Rick Ehlert is a 44 year old California man with a bit of sailing experience. Last November he was aboard the Holland America Ryndam - enjoying a few cocktails. For reasons that remain unknown, probably even to Ehlert himself, he stepped through an unlocked door that was clearly marked "Authorized Personnel Only" and found himself on the rope deck at the stern of the ship. This is a technical area where only crewmembers are allowed.
Ehlert then spent the next 12 minutes going through an elaborate process that he knew would result in a free-fall for the ships 18-ton anchor the entire length of its chain. Ehlert admits that he has sailing experience - his own 50-foot boat. A surveillance tape shows that he deliberately performed the elaborate process of putting on a pair of work gloves and finding and using a wrench to set the anchor free.
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Once he managed to loosen the latch holding the anchor in place he allowed the anchor to "free fall" fast enough for rust to fly from the anchor's chain all over the deck area.
Ehlert had no idea what was going to happen after the anchor dropped, but it could have been catastrophic. The anchor could have caught a hard spot in the ocean floor and caused the ship to turn suddenly - tipping radically and causing furniture and people to topple over throughout the ship. Or the ship's hull might have ripped open, flooding at least one compartment and doing millions of dollars in damage.
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At the very least - the anchor could have destroyed miles of coral reefs which have taken thousands of years to grow. Or it could have just reached the end of its chain and broken off.
Everything Ehlert did was caught on a surveillance camera - and so there is no way for him to deny his actions. His only excuse is that he was drunk, but he knew what he was doing. It isn't like he was lighting a cigarette and accidentally leaned against the "anchor down" lever. He admitted that he owned a 50-foot boat with a similar anchor system, and just for fun he also threw a lifebuoy over the railing.
Now Ehlert has thrown himself upon the mercy of the court by agreeing to plead guilty to a felony charge of attempting to damage the ship. The plea agreement was filed August 18 in U.S. Federal Court and it means that Ehlert could face as many as 20 years in prison and/or a fine of $250,000.
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Fortunately, the ship, which carries 1260 passengers and 560 crewmembers, was in deep enough waters that the anchor caused no damage. Crewmembers were able to restore it to its proper position within a matter of minutes. Ehlert confessed to the crime to FBI agents and Coast Guard investigators at the end of the Western Caribbean cruise sailing roundtrip from Tampa.
Is being drunk an excuse for his actions? It took him 12 minutes and the use of work gloves and other tools to accomplish this deed. It isn't exactly the kind of thing one does as a joke - niot when you have sailing experience. Something tells me this is one "prank" that won't be taken lightly.