History: Arctic rescue changes face of Coast Guard operations

In 1980, the U.S. Coast Guard, assisted by the U.S. Air Force and the Canadian armed forces, rescued more than 500 passengers and crew from the cruise ship Prinsendam in the Gulf of Alaska. U.S. Coast Guard photo.

In 1980, the U.S. Coast Guard, assisted by the U.S. Air Force and the Canadian armed forces, rescued more than 500 passengers and crew from the cruise ship Prinsendam in the Gulf of Alaska. U.S. Coast Guard photo.

Co-authored by Ademide Adedokun.

Thirty-one years ago today, the Coast Guard led one of the nation’s largest search and rescue cases when the 519 passengers and crew of the Dutch cruise liner Prinsendam were forced to abandon ship more than 150-miles off the coast of Alaska after an engine room fire spread throughout the vessel.

Over the course of 24 hours, Coast Guard Cutters Boutwell, Woodrush and Mellon as well as rescue aircraft deployed from Air Stations Sitka and Kodiak would work side-by-side with the U.S. Air Force, Canadian navy and an AMVER-tasked tanker to rescue all hands from 12 to 15 foot seas and 25 to 30 knot winds generated by a nearby Arctic typhoon.

The Prinsendam was a 427-foot long cruiser liner built in 1973. The liner was transiting through the Gulf of Alaska, approximately 120 miles south of Yakutat, Alaska, at midnight Oct. 4, 1980, when fire broke out in the engine room. U.S. Coast Guard photo.

The Prinsendam was a 427-foot long cruiser liner built in 1973. The liner was transiting through the Gulf of Alaska, approximately 120 miles south of Yakutat, Alaska, at midnight Oct. 4, 1980, when fire broke out in the engine room. U.S. Coast Guard photo.

With conditions too dangerous for the deployment of small boats from the cutters, survivors were forced to climb aboard the tanker and cutters with the help of two Air Force pararescuemen while hypothermic survivors were ferried to shore by rescue helicopters. The helicopters would then refuel and head back out to the scene for their next load of passengers.

In the immediate aftermath of the rescue, the Coast Guard identified areas of improvement in search and rescue operations which would save tens of thousands of lives in the decades ahead.

In the findings of the Prinsendam investigation, Rear Adm. Richard Knapp noted, “The training and expertise of the Air Force pararescuemen was responsible for the survival of passengers …. It is notable that we were forced to rely on another agency to provide these personnel. I recommend we develop a similar, highly-trained, well-equipped rescue elite.”

Those “rescue elite” would of course become the aviation survival technicians of the Coast Guard rescue swimmer program.

Another deficiency cited in the investigation was the need for rescue helicopters to return to shore to refuel while survivors remained in the water. The critical role rescue helicopters play during extended search and rescue cases would ultimately lead to the helicopter in-flight refueling capability now standard on Coast Guard rescue helicopters.

The rescue of the Prinsendam was particularly significant because of the distance traveled by the rescuers, the coordination of independent organizations and the fact that all 520 passengers and crew were rescued without loss of life or serious injury. U.S. Coast Guard photo.

The rescue of the Prinsendam was particularly significant because of the distance traveled by the rescuers, the coordination of independent organizations and the fact that all 519 passengers and crew were rescued without loss of life or serious injury. U.S. Coast Guard photo.

These new capabilities would more than prove their value in future cases ranging from the Coast Guard response to Hurricane Katrina to another Arctic rescue when the Alaska Ranger was lost at sea.

At a time when America considers its Arctic future and the role the Coast Guard will play in protecting American lives and national interests in the often harsh conditions found above the Arctic Circle, the Prinsendam rescue serves as a stark reminder of the necessity for a robust Coast Guard presence in America’s Arctic waters.

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