Off Limits: How Did a Cruise Ship Passenger Release an Anchor?

December 3, 2010
(4:04 p.m. EST) -- Last Sunday morning, cruise passenger Rick Elhert, still dressed in the previous night's formal attire, entered a restricted area of Holland America's Ryndam, donned work gloves and proceeded to release the stern anchor.

According to an FBI affidavit on the incident (posted on The Smoking Gun Web site), Elhert was arrested for "attempting to damage, destroy, disable, or wreck a vessel" and attempting "to cause damage to a ship which is likely to endanger the safe navigation of that ship." Elhert could face up to 20 years in prison for the charges and a $250,000 fine for each charge.

In the affidavit, special agents with the U.S. Coast Guard (USCG) Investigative Unit stated that the free release of a cruise ship anchor could result in "significant damage to the ship's rudder or propeller, which could disable the ship's ability to maneuver, or, puncturing of the ship, which could result in sinking or severe flooding." The ship was undamaged and is sailing as scheduled.

In the wake of the incident, a number of questions have surfaced: How could this happen given the safety measures currently in place on cruise ships? What sort of access do passengers have to restricted areas onboard? And could such an event happen again? Cruise Critic reached out to a number of industry experts, safety and security organizations, and a dozen cruise lines for answers.

What Happened?

Few details have surfaced beyond the original documentation. According to the FBI affidavit, a surveillance video showed Elhert "approaching the anchor, then touching the anchor, and then taking multiple steps to deploy it."

In his confession, Elhert described the steps and revealed how he knew how to release the anchor -- the system was similar to the one on his 50-foot yacht. He added that he was intoxicated at the time.

Though we asked Holland America for additional details, the line could only "confirm that, to the best of our knowledge, the information in the Complaint accurately reflects what happened." Furthermore, the line stated it could not provide any information beyond what has been included in the criminal complaint, as this matter involves an ongoing investigation.

The Backstory: Safety at Sea

Holy acronym.

Guidelines for safety at sea begin with the International Maritime Organization (IMO), the United Nations agency responsible for improving maritime safety. In response to terrorist threats following 9/11, the IMO amended the International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS), its most important treaty relating to maritime safety, to include the International Ship and Port Facility Security Code (ISPS). ISPS Code is mandatory for the 159 SOLAS contracting governments, also known as flag administrations or the countries in which your favorite cruise ships are registered.

The ISPS created a series of rules, in its own language, "to detect security threats and take preventative measures against security incidents affecting ships or port facilities used in international trade." The ISPS also declares that commercial cruise ships must have a Ship Security Plan (SSP) based on certain mandatory guidelines. SSPs are created by the cruise lines and ultimately are approved by the flag administrations. Ryndam is registered in the Netherlands. For obvious security reasons, certain information about the plans -- such as specifics on the number of security guards onboard and location of surveillance cameras -- is not made public. When an incident occurs, authorities from the port state with jurisdiction -- in Ryndam's case, the Coast Guard and FBI for the U.S. -- may ask for information about the ship's SSP.

In addition to detailed protocol for every aspect of onboard security, SSPs include information on areas of the vessel that should be restricted -- via signage, lock and key, code access, etc. There are specific prescriptions to which all cruise lines must adhere. For instance, the bridges on all ships of a certain size, including Ryndam, must be locked. Another example: Passengers should not be able to access compartments containing certain hazardous materials.

What the Insiders Are Saying

anchor-dropRick Sasso, president of MSC Cruises (USA) and chairman of the marketing committee for CLIA, an organization representing industry interests, said the incident was not indicative of a lack of cruise ship security. "You can't look at one clever individual with unique circumstances and say the system is broken," said Sasso. "We invest in extraordinary practices to make passengers safe -- we're talking thousands of hours. It's on the front page for us."

When asked for specifics about onboard security measures, Sasso told Cruise Critic, "There's clandestine security, obvious security, crew training, surveillance cameras, locks, signage. ... It would take me weeks to tell you how much security we have. There are not too many places in the world where you'd find this much security per square foot."

He added: "I've been doing this for 39 years and it's never happened -- that in itself should tell you that the system works."

Others weren't easily swayed by the one-off nature of the incident.

"They were lucky in this case, but it only takes one time for the system to fail for something catastrophic to happen," said Mark Gaouette, former director of security for Princess Cruises and Cunard and author of "Cruising for Trouble" (Praeger, 2010). "The access and release of that anchor was a major failure of the Ship's Security Plan."

Added Gaouette, "From my experience, I think it's clear. Per the ISPS code, [spaces containing anchor chains] are required to be protected by access control measures because of the potential for accidents or sabotage. Whether or not the space on Ryndam was adequately controlled -- or if the intruder jimmied a lock, or the door was unlocked -- is a matter of speculation, and we won't know how it happened until the investigation is completed. Either way, it was a breach of security in violation of the Ship's Security Plan."

But the crux of the problem may be based in the varying interpretations of the ISPS. According to the IMO, for safety reasons, some flag states may require anchoring equipment to be included in a locked, restricted area. Others may not. When it comes to safety, there is a balance between allowing crew quick access to anchor release gear -- for example in the case of a steering gear failure -- against preventing public access.

