Ferry aground on Virgin Islands cay lifted off to limit coral damage

After a vessel runs aground, often the best way to refloat it is to guide it back out of trouble on the same path it originally used to sail into trouble. Not so for Royal Miss Belmar.

On July 4, 2011, the 90-foot ferry became stuck fast on a rocky outcropping in a U.S. Virgin Islands marine sanctuary. With hull damage and sensitive coral colonies literally inches away, authorities decided that the damaged vessel could not simply be towed back into safe water.

Eventually, Donjon Marine Co. was hired to lift Royal Miss Belmar straight up off the rocks using a derrick crane barge. Virgin Islands authorities said successful execution of this method by the salvage crew prevented damage to two threatened species of coral.

Royal Miss Belmar ran hard aground on Great St. James Cay with no warning while returning to St. Croix from an Independence Day evening boat parade in St. John. Five passengers were injured, and all 102 occupants were evacuated in rafts to other vessels while 6- to 9-foot waves pummeled the responders.

The accident happened in the St. Thomas East End Reserve, a marine environmental preserve where the Nature Conservancy is restoring elkhorn and staghorn coral. The U.S. Coast Guard and Royal Miss Belmar's operator, VI SeaTrans, considered two salvage plans. Donjon proposed lifting the ferry off the rocks with a crane. A competing plan would have used roller bags to slide the catamaran back into safe water, said Lt. Kristen Preble, chief of the Coast Guard's Incident Management Division in Sector San Juan.

"There was a breach in both hulls, and they would have needed to be patched up before” moving the ferry on the rollers, Preble said. "They would have had to make the repairs to make the vessel stable once it was refloated."

The Virgin Islands Department of Planning and Natural Resources and the Nature Conservancy surveyed the area to determine the potential threat to coral colonies. A diving and snorkeling expedition recorded numerous coral, including one colony that was very near the ferry’s stern. The Nature Conservancy recommended the Donjon proposal.

"The barge and crane was the best way to remove the boat and minimize the negative impact on the coral," said Aaron Hutchins, the Nature Conservancy's Caribbean coral restoration program representative in the Virgin Islands. "It was pretty much a surgical extraction and it was well-placed."

Donjon's derrick crane barge Columbia NY and 3,000-hp tugboat Mary Alice arrived at Great St. James Cay in early August. The crew was fortunate because seas were calm and it wasn't difficult to deploy nylon slings underneath Royal Miss Belmar, said John Witte Jr., Donjon's executive vice president. Scientists identified an area of sandy bottom where anchors could be dropped without threatening additional coral.

"The location for the anchors was predetermined by a joint survey by Donjon and the local environmental authorities," Witte said. "There was a pipe-line in the area, and we wanted to make sure when we anchored up that we did not do any damage to the coral reef."

The scientists also felt lucky because they found minimal damage to the coral from the grounding itself. None of the coral heads broke off, for example.

"The vessel missed all of the (coral) when it ran aground because it was high on the water," said Stephen Hale, a fisheries biologist with the Virgin Islands Division of Fish and Wildlife. "It was at full plane when it ran over the island. There was definitely crushed bedrock all over the place."

Some coral eventually succumbed for other reasons. About 400 gallons of diesel fuel spilled into the sea, and the ferry stayed stuck for six weeks, blocking sunlight.

"One large colony of elkhorn coral died unfortunately," Hutchins said. "It was the shading. Some (others) were exhibiting signs of stress. We believe that was likely caused by the chemical contamination."

The two stern anchors were dropped in 60 feet of water, 500 to 600 feet from the cay. Then the Donjon crew used the prevailing wind and current to allow Columbia NY — with a crew boat assisting — to drift astern toward the rocks, stopping along Royal Miss Belmar's port side in 10 to 15 feet of water, Witte said. The barge draws 4 feet.

"Where the ferry was sitting, it had clear space under the vessel to pass the nylon slings right under it, pending the arrival of the Columbia," Witte said.

The crew ran 3-inch-diameter lines to link the barge and Royal Miss Belmar. The 140-foot crane boom was deployed off the stern, lifted the 96-ton ferry off the rocks and secured it on the barge. The crane's capacity is 400 tons, Witte said. The tug and barge transported the ferry first to St. Thomas, where a cradle was pre-engineered for a longer voyage to a Savannah, Ga., shipyard. Mary Alice and Columbia NY delivered the ferry to the repair yard Aug. 24.

"It all went according to plan," Preble said. "It was very smooth."

The U.S.-flagged Royal Miss Belmar was still out of service in October, according to Coast Guard port state documents. In a September phone recording, VI SeaTrans said it would not be able to restore its ferry service for about two months.

Hutchins said Caribbean coral colonies are frequently damaged by vessel groundings or careless anchoring, often involving pleasure boats but sometimes large commercial vessels. Hale, the fisheries biologist, said the unnecessary harming of coral in the marine reserve is of great concern to the public in the Virgin Islands, and the way Royal Miss Belmar was removed "definitely avoided any further damage" in that spot.

"We think it was a successful salvage," Hutchins said. "It's unfortunate that it occurred to begin with. It's a common occurrence down here. Too many groundings. Too many anchors. … It keeps us very busy."

Dom Yanchunas

By Professional Mariner Staff