Flashback in history: MS Prinsendam fire and sinking 4 October 1980


The cruise ship Prinsendam was built in 1973 for Holland America Line. It was somewhat smaller than average size for its day, carrying about 350 passengers and 200 crew. Just after midnight on 4 October 1980, a fire broke out in the engineroom as the ship was transiting the Gulf of Alaska. Shortly thereafter, the master sent a message to the US Coast Guard requesting assistance.

The ship was then 120 miles south of Cape Spencer and outside the range of USCG helicopters. The Coast Guard advised the master to send out an SOS, but he refused. The chief radio officer sent one anyway. Ships in the area responded, including the tanker Williamsburg and the USCGC Boutwell, which served as the on-scene coordinator. The master gave the order to abandon ship at sunrise.


The Coast Guard, Air Force, and Canadian Forces dispatched long-range helicopters, which carried persons from the lifeboats to the Williamsburg. The Prinsendam was taken under tow, but the fire could not be extinguished and the ship was listing heavily in deteriorating weather. Permission to bring the ship into sheltered waters was denied by the US Coast Guard, but probably had no impact, as the ship sank shortly thereafter. On October 11, 1980, the Prinsendam capsized and sunk, only 7 years after being built.

The Williamsburg brought 359 passengers and crew safely to Valdez.

There were no fatalities and no serious injuries.


In April 1981, Popular Mechanics magazine published an article about the disaster, reproduced here.

In 2002, Holland America Lines acquired the Seabourn Sun and renamed her Prinsendam - as of 2004, she is still in service with them. Click here for information about that ship.



[Total: 1]


  1. I was reading the because my husband was on the USCG ship that helped in the rescue, and actually was the one who took this picture .. your facts are not correct.. it was the USCG cutter Munroe that came to the rescue, not the Bouttwell!!! I'm sad, this would have been a good read to show his daughters. He actually took several pictures.. this was one of them.

  2. A newer book "None Were Lost" by Stephen J. Corcoran, published recently is a well-informed, accurate accounting of this event. It was recommended to me by David J. Ring Jr., who was radio officer aboard the supertanker Williamasburg, and who still has an audio recording of the Prinsendam's distress call. It is his website, not mine, that include as a link.

  3. I was on the search and rescue desk that night as the officer in charge. We received a call from the captain via marine radio. He stated that a fire had started and his CO2 extinguishers had failed. He requested assistance and I spent the night coordinating helicopters and C-130 aircraft to scene. I had a difficult time convincing Headquarters at Juneau Alaska to get their cutter underway. I am proud to have been a part of saving all the people onboard. I still have a long article from the Lodi, California news paper about the case. If you want some more details, I think I can still remember them.

    • The USCGC Douglas Munro (WHEC-724) arrived in Seattle about the same time as the USCGC Boutwell; August of 1973. That Munro left Seattle in 1980 for duty in Hawaii. I cannot find anything mentioned in the articles I have transcribed about the Prinsendam rescue, but that only means the news and other accounts did not mention the vessel because it took a subordinate position to the activities of the Boutwell. Also the USCG Commandant's Bulletin Issue 48-80 regarding the Prinsendam does not mention the Munro. I would be very interested to see any other photographs or hear any other stories Lynette Smith or her husband can relay.