In Ryndam's case, all we know at this point is that Elhert entered an area that, per the FBI affidavit, was marked "off limits."

Cmdr. Eric Allen, chief of the inspections division for Coast Guard sector St. Petersburg, agrees that interpretation of the ISPS by the flag state could determine whether or not a stern anchor room would be locked. "I can't speak specifically to Ryndam because that part is under investigation," said Allen, who's involved in the case. "But one thing I would add is that it depends very much on the construction of the vessel. If you have an escape route that may lead into a space like [the stern anchor room], you can't, by virtue of construction, physically lock it."

"There are a lot of 'what ifs,'" he noted. "Some flag states will say, 'Look, we don't want to designate restricted areas as being locked and secured in certain fashions if it will result in emergency situation egress.'"

Given his own experience of nearly two decades with Princess and Cunard, Gaouette disagreed. "You can't have something like an anchor chain lying around. In addition to the ISPS security guidelines, you don't want anyone walking around in there for reasons of passenger liability."

Regardless of whether or not the room should have been locked, some feel that the line must bear part of the blame. "I share the same initial sentiment as everyone else," said maritime attorney James Walker. "It was a unique combination of being stupid and drunk -- but that's only half the story. My concern is that you can't be outraged about a drunk passenger and leave it at that. It seems equally reckless for a cruise line to provide an opportunity for someone to drop an anchor, particularly if it's Holland America that's selling the booze. If a stupid drunk can singlehandedly wreck a cruise ship, imagine what a determined group of people with intent to harm could do."

Sasso disagrees. "I challenge people to measure the cruise industry's safety record against any other industry," he told us. "Any critic that says cruises are unsafe -- sorry, it's just B.S." Like Sasso, Allen added that he's never seen anything like the Ryndam case in his 19 years of experience.

What the Cruise Lines Are Saying

Cruise Critic reached out to more than a dozen cruise lines for details on how they prevent passengers from accessing restricted areas, what the protocols are for crime reporting and whether or not policy changes will come about as a result of anchor-gate. A number responded, but details were scant, primarily due to the confidential nature of Ship Security Plans.

"Certainly, the safety and security of our guests is our highest priority and we take matters of this nature very seriously," said Disney Cruise Line in a statement. "However, we do not talk about the security protocols, given that doing so could compromise their effect."

Britain-based Fred. Olsen said only that its safety and security policy meets all applicable international and national legislation. "Shipboard precautions against internal and external intruders are well-implemented and regularly reviewed, and include physical restrictions, such as signs, barriers and locks."

Royal Caribbean Cruises, Ltd. (RCCL), parent company of Royal Caribbean, Celebrity and Azamara cruise lines, added a few specifics about its safety plans. "All doors that lead to restricted areas are either marked 'crew only' or are locked," the line said in a statement. "Doors that are used as a means of escape during an emergency cannot be locked, for safety reasons. Some doors, such as those that lead to the engine rooms or where CO2 is stored, are always locked." RCCL spokeswoman Cynthia Martinez added that not all Royal Caribbean ships have stern anchors. "Those that do are behind closed doors -- the door might not be locked, for safety reasons," she added.

(Fred. Olsen, Crystal Cruises and Seabourn also indicated that ships in their fleets are not equipped with stern anchors.)

Luxury lines Seabourn and Crystal provided additional details about how their forward anchor equipment is secured. Captain Andrew Phillips, director of safety and security for Seabourn, told Cruise Critic that the anchor equipment near the bow is in an area that is locked whenever crew are not present. All work areas are also locked.

"The anchor-handling gear for the two forward anchors is located on mooring decks that are very remote from guest areas," reads a statement from Crystal Cruises. "These locations are routinely monitored by roving fire/security personnel as well as observed by closed-circuit television. In addition, each set of anchor-handling gear has three independent means to prevent the anchor from being dropped, all of which are engaged while the ship is at sea."

What's Next for Ryndam and the Industry?

Given the classified nature of Ryndam's Ship Security Plan, and the fact that the case is under investigation, we don't know with certainty if the space containing the stern anchor should have been locked. But in the wake of the incident, are changes to SSPs across the industry forthcoming?

"In short, yes, something will change," said Cmdr. Allen. "I think that if nothing else, cruise lines will look at this and take a 'round turn' on their plans so they can make sure to avoid it happening again. And things like this do tend to propagate rapidly in the cruise community." What about Ryndam in particular? While Allen couldn't go into specifics, he told us that there have already been steps taken on the ship to avoid related future incidents.

Cmdr. Wilford "Buddy" Reams of the USCG Cruise Ship National Center of Expertise -- which works with the cruise industry to assure compliance to safety, maritime security and environmental standards -- agreed that these incidents are often educational. "What we've found generally is that most cruise lines are pretty quick to make corrections when it comes to the safety and security of passengers and crew," said Reams.

At least one line is already reviewing its own safety plan. In its statement, Crystal Cruises noted that "whenever an unfortunate event such as this occurs in the cruise industry, we comprehensively review our applicable policies and procedures to ensure that they are adequately preventive. This is in keeping with our overall dedication to continuous improvement in our ability to ensure the safety and security of our guests and crew."

--by Dan Askin, Associate Editor