also credited the ship’s double bottom with minimizing flooding after the grounding.

By Professional Mariner Staff