After a night of steady drinking on a cruise ship chugging from Mexico to Tampa, Rick Ehlert made his way to an off-limits area of the deck that was supposed to be accessible only to the crew.
There he saw the MS Ryndam's 18-ton stern anchor and thought it looked a lot like the anchor on his own 50-foot boat. He put on a pair of work gloves, removed a cable attached to the anchor, turned a handle, released another cable and then released the brake.
A cloud of dust and rust rose up from the chain, and the room shook from the vibration as the anchor dropped.
"Many people have asked me why I dropped the anchor," he later wrote in an apology letter to the ship's captain. "I believe that I was intrigued by the machinery and curious to see if I could operate it. I do remember trying to stop the anchor once it started moving, but it just kept going faster."
On Tuesday, a federal judge sentenced Ehlert to four months incarceration — two months to be served in a federal prison and two months of home confinement — followed by three years of probation. U.S. District Judge Steven D. Merryday, who called the incident a "bothersome crime," also ordered Ehlert to pay a $7,500 fine and participate in substance abuse and mental health counseling.
After Ehlert released the anchor, he went to the pool area of the ship and grabbed a life ring. He later wrote he thought he would take the buoy ring back to his room "as some sort of souvenir," but the emergency lights started flashing, and "very unfortunately, I then threw it overboard."
It was 5:25 a.m. on Nov. 27, 2010. The ship, which had been traveling at 18 knots, came to a stop.
Passenger Chester Braun Jr. and his wife were awakened by the sound. "It was kind of a clattering, mechanical noise," Braun testified at Ehlert's sentencing hearing Tuesday. "It was a change in the motor, kind of a deceleration and a yawning." The ship was suddenly "dead in the water, and we didn't know why."
Ehlert went back to his room and got into an argument with his girlfriend. He told her, according to court pleadings, that he had thrown the life ring overboard. But he didn't mention the anchor.
The ship's captain began issuing pleas on the public address system for the person who had thrown the life ring to step forward. When Ehlert didn't speak up, every passenger and crew member was ordered to report to stations on deck.
All 1,600 passengers trudged to their emergency stations, crowded like sardines as they waited to be counted.
The voyage was delayed for three hours while the crew retrieved the anchor and made sure everyone was accounted for and that there was no damage to the Holland America ship.
"It is surprising and extremely fortunate that the anchor and chain were not damaged by their free release," wrote Kelly W. Clark, vice president and general counsel for the cruise line, in a letter to the court. "As advised by the United States Coast Guard Investigative Service, the sudden release of the anchors may well have punctured the ship, which could have resulted in severe flooding or sinking."
But Ehlert and his lawyer contested the scope of the risk. They convinced Merryday that the conditions did not meet the legal standard that would have led to a greater sentence; his actions did not risk the deaths or serious bodily injury to others aboard the ship.
John C. Timmel, the defense expert, testified that the stern anchor could not have punctured the ship or damaged it in any way. The ship was traveling forward in calm seas at 18 knots. The water was about a mile deep, while the anchor chain was less than 600 feet long.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Sara Sweeney argued that Ehlert didn't know the depth of the sea. "I think there clearly was a risk of bodily injury to the people onboard that ship," she said.
Ehlert, who owns an RV dealership in California, had started drinking around 9 p.m. the night of the incident. At dinner with his fiancée, he drank three or four glasses of wine. Later in his stateroom, he drank a wine glass full of vodka, then took a bedtime prescription of the sleeping drug Ambien.
According to defense court filings, he left his room around 11 p.m. and went to the casino where another passenger at the blackjack table bought him a martini. He then bought himself four single martinis and a double. When the bar closed, he ordered three double martinis.
After the bar closed, he broke into a liquor cabinet over a closed bar area and took a two-liter bottle of Grey Goose vodka, drinking about a quarter of the bottle.
After drinking all of that, combined with the prescription, Ehlert was "intoxicated to the point where he was not functioning in a rational and coherent manner," wrote his attorney, William Mallory Kent, who describe Ehlert as a "successful, workaholic businessman on vacation, his first real vacation in years."